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 30×100, 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.
Production was booming: the company was expected to manufacture 600-700 reapers in 1857.
The harvester, though, was just the start for Esterly. In 1852, he built what was thought to be the first corn plow or cultivator working on both sides of a row of corn with adjustable plows. He patented his cultivator in 1856; no patent had been granted on one of similar construction up to that date. At various times, workers at his plant also built seeders, mowers, combined reapers/mowers, furniture, sleighs and coffins, and peddled coal to local customers. In the mid-fifties, business was good. By July 1857, the plant employed 150 local men.
From an August 1857 issue of the Whitewater Register:
“Esterly has received orders for 50 of his reapers and mowers which he will be unable to fill. He has already manufactured over 200 more machines than he intended to make this season, and with his present facilities, he finds it impossible to increase the number. Next year he will try hard to turn out sufficient to meet all demands.”
At a field trial in 1857, the Esterly was used to cut 16 acres in seven hours. The Whitewater Register’s Aug. 22, 1857 account of the event was almost breathless:
“It may be doubted whether so large a field of grain was ever before cut by one team in the same number of hours, and if any machine has ever performed so much work, we should like to hear of it.”
Esterly’s business was not without its setbacks. In 1859, Esterly built his first self-raking reaper. The unit was initially a failure: Three years later, Esterly’s son discovered that the company was $100,000 in debt. It took 10 years, but Esterly ultimately paid all creditors.
Then, in the first week of January of 1867, disaster struck. A late-night fire in the machine shop and furniture manufactory destroyed the building and its contents. The total loss was estimated at $40,000. From an account in the Whitewater Register:
“This loss will fall very heavily upon Mr. Esterly at this time, and still more heavily upon the 120 men whom he had in his employ, and upon their families. It is also a terrible blow to the business interests of the whole town … Meantime, we hear it intimated that he is not likely to rebuild. We hope this is not correct. This town cannot afford to lose so valuable an institution as Esterly’s Reaper Works. It virtually supports nearly one-sixth of our people …”
By 1869, construction was underway on a one-story brick shop to replace the building damaged in the fire. Meanwhile, production at the plant proceeded at a furious pace.
Early in the next decade, seeder production was job number one. From the Register of Feb. 16, 1872:
“The whole force of the factory is at present engaged in making seeders. (Driven by a workforce of 125 men and equipment powered by a 40 hp engine) … a perfect machine is turned out every 30 minutes, or 20 each working day. 1,200 seeders will be manufactured this season, only limited by the need to produce reapers: The harvest must be provided for as well as the seedtime.”
Production of self-binders was a priority in 1879-80, but the company’s heaviest business came in 1883-84, at a time when the plant produced almost nothing but mowers, and could not keep up with orders. Esterly’s largest monthly payroll came in 1889-90, when 525 paychecks were issued. Production peak for harvesters came in perhaps 1889, when about 5,000 were manufactured.
In 1856, 12 years after patenting his original design, Esterly sought a new patent to cover improvements to his harvester. By 1860, the machine was more compact (though still durable: the Esterly reaper was known for its use of 500 pounds of wrought iron – competing models rarely featured more than 100 pounts). The improved design allowed use of a larger grain wheel, a smaller platform making the cutter’s job easier, and an adjustable sickle sill.
Those improvements paved the way for a major enhancement: The Appleby binder, manufactured by Esterly in 1881. McCormick’s reaper featured a wire binder in 1872, but wire binders had numerous problems, not the least of which was the incidence of pieces of wire ending up in a cow’s stomach or in a bag of flour.
The Appleby knotter was developed partially at the Esterly plant, in exchange for future royalties. The twine knotter was a critical improvement on the binder-type harvester, greatly easing physical demands on the farmer during harvest. When the company released the Esterly Twine Binding Harvester, “it caused a great sensation,” according to a July 1880 published account of a field trial.
“A large number of spectators were in the field and the unanimous testimony was that the machine did the most perfect work that they had ever seen in the harvest field. The Appleby binder is well and strongly made, does not easily get out of order, is readily understood and managed, ties a knot that will not slip or give, and makes bundles of uniform size. In ordinary use, it will cut and bind 12-15 acres a day with one span of horses. We full believe that (the combined machine) is the best apparatus for the harvest field ever devised, and that the demand for it will far exceed the ability to supply.”
