19th Century Industry in Salem

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Early farm manufacturers thrived in small town America


| August 2006



EphraimBallspatent.jpg

An Ohio mower (from Ephraim Ball’s patent) in action in a stumpy field.

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.