Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Early farm manufacturers thrived in small town America
The industrial base of Salem, Ohio, where I happen to live, is today a pale shadow of the booming factories, foundries and machine shops that once crowded along the railroad tracks at the southern end of town. Long-forgotten firms with names such as Buckeye Engine, Victor Stove, Silver & Deming, Grove Chewing Gum, Salem Wire Nail Mill, Aetna Mfg. and Salem Mfg. Co. once gave employment to thousands of men and boys.
Many of these manufacturing concerns were started by men who recognized the need for a product, and who had the ability or the genius, as well as the determination, to invent, improve and manufacture that product. Hundreds of small towns across the country had similar farm equipment inventors and manufacturers.
For decades, farmers made do with the hand tools and farming practices (all requiring heavy manual labor) used by their ancestors for centuries. However, by the middle of the 19th century, several factors applied pressure to that ancient way of life. Schools were more numerous, and rural folks were becoming better educated. The telegraph brought news of the outside world to local newspapers, which passed it along to their readers. Also, during the 1860s, hundreds of thousands of men served in the Union and Confederate armies, drastically reducing the manpower available to till, plant, cultivate and harvest crops.
Sickles, scythes and cradle scythes were the implements of choice for cutting hay and grain, but these hand tools were slow and required lots of manpower. Machines to mow hay and cut grain were developed during the decades just before the war. Obed Hussey and Cyrus McCormick tussled over which one of them made the first reaper. William Ketchum patented a one-wheeled hay-mowing machine in 1847. Cyrenus Wheeler and Cornelius Aultman (the latter from nearby Canton, Ohio) patented hay mowers during the 1850s. During the Civil War, Salem was in the center of a large agricultural region that was demanding the newfangled mowers and reapers. Even though the railroad had arrived in 1852, transportation charges for machinery were high and production of the new equipment seemed like a good opportunity for local manufacturers.
One of these Salem manufacturers was Taber, Pope & Street, who started the Novelty Works in 1856 to build small oscillating steam engines and other machinery. Charles Taber was the senior partner and J.W. Street patented a mower in 1862, but J. Oscar Taber was the main inventor. In 1863, Oscar invented a swath board and stick for mowers, and in March 1868, a dropping platform and reel that converted a mowing machine into a reaper.
Just a month later, Taber patented a combined harvester and mower, which went into production as the "Quaker." Charles Taber died in about 1869 and Oscar incorporated the firm as the Salem Mfg. Co. early in 1870, with capitalization of $80,000.
Taber patented a new mower (the "Improved Quaker") in March 1870. It could also harvest grain with an attached reel and dropping attachment patented by Oscar Taber.
At least seven mower and reaper patents were issued to J. Oscar Taber between 1863 and 1870, as well as a couple to one of his employees, Charles N. Owen. Despite an 1870 account that claimed the Salem Mfg. Co. and its 120 employees were building 1,200 mowers and reapers annually, in about 1870 the firm ceased operations, for unknown reasons.
Amos Rank was another prolific Salem inventor and manufacturer of reapers and mowers. Born Dec. 5, 1837, in nearby Stark County, he built a large brick Italianate-style house in Salem in 1869 that still stands today. In 1870, a writer said of Rank: "… a worthy man in the right place, ingenious, skillful as a mechanic, urbane, of strict integrity, public spirited, he has … the respect and confidence of the community."
In 1864, Rank started the Aetna Mfg. Co. (probably originally known as Barnaby, Rank & Co.) to build a mower called the Ohio Mower and Reaper under the patents of Ephraim Ball, who was associated with Cornelius Aultman of Canton. Rank incorporated in 1866, and set out to develop his own line of mowers and reapers.
I found 22 patents issued to Amos Rank between 1865 and 1873, all for mowers and reaping attachments, or various improvements to the machines. In addition, he was issued at least three patents for improvements to railroad cattle cars. That's many more patents than were issued to John Deere, Cyrus McCormick and Jerome I. Case combined.
The Aetna factory was just north of the railroad tracks along the east side of Range Street (now South Ellsworth) and included a large, two-story building used for machining parts, final assembly and painting. Nearby, there were a foundry and a large blacksmith shop, a coal and sand house, and a "commodious office and store room."
Raw materials used in the annual production of 1,500 machines included 500 tons of coal, 700 tons of pig iron and 200 tons of wrought iron. During the busy season there were 125 workmen, supervised by foremen who owned stock in the firm and who " … shared the profits of the business."
A blurb in the Aug. 10, 1870 Salem Journal extolled the new Aetna Self-Rake reaper, which had just been patented by Mr. Rank, saying: "We cannot doubt that the farmer will find this Self-Rake a real improvement over former methods, and worthy the attention of those to whom a good harvester is (essential). Like all the work turned out at the 'Aetna' shops, lightness and strength are combined in it. It would be inexcusable … for a farmer to look beyond Salem for a thorough and reliable harvester."
Look beyond Salem they must have, however. The Aetna Mfg. Co. went out of business in 1874. Aetna Mfg. and Amos Rank were soon forgotten, while Deere, McCormick and Case became rich and famous, and their machines flowed out of the factories for another century or more. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com