Henry L. Ferris’ hay carrier launches the Starline.
A Hunt, Helm, Ferris hay carrier from the collection of Steve Weeber, Iowa City, Iowa.
The story of Henry Lakin Ferris and his invention of a hay carrier is one of grit and determination. In the dark and cold of midwinter, Ferris would rise early to tend to chores on his parents’ dairy farm outside Alden, Illinois.
At noon he walked 4 miles down an abandoned railway right-of-way to Harvard, a small town on the Wisconsin-Illinois state line. There he worked on building his hay carrier in the basement of a local hardware store. In late afternoon, as darkness closed in, he again walked 4 miles back to Alden to complete evening chores on the farm. This is the story that has been passed down in the Ferris family for decades and, as such, may have the ring of romanticized fiction. The facts, however, are entirely accurate.
Henry L. Ferris was born in a log cabin on his parents’ farm east of Alden on Aug. 24, 1850. Pioneers Sylvanis and Sarrah Ferris had moved west to Alden from Windon in New York’s Catskills. As a boy, Ferris was used to long hours and hard work on his parents’ dairy farm. In 1876, he married Millie F. Mosher, who had been raised on a farm near Sharon, Wisconsin, on the Big Foot Prairie. The two were well suited both in terms of temperament and work ethic. He brought Millie to live with him and his parents on the farm near Alden.
Not long after, Ferris and his father built a factory for production of butter and cheese on the southwest corner of the family farm. Cold Spring Creamery was a successful venture. But Ferris had an inventive mind and often found it occupied with ideas for making work on a dairy farm easier and more efficient. He started by developing a plan for an automatic device that would allow a farmer to open and close a farm gate without getting down from the wagon. He did not manufacture the gate but sold county rights to handymen who sold the gates and then built them onsite. Family lore has it that some of those gates remain in use today in horse breeding country.
Then came the development of the hay carrier. In that era, the hay harvested on a farm and used to feed livestock was stored under cover in a barn’s loft or haymow. To get the cut hay from the wagon bed up to the mow, it was pitched by hand up from the wagon to the barn’s second story until the entire space was filled. This process was both time-consuming and backbreaking.
A hay carrier was a device supported by overhead track in the barn roof’s peak that functioned with tines and a series of ropes and pulleys to transfer hay from the wagon into the mow. This device made the storing of hay faster, more efficient and far less laborious. William Louden is credited with the first patent issued in the U.S. for a hay carrier, in 1867.
At the time Ferris was working on invention of his hay carrier, barns were typically of two types. Some had entrances and access to the haymow at one end of the barn. Others were designed with a central entrance, requiring that the hay be moved to either side of the entrance rather than from the front to the back. Ferris worked on inventions for both types of barns, including a reversible or two-way carrier that ran in both directions. He built a prototype, which remains in the family today, but at that point the entire enterprise nearly came to a halt. There was no money to register the patent.
Ferris was discouraged and ready to give up. He told his wife that since the creamery was doing well, perhaps it was best to stick to running the dairy farm and making butter and cheese. Millie, however, had a different idea. She believed in her husband and felt he should have a chance of success with his invention. She went to her father, William Mosher, and described the effort her husband had put into the project and the success he’d had with the models he built. She asked her father to lend them the $50 ($1,200 today) needed to submit the patent application. In 1883, Ferris secured a patent for his hay carrier.
As soon as the patent was issued and the word spread, Ferris received many inquiries from local men interested in going into business with him. Charles Hunt and Nathan Helm operated a hardware store in Harvard. They offered the basement of their store as a place to manufacture the hay carrier. They would furnish capital needed to launch the undertaking and pay Ferris $30 a month for his labor. A partnership was formed among the three with Hunt and Helm getting 50 percent. The hay carriers Ferris built would be sold in the Hunt & Helm Hardware store above the workshop.
Ferris was, however, reluctant to give up his creamery business for what might be a risky venture. For some time, he continued to run Cold Spring Creamery as well as walk to Harvard six days a week to build hay carriers.
The carriers proved so successful that they sold faster than Ferris could build them. After several months of making the long trek from Alden and back, Ferris sold the creamery and moved his family into Harvard. A flat was rented on the second story of a store opposite the Hunt & Helm basement workshop. Although rent for the apartment was only $6 a month, the $30 wage paid by Hunt and Helm was barely enough to support his family, which now included four children.
Again Millie stepped in. She contracted with a New York firm to sell its line of home remedies. Traveling by horse and wagon, she called on area farm families, selling medicinal products at $4.50 for a complete set. For those who could not afford $4.50, she took produce in trade that she resold to a local general store. Because of her, both her husband’s business efforts and her family thrived.
The business started by Hunt, Helm and Ferris continued to grow. Salesmen were added and it became apparent that more room was needed for production, as well as a location near a freight depot. A two-story building was erected, added onto and then expanded again. More power was needed than the 6 hp engine Ferris used could provide, so a new power plant was built.
In the late 1900s, a three-story brick building was added. In 1931, Hunt, Helm, Ferris & Co. incorporated and the name of the business was changed to Starline. The new name was a nod to local farmers who often referred to the company’s merchandise as the “star” line of farmstead equipment. The logo of a star was then incorporated into the design of many of the company’s products.
Over the years many laborsaving devices were added for the feeding and care of livestock, such as the Star automatic windmill regulator and the automatic watering bowl. Windmills were used at that time to pump water for livestock that might be some distance from the barn. Ferris developed a regulator to start and stop the pumping as the supply tank required. The water bowls were attached to stanchions and operated by individual animals in dairy barns. When a cow pressed its nose against a lever, a valve opened, pouring cool water into the bowl.
A line of children’s vehicles was also developed, including the Ferris Wheel safety bicycle, Star steel sled and Cannon Ball coaster wagon. The Cannon Ball coaster wagon was considered the best wooden wagon on the market.
All in all, more than 50 products were manufactured at the plant and 250 patents were awarded to the company. At its height, the business employed 300 workers; three families boasted three generations working there at the same time. Ferris’ son, Howard J., and grandson, Robert G., also worked for the company. In 1969 the company merged with American Cromalloy Corp. and continued in operation until 1973. The company no longer exists but the Hunt, Helm, Ferris building still stands and has been renovated to include shops, an art gallery and space for meetings and special events.
Based on both historic oral accounts and contemporary written descriptions, Ferris was a quiet and rather shy man. He was known and respected in the Harvard area but never sought out recognition. As the years passed and his wealth grew, his philanthropies became those of a generous man, though because he was modest, they were not generally known. He built both his personal life and his business career around the concepts of hard work and application to duty.
At age 80, Ferris continued to go to work in his small office at the factory. He had no hobbies, preferring to use his time to modify and improve existing products and design new ones. He rose at 6 a.m. each day and retired promptly at 9 p.m., unless he and his wife happened to have company or there was a good program on the radio. From the imagination, ingenuity and determination of a young man on a small dairy farm in the 1870s came development of a hay carrier and other devices that improved working life of farmers on countless farms. Henry Lakin Ferris was very much a combination of pioneer spirit and Yankee ingenuity. FC
Millicent Ferris is the great-granddaughter of Henry Lakin Ferris. This article is an outgrowth of her role as keeper of the family records and memorabilia. She is interested in farm life at the turn of the last century and enjoys attending farm auctions. Contact her at 910 Windsor Court, Fontana, WI 53125.