“I have something valuable to show you.” Robert Vonderau wasn’t exaggerating, showing me a small, blue box about 12 inches long. “This belonged to my father,” he said, “and has been in my family since it was brand new.” Stenciled on one end of the box: “Manufactured by C.L. Nesmith Co. Patent Oct 7 1873.” “This is called a Tally Box,” Robert said. “My father said he used it when he was threshing before he bought the Port Huron steam engine.
“It was bolted to the side of a threshing machine that was still run by horse power,” he continued. “Four horses were hitched to something like a big wheel, and there were gears in the middle that turned a shaft and powered the thresher. As the grain came out of the thresher, a man would shovel it into a bushel container. Every time it was full, he would hit this lever and the wheels would advance by one number. That was how you kept track of how much grain was harvested.”
The box has a glass-covered oval hole on top. A wheel can be seen inside, with numbers that turn when the lever on the outside is pushed. All the gears appear to be handmade, but the unit worked smoothly every time the lever was pushed. The lid has a simple lock, possibly meant to prevent accidental reset of the mechanism.