The self-binder did meet with a strong demand: By the mid-1880’s, Esterly was shipping orders as far away as South America and New Zealand, and continued to sweep the competition at field trials.
“The most spirited trial of harvesting machines that has occurred this season took place on Saturday, June 21. The noted self-binders were in the contest – the light-draft Esterly, Piano, Champion, St. Paul, Deering St., Deering Jr., McCormick, Johnson, Excelsior and Minneapolis. The little Esterly was placed upon a pair of binder trucks and hauled by two horses to the field of contest, a distance of 10 miles. The same two horses, after resting barely 30 minutes, were then hitched to the light-draft Esterly and went gaily into the field, cutting right along, never missing a bundle or choking …
“The Johnson choked down and had to pull out; the Deering Jr. would not bind, and ran so hard it nearly ruined the team, and all the others were in a greater or less trouble. The McCormick had on three large mules and it fagged them out to pull it. The Champion had three large and powerful horses, and their work was so heavy that they were badly blowed long before the end of the contest.” –The Whitewater Register, June 26, 1884.
Esterly’s son, G.W. Esterly had joined his father in business in 1872, and the company operated as Esterly & Son. In 1884, though, in an apparent expansion effort, the Esterlys reorganized as The Esterly Harvester Machine Company with a third partner, George C. Swallow. George Esterly continued as president; his son as secretary/treasurer, and Swallow as vice president.
Transportation was an ever-present challenge for the company. Located away from main railway lines, Esterly was forced to pay high freight costs. After the 1867 fire that destroyed a large part of his plant, Esterly threatened to rebuild elsewhere. But his loyalty to Whitewater caused him to take a different tack: Lobbying for a second railroad to serve the community. He was a tireless promoter of rail expansion, and was active in three separate campaigns. In 1871, the formation of the new Northern Wisconsin Railroad seemed a sure thing, winning a charter from the state legislature. But local support was less forthcoming, and the proposal failed in almost every county where it was put on the ballot. None of the three campaigns he worked on was successful.
The need to expand, frustration over transportation issues, and an attractive bid from a group of Minneapolis boosters in 1892 proved to be a siren song the company could not resist. Lead by George Esterly Jr., now president of the company, the company made the move to the city. Reorganized as the Minneapolis Esterly Harvester Company, the company had capital stock reserves of $1 million, what must have seemed a safe buffer against any threat.
But the timing of the move proved disastrous: The combination of the Minnesota Farmers Panic of 1893, two years of drought, and a $2 million lawsuit brought by competitor W.A. Wood (over patent rights to the Appleby knotter) forced closure of the plant just a year later, in August 1893.
The company founder, however, was spared one last battle: George Esterly, 84, died at Hot Springs, S.D. in June of that year. The holder of more than 30 patents, Esterly was nothing if not resourceful, and one suspects that, had he lived, he might have pulled yet one more rabbit out of the hat, again saving his company.
But the Esterly era had ended. Just five years after the company vacated its plant at Whitewater, the buildings – already an inviting target for vandals – were razed. By the turn of the century, Reaperville had already faded into Whitewater’s past.
The latter half of the 1800s represented a period of rapid and mammoth change in Wisconsin’s ag economy. In 1849, 4.3 million bushels of wheat were harvested in Wisconsin. Six years later, in 1855, that figure rose to 9 million. In 1857, the harvest was 14 million; in 1860, 11 years later, Wisconsin’s harvest rose to 28 million bushels of wheat. That ‘Golden Harvest’ of 1860 put Wisconsin in second place in U.S. wheat production right behind Illinois, and surely the Esterly harvester played a role in that success.
But in the late 1870s and 80s, a succession of bad growing seasons, grain rust and smut, and exhausted soil reduced the per-acre yield, and farm-related bankruptcies were common. When Chinch bug infestations persisted through the 1880s, many Wisconsin farmers took the ag college’s advice. “Substitute the cow for the plow” the professors said, and Wisconsin’s dairy industry was born. FC
Grateful acknowledgement is made of extensive research for this article, conducted and shared by Fred Kraege, Whitewater, Wis. Photographs and other illustrations of Esterly documents and memorabilia were provided by him and by Virginia Esterly Larson, great-great-granddaughter of George Esterly.