The Esterly Reaper

George Esterly's reaper rivaled McCormick's

| March 2000

  • Geo. Esterly's combined reaper and mower
    "Geo. Esterly's combined reaper and mower ... is pronounced in all respects the best two-horse combined machine manufactured. The excellence of their work, their lightness of draft, freedom from side-draft, east of management, their durability, and the fact that they seldom get out of order and cost literally nothing for repairs, places them at the head of all reapers in the estimation of all who have tried them and know their good qualities." –The Whitewater Register, July 8, 1864.
  • George Esterly, 1809-1893
    George Esterly, 1809-1893. Esterly's influence spread beyond his adopted state: In 1884, the residents of a settlement in what is now South Dakota selected the name Esterly "in honor of the Esterly Harvester and Binder, which is very popular in that section, and is looked upon by the farmers as their best friend." –Whitewater Register, Aug. 14, 1884.
  • The east side of Whitewater became known as Reapervillle
    As the Esterly company grew, the east side of Whitewater – home to many Esterly employees – became known as "Reaperville." At the peak of the company's prosperity, the plant occupied 12 buildings on 5 acres and employed 500.
  • The gold medal awarded to George Esterly in 1848 for his harvester
    The gold medal awarded to George Esterly in 1848 for his harvester. Also competing at that event: C.H. McCormick.
  • Rear view of the complete harvester, as shown in Esterly trade literature
    Rear view of the complete harvester, as shown in Esterly trade literature.
  • The Esterly enclosed gear mower, designed to eliminate side-draft
    The Esterly enclosed gear mower, designed to eliminate side-draft.
  • The implement seat (one of about 15 Esterly seat designs) shows the same detail as seen in Esterly promotional material.
    The implement seat (one of about 15 Esterly seat designs) shows the same detail as seen in Esterly promotional material.
  • An illustration from Esterly promotional material
    An illustration from Esterly promotional material. The illustration provides a close-up of the Esterly sliding seat, which helped balance the weight on the horses' necks.

  • Geo. Esterly's combined reaper and mower
  • George Esterly, 1809-1893
  • The east side of Whitewater became known as Reapervillle
  • The gold medal awarded to George Esterly in 1848 for his harvester
  • Rear view of the complete harvester, as shown in Esterly trade literature
  • The Esterly enclosed gear mower, designed to eliminate side-draft
  • The implement seat (one of about 15 Esterly seat designs) shows the same detail as seen in Esterly promotional material.
  • An illustration from Esterly promotional material

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.



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