Aspinwall Manufacturing Company: First in Potato Machinery Leaves Murky Trail

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An early Aspinwall potato picker.
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An Aspinwall potato planter.

A letter in the May issue of Farm Collector from Walter Pruin asks about a potato planter he owned.

Mr. Pruin writes: “I acquired this potato planter from my uncle’s estate. It was purchased new by my grandfather. I would appreciate any information on this, paint, colors, whatever. The casting has markings that read, ‘New Aspinwall Potato Planter, Aspinwall Patents, Aspinwall Mfg. Co., Jackson, Mich. USA.'”

The questions seemed simple enough; I knew I had some information on the Aspinwall Company. What I didn’t know was that the two main sources for the history, both of whom call themselves “The Reflector,” would offer conflicting stories.

History of the Aspinwall Company, take one
The original “Reflector,” E.J. Baker Jr., who was associated with Implement and Tractor magazine for many years, wrote about the Aspinwall Company in his May 15, 1962, column in that magazine.

Aspinwall potato machinery history goes back to 1878, when the first Aspinwall potato planter was demonstrated in New Jersey. The Aspinwall Manufacturing Company was organized in 1883 to build potato machinery in Jackson, Mich., and later a branch factory was established at Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Baker said he knew the company paid whopping profits relative to its size, because his father once owned some Aspinwall stock.

The Reflector went on to say that the Aspinwall was the first automatic potato planter. In an automatic planter, a star wheel with a series of pickers around its circumference is rotated through a hopper full of cut seed potato pieces. Each picker is a sort of mechanical hand, or jaw, with a sharp point. The point skewers a seed piece and as each opened picker leaves the hopper, the jaws are tripped, allowing the seed piece to drop into a tube which guides it into a furrow made by a furrow opener. Trailing double discs (or shoes) close the soil over the potato pieces.

Sometimes the pickers would fail to close properly on the seed and it dropped back in the hopper, causing a missed hill. Large potato growers felt these misses couldn’t be tolerated, and a man named Fred Bateman, who owned the Iron Age Company at Grenloch, N.J., developed an assisted-feed planter. In the Iron Age planter, the pickers deposited the seed pieces into holes in a revolving “lazy-susan”-type plate before dropping them in the tube. As the plate revolved, a person riding on the planter filled any empty holes by hand, thus eliminating missed hills.

As an aside, the one-row potato planter we had when I was a kid on the farm was an assisted-feed that had a double row of cups on chains that came up through the bottom of the hopper, picked up a seed and carried it up and over, before dropping it into the planting tube. My father rode the planter, and kept the cups filled with potato sections. I don’t remember what make ours was, but Champion brand used similar cups.

Mr. Baker says that the Iron Age planter cut into Aspinwall’s business to the extent that in 1920, Aspinwall Manufacturing Company merged with the Drew Carrier Company of Waterloo, Iowa. The Aspinwall-Drew Company apparently didn’t survive the 1921 depression and in 1925, L. Augustus Aspinwall, now an old man, went to work for the McKenzie Manufacturing Company of Lacrosse, Wis., a potato machinery company, primarily manufacturing sprayers.

History of the Aspinwall Company, take two

The current “Reflector,” Charles H. Wendel, who writes a monthly column in Gas Engine Magazine, gives a little different slant on the Aspinwall Company. Wendel, in his book Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques said that L.A. Aspinwall started to develop a potato planter in about 1861, and worked for 20 years to perfect the machine. Aspinwall’s planter was the first to open the furrow, drop the seed pieces a set distance apart, and then close the furrow, all in one operation. A factory at Three Rivers, Mich., opened in 1884 to build the machine, which became very successful.

The factory was moved to Jackson, Mich., in 1891, where, by 1900, the firm was building potato planters, sprayers, cutters, sorters, and diggers as well as churns, weeders and lawn swings. Aspinwall advertised that they were “the only concern in the world making a complete line of potato machinery.” One ad also claimed that “our planter will plant potatoes, corn, beans, ensilage and distribute fertilizer.” The company introduced a two-row potato digger, powered by a New Way gasoline engine in 1919, along with a strawberry digger for transplanting.

Despite these innovative new diggers, Aspinwall went out of business during the early 1920s. The McKenzie Manufacturing Company of LaCrosse, Wis., bought Aspinwall’s potato machinery line and in 1925, L.A. Aspinwall went to work for them at the age of 83. He died on Nov. 5, 1930, at the age of 88.

According to a full page ad in Farm Machinery and Hardware magazine, “On July 25, 1929, the new flag of Oliver flew for the first time about the home of the famous McKenzie line of potato machinery.” From that time on, McKenzie Manufacturing Company would be a division of the Oliver Farm Equipment Corporation.

Whatever the exact detail, L. Augustus Aspinwall was instrumental in relieving the potato grower of the back-breaking drudgery of planting potatoes by hand. FC

Sam Moore is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.

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