While reading a book about two young New York women who spent a year teaching school in northwestern Colorado in 1916, I was surprised to encounter a passage describing a once thriving business in Auburn, N.Y. “D.M. Osborne & Co. sold harvesters, mowers and other farm equipment,” notes author Dorothy Wickenden in Nothing Daunted. “Its phalanxes of factory buildings along Genesee Street had 3,500 employees, and by the turn of the century, it had become the third largest enterprise of its kind in the country.”
By 1900, Auburn had a population of 35,000. The exact time when Osborne’s workforce there numbered 3,500 is not clear from Wickenden’s account, but it appears to predate 1900 — meaning Osborne employed at least 10 percent of the local population in the late 1800s.
That discovery clicks neatly with an article in this issue on a restored Osborne No. 8 reaper. Written by veteran Farm Collector contributor Bill Vossler, Antiques Collector Restores Osborne No. 8 Reaper describes a technologically advanced device for its time and one that signaled the end of an era in which harvest was painfully slow and physically exhausting.
Given the difficulty associated with learning the history of companies that ceased operation more than a century ago, I was astonished to stumble onto this snippet of Osborne history. And there was more: The family included two prominent suffragists and the founder’s son (Thomas Mott Osborne) was actively involved in political reform and social justice.
One thing led to another. A 1912 New York Times article found online included an Osborne official’s testimony during the International Harvester antitrust suit. Col. Edwin D. Metcalf, general manager of harvester manufacturing for Osborne, described the company’s efforts to sell out to the newly formed International Harvester Co. Rebuffed, company officials then unsuccessfully pitched Osborne to McCormick-Deering. After the asking price was slashed, International finally came around in 1903. The deal was kept secret for two years, allowing Osborne to collect money due from farmers who’d bought equipment on the installment plan. “We had about $3,000,000 (about $79 million today) in bills receivable all over the world, and our experience was that farmers wouldn’t pay notes held by a company in liquidation or that had gone out of business,” Metcalf explained.
A tangle of loose ends, coming together at the right time, shines a bit of light on a dark corner of history. Timing, as they say, is everything. FC