The history behind New Idea farm machinery.
Anyone with a farming background is familiar with New Idea farm machinery, particularly the famous orange-and-green manure spreaders made by the company. In fact, manure spreaders are how New Idea got its start.
In 1833, three German immigrant families met in Baltimore and decided to move to northwestern Ohio, where they established a farming community named St. John. In the 1840s, Father Francis Brunner, a Swiss Catholic priest, built a convent near St. John, which he named Maria Stein.
In 1899, Joseph Oppenheim was teaching at the Catholic school in Maria Stein and raising a family, while John Kramer ran a nearby grain elevator, machine shop and lumberyard. Kramer had patented a manure spreader called the Champion, which he hand-built in his machine shop. In 1896, the shop burned and Kramer had no insurance. He borrowed $1,200 (most of Mrs. Oppenheim’s dowry) from Joseph Oppenheim and rebuilt, but was unable to get back on his feet and repay the loan. To clear the debt, Kramer signed over the manure spreader patent to Joseph Oppenheim in 1899.
Oppenheim owned land near the railroad station west of Maria Stein. In late 1899, he built a small frame factory building there. The actual factory work was done by Fred Heckman and Henry Synck, who had both been associated with John Kramer. Even though Oppenheim visited the factory only after his school day was completed, the school directors refused to renew his contract on the grounds that he couldn’t teach and run a business at the same time.
This put Oppenheim in a serious financial bind, as the factory was barely making enough to cover expenses, so he began to sell Empire cream separators to surrounding dairy farmers. He was so successful at selling cream separators that he won a trip to the World’s Fair in Buffalo, all the while working to improve his manure spreader.
Manure spreaders of the day had a single-toothed cylinder at the rear of the spreader box and just dropped large chunks of the stuff directly behind in a swath only as wide as the box. Oppenheim came up with an idea for a wide-spreading device and with part of a cigar box and the help of his son, Ben, built a model that worked.
The invention consisted of an additional toothed cylinder above and ahead of the main cylinder to help pulverize the material, as well as an innovative row of slanted, rotating wooden paddles behind the main cylinder that broadcast the pulverized material over a wide area behind the machine.
The New Idea Spreader Works began to make the new wide-spread machine and business gradually increased, but tragedy loomed. During August 1901, all five Oppenheim children came down with typhoid fever. After two months, all were on the path to recovery when Joseph contracted the disease. On Nov. 24, 1901, after five weeks of delirium and suffering, Joseph Oppenheim died at age 42.
Upon her father’s advice, Joseph’s widow, Anna Mary, sank $1,000 of Joseph’s insurance money into the New Idea Spreader Works and determined to carry on with the help of her 14-year-old son, Benjamin. As the business developed, under the direction of Synck, who married the oldest Oppenheim daughter (Wilhelmina) in 1903, and Heckman, the widow invested another $1,000.
Mrs. Oppenheim developed Bright’s disease and died on June 9, 1907, but Henry Synck and Ben Oppenheim continued to run the firm. Needing better rail facilities, they built an assembly plant in nearby Coldwater, Ohio, in 1908, and moved the rest of the business there in 1912. The firm was incorporated in 1920, with Ben as president.
Synck patented several improvements to the manure spreader and helped develop the farm equipment industry’s first successful 2-row corn picker in 1928. In 1930, New Idea bought Sandwich Mfg. Co., Sandwich, Illinois, and acquired the Sandwich line of corn shellers, portable elevators, side-delivery rakes and hay loaders. By World War II, in addition to manure spreaders, New Idea was manufacturing horse-drawn mowers, side-delivery rakes, hay loaders, farm wagons, transplanters, 1- and 2-row corn pickers, husker-shredders, portable elevators and hand corn shellers.
In October 1945, the Synck and the Oppenheim families sold the firm to Avco Corp. and it became Avco New Idea. A tractor PTO mower with a power lift soon joined the lineup. Subsequent acquisitions included the Horn line of hydraulic loaders, wagon boxes and stalk shredders, along with the Ezee Flow Corp. and its line of fertilizer spreaders. In 1963, New Idea bought the Uni-Tractor line of self-propelled harvesting machines from Minneapolis-Moline.
Allied Products Corp. bought the firm in 1984 and changed the name back to New Idea. In 1985, Allied bought White Farm Equipment and two years later they combined New Idea and White, calling the new company White-New Idea. In 1988, White-New Idea shut down the old Oliver plant in Charles City, Iowa, and moved all White tractor production to Coldwater. In 1991, the Allis-Gleaner Company (AGCO) bought White tractor production and moved it to Missouri, leaving White-New Idea and New Idea implement manufacturing in Coldwater.
In 1993, AGCO gobbled up the rest of the White-New Idea line and continued to build New Idea and White implements at Coldwater until the 100th anniversary year of 1999. I remember being in Coldwater that August and seeing a large display of new machinery set up outside the plant for the anniversary celebration.
The joy was short-lived, however, as AGCO closed the Coldwater plant in the fall of 1999, and moved implement manufacturing to Hesston, Kansas, leaving the Coldwater plant empty except for a few small enterprises that occupy parts of the huge complex.
AGCO continued to sell New Idea-badged hay rakes and tedders, round and square balers, disc mowers, forage harvesters, blowers, wagons, and manure spreaders through 2005. Since then, the former NI machines have all been branded AGCO or Massey Ferguson, depending upon which dealer sells them.
The author acknowledges Scott A. Highfield, general manager of Witmer’s Inc., his local AGCO dealer, for information pertaining to the New Idea name. 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.