The Esterly Reaper

George Esterly's reaper rivaled McCormick's

| March 2000

In the fiercely competitive reaper business of the mid-1800s, it's not surprising that Cyrus McCormick – widely considered the inventor of the reaper – had rivals. What is surprising, though, is how one of the most successful of those rivals has faded into obscurity. 

George Esterly of Whitewater, Wis., built a business that, at its peak, employed more than 500. The company's products routinely took top honors in judging at state fairs and exhibitions. The Esterly company was in business for nearly 50 years (1844-93), operating most of that time from a plant in Whitewater, where it played a major role in the local economy. Today, however, no trace of the five-acre Esterly plant remains, and even avid collectors are largely unaware of the company.

George Esterly moved from New York to Wisconsin Territory in 1837. An ambitious, energetic and enterprising young man, he dabbled in a variety of ventures while tending to crops. Owner of 1,120 acres in Heart Prairie south of Whitewater, Esterly cultivated 350 acres in 1844, but soon found wheat couldn't be grown profitably if it was to be harvested by hand. That experience drove him to produce harvesting machinery.

Esterly's first patent for a harvester – a "header", he called it – was issued on Oct. 22, 1844. In 1848, he won a gold medal for his harvester from the Chicago Mechanics Institute, beating out competitor Cyrus McCormick. (McCormick invented his reaper in 1831, but did not receive a patent until 1834.) The two competitors sparred in newspaper columns, quite likely to their mutual benefit.

"I wonder whether I could sell Mr. McCormick a few Virginia Reapers, as I am frequently offered them at half-price in exchange for my Harvester," Esterly speculated in a Jan. 11, 1849 article in the Chicago Daily Democrat.

Esterly's harvester was initially manufactured at his farm, and then on contract at factories in Racine and Dunleith, Ill. In 1856, he built a plant in Whitewater. On five acres, Esterly erected a 30x100, two-story building. Within a year, he'd added a drying kiln and two blacksmith shops. Soon after came an 80-foot square brick shop, a paint shop, and more blacksmith shops, with the goal of keeping all operations in Whitewater.