In the 1830s, John Deere built his first plow and Cyrus McCormick’s reaper burst onto the scene. Jerome Increase Case began building threshers in the early 1840s. These three gentlemen are well remembered today, mostly due to the successful and long-lived companies they established. Many other pioneering farm machinery manufacturers are largely forgotten.
One of these is Walter A. Wood, whose mowing and reaping machine factory in Hoosick Falls, New York, was, by 1890, employing some 2,000 men and turning out about 90,000 machines per year. Many of those were shipped overseas.
Wood was born in October 1815, in Mason, New Hampshire. A year later the family moved to Rensselaerville, New York, where his blacksmith father built wagons and plows. The boy worked in his father’s shop, learned the blacksmith trade, and in 1836 relocated to Hoosick Falls, where he worked at Parsons & Wilder machine shop and became a skilled machinist.
In about 1840, Wood relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where he worked at building wagons and carriages, reportedly ironing a new carriage for James K. Polk, probably when that worthy was governor of Tennessee and before he became the 11th president of the U.S. A couple of years later Wood returned to Hoosick Falls, married Bessie Parsons (daughter of his former boss) and opened a foundry and machine shop with John White.
Inventors had been trying for decades to develop a successful mechanical means of cutting hay and grain, a slow, hard job with a scythe or a cradle. By the early 1850s several machines on the market showed promise.
Sometime during those years, Wood and his brother-in-law, J. Russell Parsons, attended a farm machinery trial sponsored by the Geneva, New York, Agricultural Society where, in the estimation of the two men, the mower-harvester patented and demonstrated by John H. Manny of Illinois made the best showing. Wood and Parsons bought the rights to manufacture the Manny machine in New York and then divided the state, with Parsons and Chandler Ball taking the eastern half, and Wood the western, with manufacturing being done in two separate shops in Hoosick Falls.
That first year (1852), Wood built just two Manny mower-harvesters, but he worked tirelessly to make improvements in the machine and also developed another intended only for mowing grass, as he felt the combined reaping and mowing machines didn’t cut grass very well. By 1860, Walter A. Wood mowers bore little resemblance to the original Manny patent and Wood was cranking out some 6,000 per year. The mowers were good enough that they caught the eye of Hart Massey in Canada and he bought a license to make the machines at the Massey plant in Ontario.
In roughly 1860, the Ball & Parsons reaper company plant was destroyed by fire. Instead of rebuilding, Parsons went to work with Wood. However, in November 1860, fire – the bane of 19th century factories – struck the Wood plant as well. A contemporary news account said the fire “was the work of an incendiary, and burned very fiercely, there being no engine in the village.” The loss of $200,000 was only partly covered by insurance and idled 323 workers, but Wood vowed to rebuild immediately, bought more land and soon had a new plant in operation.
In 1850, the Woods had a son named Linn. Bessie died in 1867. In 1868 Wood married Elizabeth Nicholls. In time they had a son, Walter A. Wood Jr., and a daughter, Julia.
The business enjoyed continued growth during the 1860s and an additional factory was bought to boost capacity, but the original works was again leveled by fire in March 1870. Makeshift facilities still allowed 15,000 machines to be built that year while a new factory was constructed.
Wood had been working on a self-binding attachment for his harvester, but it was lost in the fire, so he contacted Sylvanus Locke. Locke had been developing a wire binder for years and soon adapted that design to a Wood harvester. The Wood-Locke wire-tie grain binder was a success and sold well even though the use of wire had its disadvantages. Wire had a tendency to become tangled in threshing machine cylinders, and a stray bit of the stuff occasionally found its way into a cow’s stomach, which usually proved fatal to the unfortunate bovine.
A twine-tie binder was introduced in 1880, the same year Deering launched its entry in that market and a year ahead of McCormick. Even though twine was expensive, its advantages over wire far outweighed the extra cost.
Quite prosperous by that time, Wood built a large mansion at the edge of Hoosick Falls and operated a 1,000-acre show farm nearby. Wood was instrumental in starting the First National Bank of Hoosick Falls, was village president, head of the board of education and served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died of pneumonia in January 1892.
The panic of 1895 forced the Wood firm into receivership and reorganization. Business continued with production of rakes, manure spreaders, plows and harrows. Even lawnmowers and washing machines joined the lineup. In 1905, Wood employed a work force of about 1,134.
Wood had often entered his machines in competitions all over the world and regularly won gold medals and other prizes for the excellence of his equipment, resulting in a large portion of his sales overseas. World War I virtually destroyed that business, and British tariffs were high after the war. Walter A. Wood, Ltd. Co. was established in Horsham, Sussex, to get around the tariffs, but that firm was later sold to English interests in an effort to raise cash to support the U.S. firm.
Another receiver was named in 1923, but it was too late and the company was dismantled and sold off in 1924. Ironically, the English firm, Walter A. Wood, Ltd., continued and had great success furnishing equipment to English farmers during World War II and beyond. One source claims that Massey-Ferguson bought W.A. Wood, Ltd. during the 1980s, but I’ve been unable to verify that.
Upon Wood’s death in 1892, a Mr. E. Oliver of the great farm machinery firm, Ruston, Proctor & Co. of Lincoln, England, wrote: “For one who has spent a life so long and so active in the forefront of mechanical enterprise, and whose labors have produced signal benefit to agriculture, the world must cherish an unfading remembrance.” But in today’s fast-paced world, hardly anything or anyone is remembered beyond the revelation of the “next big thing”! 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.