Harvests in the 1800s

Look back on harvesting in the 1800s and see what equipment and people were necessary to get the job done.

Cradle Scythe and sickle. Photo courtesy of R. Scheuerman Collection.

Northwest Harvests

The arduous task of summer harvest was first undertaken using a primitive cradle, or scythe connected to four to six long wooden ribs that could hold several hand swathings. These were then dropped in the stubble and bundled into rows of shocks reminiscent of a van Gogh painting. (The basic design of the hand-sickle has remained essentially unchanged since the dawn of civilization, and use of this ancient implement endured throughout Europe well in the 1800s. Some ten swipes by an experienced fieldworker typically provided enough stalks to fashion a sheaf about one foot in diameter.) The calloused hands that knew this labor then either flailed the wheat, barley, and oat cuttings or led a team of horses around a hard-surfaced circular area to trample the stalks. The straw was then removed with pitchfork and the seed carefully shoveled with as little dirt and roughage as possible into burlap gunny sacks. The grain was eventually dumped and winnowed to separate the kernels from chaff and dirt. An entire family might harvest only two acres in a day from which might be gleaned fifty to seventy bushels of grain.

The US Patent Office registered more than two hundred and fifty hand- and horse-powered threshing machines between 1820 and 1845. One of the most popular was New England inventor Joseph Pope’s hand-crank model operated on the “Scottish principle” and could thresh ten dozen sheaves per hour to yield about five bushels of grain, or double that amount if powered by horse. Pope’s tablelike platform held a cloth conveyor that carried the stalks under a revolving wooden beater at one end that knocked the grain from the brittle heads. But the golden remains still had to be winnowed in a separate operation to clean the grain. Few farmers could afford to order small mechanical fanning mills from the East, which were expensive and required considerable strength to turn the internal blades for sufficient wind to clean the grain before small steam engines were introduced. Oak Point, Oregon, farmer Joseph Hamilton is credited with bringing the first mechanical thresher to the Pacific Northwest. The Ohio native journeyed over the Oregon Trail in 1847 with a wagon containing the machine’s components, which he reassembled and operated for several harvest seasons. That same year fabricator F. C. Cason was selling fanning mills built in his Oregon City shop.

Pope's hand Thresher. Photo courtesy of The American Agriculturist (1830).

In the summer of 1856, Hudson’s Bay Company workers at Ft. Vancouver received a Buffalo-Pitt’s threshing machine, which was shipped in pieces on bateaux to Cowlitz Farm. The nearly half-ton marvel combined both thresher and fanning mill and was powered by several teams of horses. The animals were led around a turntable of sweeps attached to a tumbler rod on the ground that connected to the thresher. The machine was operated by four farmhands and capable of threshing five hundred bushels in a twelve-hour shift – easily a ten-fold increase over the old flailing method and eight times more efficient than Pope’s hand-machine. But the Buffalo-Pitts system experienced numerous breakdowns and the horses used in the operation were soon replaced with coal- or wood-fired steam engines. George Washington Bush introduced the first horse-powered reaper to south Puget Sound in 1856, and obtained a threshing separator the following year. In 1858 Ft. Walla Walla wagon master Charles Russell obtained the first threshing machine east of the Cascades for the small fields of oats and wheat he tended near the fort.

In the 1870s small, horse drawn reaper-binders that could drop five or six grain bundles on the ground tied with wire and later with twine appeared in Northwest fields. Six to eight bundled sheaves were then arranged in shocks to further ripen or be hauled directly on open wagons to large stationary separators, or to threshing machines. A McCormick or Marsh reaper could harvest fourteen to fifteen acres a day and increased output tenfold over the hand scythe method. The machine’s advent and economic significance were celebrated in Will Carleton’s “Song of the Reaper.”


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