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The Story Behind the Letters

Author Photo
By Sam Moore | Oct 30, 2020

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Above: Top left, William Parlin. Bottom right, William J. Orendorff.
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Right: Cover of a circa 1912 P&O catalog.
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Above: William Parlin at work in his blacksmith shop in Canton, Ill.
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Above: View of the P&O factory in Canton, Ill., early in the 20th century.
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Left: The P&O Diamond sulky plow.
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Below: A group of 14 Doukhobor women pull a P&O plow in Canada. The Doukhobors came to Canada in 1899 to escape religious persecution in their native Russia. They lived in communes and believed it was wrong to force an animal to work.

Parlin & Orendorff triumphed over early challenges

Many Rusty Iron enthusiasts probably know why
most of the part numbers on International Harvester plows begin
with the letters “PO.” However, just in case some don’t, here’s the
story of the Parlin & Orendorff Co. of Canton, Ill.

William Parlin was born in 1817, in Acton, Mass., where he
apparently learned the blacksmith trade. Typical of many restless
young men of the day, Parlin drifted west, ending up in St. Louis.
There, he blacksmithed for a year but didn’t seem to do very well.
Leaving St. Louis, Parlin traveled by boat up the Mississippi and
Illinois rivers and, in 1840, appeared in Canton after walking the
10 miles from the landing. Legend has it that the young blacksmith
had nothing with him but three hammers, a leather apron, and 25
cents in cash. He promptly went to work in Robert Culton’s
blacksmith shop and soon was made a full partner.

Culton apparently was already making a plow with a wooden
moldboard and iron share when Parlin went to work for him. Later
plows had wooden moldboards covered with iron plates, although some
also had moldboards made of boilerplate. In 1842, Parlin made some
with steel shares, mold-boards and landsides that local farmers
found very satisfactory.

In 1845, William Parlin married Caroline Orendorff and the happy
couple ultimately became the parents of four children: Artemus,
William, Clara and Alice.

The demand for Parlin’s plows grew and soon extra help was
required. In 1846, a small foundry was added. About that time,
Parlin, wanting to work on his own, left Culton and built a shop
and foundry of his own. During the winter of 1847, Parlin’s factory
was destroyed by fire and he went back to Culton’s shop, now run by
Culton’s son, John. After a short while, Parlin bought out Culton
and may have formed a partnership with Thompson Maple, who,
according to one account, ran the firm’s office and provided
capital. Another account claims Parlin conducted the business
alone.

In any event, in 1852, Parlin took on his brother-in-law,
William Orendorff, as partner. This combination seemed to work and
Orendorff became sales manager, while Parlin concentrated on the
manufacturing side of the business. The factory was upgraded by
replacing the horsepower that had been used to run the machinery
with a steam engine. The Canton Clipper walking plow was introduced
and became quite popular. During the years before the Civil War the
firm began making other implements as well, such as walking
cultivators, shovel plows and stalk cutters.

Years later, William Orendorff described the way farm machinery
was sold in those early years. “Selling goods at that time was
quite a different process from what it is today. I used to load up
a wagon and drive out to the principal towns seeking customers,
until my plows were either sold or consigned to country merchants,
when I would return to Canton, catch up with my books and office
work, and do the same thing over again.” He told of one time when
he was on the road with three wagon loads of plows and had been ” …
driving for some days without much success.” Stopping at a tavern
for the night, Orendorff met another traveler who asked him what he
was going to do with those plows. Orendorff confessed that he meant
to sell them if he could.

The stranger, a Mr. Cunningham, said, “Better take them over to
my place (in Knoxville, Iowa) and I will sell them for you.”
Orendorff continues: “A few days later it began raining and the
roads, never good, were abominable. We drove into Knoxville, found
Mr. Cunningham to be all right, left three loads (nearly 100 plows)
with him and returned home. The next spring he sold them all and
paid the cash.” The drive from Canton to Knoxville, over
“abominable” roads with a wagon and team, was more than 200 miles.
Shipping became easier in 1862, when the Chicago, Burlington &
Quincy Railroad reached Canton. In 1865, P&O built its first
riding cultivator and introduced a brand new implement, the
lister.

By the early 20th century, Parlin & Orendorff claimed to be
“The largest and oldest permanently established plow factory on
earth,” with a full line of moldboard and disc plows, listers,
stalk cutters, disc, spike tooth and spade harrows, corn and beet
planters and all kinds of cultivators. A photo in a P&O catalog
of the day shows a group of 14 women and girls, all wearing
babushkas (head kerchiefs), pulling a P&O plow. The caption
identifies the women as members of the Doukhobors, natives of
Russia who fled their homeland and settled in Canada. The group
believed that it was wrong to make an animal (but apparently not
women!) work. As you may have guessed, in the picture, there’s a
man holding the plow handles.

Also by that time, International Harvester’s salesmen and agents
were clamoring for plows to sell. IHC and Deere had, up to then,
been reluctant to get into each other’s business, even though
pressure from the field to do so had been intense. Deere made the
first move by starting construction of a new harvester plant in
East Moline, Ill., in 1912. In about 1909, IH agents in Canada
began selling P&O plows, but U.S. dealers were still out of
luck. Finally, on May 7, 1919, International Harvester announced
that it had bought the entire product line and all the facilities
of the Parlin & Orendorff Co.

IH retained the P&O name on its plows for several years,
although the McCormick-Deering name was added to it. Most of the
old P&O part numbers were retained as well, and the PO prefix
for plow part numbers was continued even after the P&O name was
dropped.

The next time you see a PO part number on an old IH plow, think
back to 1840, and to the young William Parlin trudging into Canton
with only two bits and a few tools to his name.


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 e-mail at
letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com.

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