Isaac Hoover's Popular Potato Digger

Equipment like the Hoover Mfg. Co. potato digger revolutionized the potato harvest.


| April 2008



IsaacHoover.jpg

Isaac Hoover, inventor of the Hoover digger and countless other devices, with his wife, Hannah. (Photos courtesy of Milan Historical Museum.)

Necessity is the mother of invention. Never was that more true than with the invention of the potato digger. Before the advent of mechanized diggers, a farmer could only harvest as many potatoes as he could dig by hand. With a mechanized digger – like the one invented by Isaac Hoover – he could harvest hundreds of bushels a day. Hoover's wasn't the first mechanized potato harvester (that invention dates to the late 1860s) but it was one of the most popular early units.

Isaac Woolverton Hoover was born in 1845 in Groton Township, Erie County, Ohio, the eldest son of John and Elizabeth Hoover. In 1851, following John Hoover's return from the California gold rush, the Hoover family settled on a 115-acre farm in Oxford Township, Erie County, Ohio. There, Isaac gained valuable skills from his father, a stone mason and farmer. In 1866, Isaac married Hannah Jane Beare and together they had three children. After moving several times, Isaac and his family established their permanent home on a large farm in Avery (just south of Sandusky), Ohio, in 1875.

Digging and designing

Hoover, a farmer, initially focused his energies on the potato crop. For a number of years, his farm produced the largest potato harvest in the county. But after years of tediously harvesting potatoes by hand, Hoover began to envision a mechanical potato digger. During the winter of 1884-1885, he designed and constructed his first digger and used it to harvest his 1885 crop.

Foreseeing the potential of his invention, he submitted a patent application in March 1885. The patent (No. 318,254) was granted May 19, 1885. According to Hoover's patent application, the potato harvester had "mechanisms for digging or removing the tubers from the ground, sifting and separating them from the earth, stones, weeds, and stalks, and delivering them at the rear of the machine, on one side, into a receptacle or upon the ground to be gathered up; the weeds are then discharged from the machine on the opposite side from the delivery of the potatoes."

The ground-powered potato digger was pulled by a team of horses, thus exerting force over the ground. As the cleated wheels rotated, they powered the machinery. The digger could harvest up to 500 bushels – a full 8 acres – of potatoes per day. Hoover's invention was so popular among his friends and neighbors that he produced 10 more diggers during the winter of 1885-1886.

Digger finds an enthusiastic market

In 1886, Isaac Hoover and his brother-in-law, Albert Prout, created the Hoover & Prout Co. to manufacture and promote the digger. In 1886, the partnership produced 50 potato diggers. Hoover formally introduced his invention to the world at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (also known as the Columbian Exposition). In 1898, Hoover & Prout received a gold medal for its digger at the Trans-Mississippi & International Expo in Omaha, Neb., and went on to show the digger at the 1901 Pan-American Expo in Buffalo, N.Y. In about 1910, Prout left the business for unknown reasons and moved to Cleveland. Thereafter, the business became known as the Hoover Mfg. Co. Hoover served as president and treasurer and his son, Arthur, was secretary and general manager.