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Marsh Harvester Spurs Early Reaper Development

The innovative Marsh harvester helped revolutionize grain growing the world over.

| November 2016

  • The 1900 Plano Light Running Lever Binder in an artist’s rendering for the Plano catalog. Those two “high stepping strutters” don’t look much like the average farm team, nor does that look like a heavy enough harness for the job to be done.
    Farm Collector archives
  • William W. Marsh.
    Farm Collector archives
  • Charles W. Marsh.
    Farm Collector archives
  • An example of an early Marsh harvester, this one from 1858.
    Farm Collector archives

Just a couple of years before Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey began to battle it out on America’s grain fields for bragging rights as to who invented the reaper, the Marsh brothers were born on a farm near Cobourg, Ontario, Canada: Charles W. in 1834 and William W. in 1835. The Marsh family moved 10 years later to a 110-acre tract of unbroken prairie in DeKalb County, Illinois, where a prosperous farm was established.

A reaper invented in 1849 by Jacob and Henry Mann of LaPorte County, Indiana, was the first such machine to use bands moving on rollers to carry the cut grain along the platform and up an inclined plane before depositing it into one of four receptacles. Triangular receptacles were arranged around an axis. When one was full, a hand wheel could be turned by a boy riding on the seat, dumping the gavel of grain on the ground and bringing another receptacle into position to receive the next one. Someone still had to follow along, stoop over and gather up the gavel, and tie it into a sheaf with a wisp of straw.

Improving on an idea

Meanwhile, Augustus Adams and Philo Scyla from Elgin, Illinois, had received a patent in 1853 for a machine that required a man with a hand rake to sweep each gavel from the platform onto one of two platforms where other men (also riding on the machine) tied them into sheaves before placing the sheaves into a bin that could be manually tripped when enough had accumulated for a shock (or stook). This machine was heavy and awkward and didn’t work very well, but it established the idea of the binders riding on the reaper.

The story goes that, in 1857, William Marsh was using a Mann reaper, for which his brother was an agent, when he thought of a way to improve the machine. It’s unknown whether Marsh had heard of the Adams & Scyla machine (it’s likely that he had, since Elgin was maybe just 50 miles away), but that was his idea; remove the revolving gavel receptacle on the Mann machine, add a low platform upon which two binders could stand, and provide a higher platform upon which they could bind the sheaves. The Marshes believed that two men on the machine could tie as many bundles as four following on the ground.

Building harvesters by hand

By 1860, the Marshes had built 12 machines, mortgaging everything they had. These harvesters worked fairly well (although a McCormick salesman sniffed that the Marsh harvester “looked like a cross between a windmill and a threshing machine”) but they were prone to breakdowns. Not far away in Plano, Illinois, farmers Marcus Steward and John Hollister (brothers-in-law and neighbors) had bought a reaper in the 1840s that didn’t work. Hollister, an excellent mechanic, had modified it and made it into a pretty good machine and it gained a reputation in the area. 

In 1860, William Marsh, hearing of the Steward machine, came to Plano and not only convinced John Hollister to help him improve their machine, but got the youngest Steward son, John F., just 19, to help as well. According to John F. Steward’s 1931 book, The Reaper, “There (in Plano), with the aid of Mr. Hollister, (Marsh) made the first fully successful Marsh harvester, which I launched in waving rye.” 


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