Piasa Bird Plows

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Drawing from the cover of the 1917 Hapgood Plow Co. catalog, showing company President Harvey L. Black on a Piasa Bird gang plow hitched to a pair of the rather bored looking creatures.
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A Hapgood Piasa Bird sulky plow.
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A fanciful drawing depicting Uncle Sam delivering a sack of mail to Hapgood Plow Co.
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No one is identified in the undated photograph of the Hapgood Plow office staff, but I believe the man at the desk in the foreground is company President Harvey Black.
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Your grandmother may have cooked on a range like this ornate model from Hapgood Plow Co. Why it's named "Anti Trust" I don't know.

We’ve all heard the question:
“What’s in a name?” and its counterpart, “a rose by any other name …” and all
that.

Many symbols and names have
been used for farm implements down through the years, as these 1911 examples
for sulky plows attest: Admiral, Ajax, Aunt Rhoda, Uncle Sam, Battle Axe, Best
Ever, Best-of-All, Big Injun, Buster Brown, Captain Bill, Daisy, Elk, Express,
Gee Whiz, Good Enough, Hummer, Jewel, Iron Negro, Klondike, Koodoo, Little
Injun, Little Jap, Lone Star, Ole Olsen, Pilot, Pirate, Queen of the Prairie,
Quincy Beauty, Red Bird, Rex, Robin Hood, Rough and Ready, Solid Comfort,
Spinner, Stag, Success, Torpedo, Triumph, Twin Brother, Victoria, Western Star
and Young American, while David Bradley sulky plows, sold through Sears,
Roebuck & Co. catalogs, were called “X-Ray,” most likely because the X-ray
process was considered one of the latest things back in the late 1800s. But for
all the fancy names they were still just plows.

Hapgood’s Piasa Bird line

Maybe the most unusual and
interesting of names for plows, however, was that used by Hapgood Plow Co., Alton, Ill.,
which sold Piasa Bird sulky and gang plows during the first decade or so of the
20th century. The cover of a 1917 Hapgood catalog carries a drawing of the
prosperous-looking company president sitting on a Piasa Bird gang plow that’s
harnessed to two weird looking critters with large wings, a long pointed tail,
four bird feet, a small head with antlers and an ugly, bearded, semi-human
face.

Charles H. Hapgood, born in
1836 in Petersham, Mass.,
and a successful Harvard-educated lawyer, is said to have begun building plows
in Chicago in
1870, just in time to get burned out during the Great Chicago Fire of 1871
(which was not caused, as is generally believed, by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking
over a lantern). He then moved the business to St. Louis and was burned out again after just
a couple of years.

The town of Alton, a few miles up the Mississippi
from St. Louis,
offered Hapgood a bonus to move there, so in 1874 an existing factory in that
town was bought and remodeled with new and improved machinery for the
manufacture of plows. Additional buildings were erected; a June 1874 newspaper
account tells us the blacksmith shop was, “a mammoth structure, 118 by 88 feet,
and 27 feet high.” Another new 70-by-100-foot, two-story building and the
original structure would house the offices, woodworking and paint shops, a
foundry and a warehouse, and a new railroad spur would be built to serve the
plant. The newspaper reporter burbled: “This is, perhaps, the most important and
extensive manufacturing enterprise ever located in this city.”

In December 1874, the Alton
Weekly Telegraph
reported that Hapgood “has a large force engaged and are
shipping plows by the carload almost daily,” while shipments were also made by
riverboat on the Mississippi.
In 1877, after a visit to the factory, a reporter wrote: “The machine shop
glows with the light of a score of forges and furnaces, filled with the anvil
chorus and busy whirr of machinery, where the iron and steel are cut, shaped
and moulded into shares, which are polished by grind stones and emery wheels
until they are smooth as glass and reflect like mirrors.” That year the paper
reported that the firm had turned out 20,000 plows worth $250,000 (about $5.3
million today) during the previous year and was employing from 75 to 150 men,
depending upon the season.

Hapgood plows apparently
were popular with farmers and the company prospered. In 1889 Charles Hapgood
sold his controlling interest in the firm to Harvey L. Black, son of the firm’s
longtime head salesman, Joseph Penn Black, who had a string of plow, planter
and cultivator patents to his name.

Early leader in direct sales

Hapgood sold not through
dealers but directly to the farmer and advertised that the company’s only
salesman was the U.S. Mail, allowing them to “… do business with (the farmer)
direct, eliminating all the unnecessary expense of middle men with their
profits and expense (and) traveling men with their salaries and expense.”

The catalog pointed out
several comparisons: for example, a 14-inch steel beam walking plow costing
$7.50 at the factory was shipped by other manufacturers to a jobber who added
$2.50 and shipped it on to the dealer, where it was sold to the farmer for $14.
The same plow from Hapgood, which eliminated the middlemen, ended up costing
the farmer only $8.40 plus 60 cents freight at the train station, or $9 in all.

The 1917 Hapgood catalog
lists a wide array of products, not all of them manufactured directly by the
firm. These included the Piasa Bird sulky and gang plows, as well as spring,
spike tooth and disc harrows, walking plows, grain drills, Hancock disc plows,
Faultless gas engines, a wide array of planters and cultivators, windmills and
horse powers, wagons and buggies, harness, all kinds of hay tools, grinders,
corn shellers, dirt scrapers, fencing, and even shoe repair kits, sewing
machines, kitchen cabinets and stoves.

Out of power

Hapgood implements were made
until wartime steel and other material shortages caused a brief shutdown early
in 1918. Production soon resumed, but in October the ancient steam engine that
powered the machinery suffered a major breakdown. “Something went wrong inside
the cylinder, and when an effort was made to start the engine there was a
rending and crashing and the old engine was like the one hoss shay,” one
reporter wrote.

Parts were unavailable for
the 1861 vintage engine and, because of wartime shortages, a new one was
obtainable only after a long delay. Eventually, Black made the decision to
cease manufacturing and dispose of everything. The factory sat idle, with one
building later badly damaged by fire, until 1922 when the machinery was
scrapped and at least one of the renovated buildings was used by the Alton
Baking & Catering Co.

In early 1917, before seeing
the demise of his company, Hapgood died in Washington, D.C.,
while 56-year old Harvey Black “was stricken with apoplexy” and died in
December 1918. Thus came to an end another of the hundreds of small farm
implement manufacturers that, during the late 1800s, were located all over the
country. FC

To find out about the origins of the Piasa Bird name, read The Tale of the Piasa Bird.

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
letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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