More than 200 years ago, a quiet revolution started to unfold. It began with the reaper replacing the man swinging a cradle scythe. Obed Hussey obtained the first patent for a reaping machine. Inventor Cyrus McCormick, who had not bothered with a patent up until that time, quickly filed his own, and the fight was on.
As the original patents expired or could be circumvented, other competitors joined the fray. The real challenge soon became the acquisition of sub-patents that could be applied to the basic reaper concept. Thus the self-raker made the original reaper obsolete, and the binder made the self-raker obsolete. As time passed, the names reaper, harvester and binder became interchangeable.
At that point, even a rudimentary harvester put the flail and winnowing basket out of business. Agricultural technology advanced further with the development of threshers and then steam power. And with that, the mechanized agricultural equipment industry was born.
This new industry was driven by the founders of three great companies: J.I. Case, International Harvester and Massey-Harris. The leaders of each firm were uniquely blessed with a rare combination of inventive genius, perseverance and business acumen.
All three were international in scope, but Massey-Harris was, initially at least, uniquely Canadian. That presented its own set of challenges, both geographic and geopolitically. While Case and McCormick battled each other in the U.S., large-scale agriculture was just getting started in Canada.
Beginning on the shores of Lake Ontario, Canada’s timbered plains were being rapidly harvested for lumber used to build the country’s fast-growing cities. Land was inexpensive for those who would clear it and plant crops. The aftermath of the War of 1812 and favorable trade and tariff agreements also accelerated the pace of agriculture in Canada. Large grain-growing operations developed and a steady supply of immigrant labor found jobs in the farm implement industry. The stage was set for the innovative leadership of Daniel Massey and Alanson Harris.
Daniel Massey driven by quest for labor-saving machinery
In 1840, Daniel Massey’s first shop had been in operation for two years before J.I. Case got his start. But in his early forties, Massey was hardly a budding industrialist. As a farmer with more than 200 acres under cultivation, his shop primarily existed as a place to repair his own farm equipment and that of neighbors.
Born in 1798 in Vermont, Daniel moved with his parents (Daniel and Rebecca) to the north shore of Lake Ontario in 1800. During the War of 1812, when the elder Massey was called to military service, 13-year-old Daniel was left in charge of the farm. In his father’s absence, the youth hired men to do the planting and harvesting and generally managed the farm with ability far beyond his years.
At age 19, Massey left the farm to strike out on his own, renting timbered land. Over the next three years, he harvested timber and purchased 200 acres of cleared land. For the next 12 years, Massey divided his energies between farming and clearing land. He continued to buy forested tracts, selling the timber and farming the land until it could be sold. At times he employed as many as 100 men.
Massey made frequent trips to New York on Great Lakes steam ships. On one such trip, he brought back a Pope threshing machine that he set up in his barn. He used it to thresh his own grain and that of neighboring farmers. This thresher caused a turning point in his life, piquing his interest in labor-saving farm machinery.
Building a family business
By that time, much of the Lake Ontario Plain had been cleared of timber and had become a great wheat farming area. A 15-year boom in wheat and flour production followed, including exports to Great Britain and Europe. The boom ended abruptly when ill-advised British free-trade policies suspended Canada’s advantage in the sale of flour. The subsequent economic downturn in wheat-growing areas resulted in closure of many flourmills and the machine shops and foundries that supported them.
Among the closures was a small foundry and machine shop in Bond Head, Ontario, owned by R.F. Vaughan, a friend of Daniel Massey’s. Vaughan and Massey subsequently formed a partnership for the manufacture of farm machinery. Soon engaged fulltime in operation of the business, Massey put his 21-year-old son, Hart, in charge of the farm in 1847.
By the second year, Massey had bought out Vaughan and moved the operation to larger facilities in nearby Newcastle. In just a few years, the implement business had grown to such an extent that Hart was pulled off the farm. Although less inventive than his father, the younger Massey was a natural businessman.
Hart Massey takes the reins
The second of 11 children, Hart Almerrin Massey was born in 1823 in a log cabin his father built on the first 200 acres that he owned. Like his father, Hart was sent to New York for school, boarding there during winter. He later attended Victoria College at Cobourg, Ontario, where he paid his tuition cutting timber. In 1852, Massey made Hart a full partner and general manager, and the elder Massey took on a less active role.
In 1855, at age 58, Daniel Massey retired. After his father’s death in 1856, Hart Massey became the sole proprietor of Newcastle Foundry & Machine Manufactory. His product line included steam engines and boilers, dredges, lathes, iron and wood planes, 4-, 6- and 8hp threshing machines, parlor and cook stoves, and castings of every description.
The factory also turned out a variety of hand tools such as wheelbarrows, plus the Ketchum patent mower and the Manney patent reaper. Although the firm was still quite small compared to McCormick or Case, it was profitable and expanding.
Embracing responsibility early, Alanson Harris set his life course
Alanson Harris was born in 1816 to John and Catherine Jane Harris. Based in New York, Alanson’s father, John, became a circuit-riding preacher travelling into Canada. He and his wife then settled in Ingersoll, Ontario, where Alanson, the first of their 10 children, was born.
Like Daniel Massey, Alanson had responsibility imposed upon him at a young age. At age 9, he took over the farm duties when his father was off on his circuit. Fortunately, the parishioners of John’s local congregation pitched in to help. At 13, however, Alanson had to take a job in a sawmill to supplement the family income. He worked in the sawmill for 10 years, at which time he had been named mill foreman.
In 1839, Alanson Harris married Mary Morgan, a farmer’s daughter. Shortly thereafter, Alanson and his father acquired their own sawmill in Whiteman’s Creek. The elder Harris soon returned to his work in the ministry, leaving Alanson as sole proprietor. Alanson operated the mill for the next 15 years. The business was fairly successful, but seeing the big stands of pine began to disappear, Alanson sold the sawmill in 1856.
Harris family marked by inventiveness – and unusual business acumen
In 1857, the Harrises moved to Beamsville, where Alanson bought a sawmill that had been converted into a factory. The Crimean War (1853-’56), in which Great Britain was a participant, increased demand for manufactured goods. Harris soon bought a larger two-story building. The line shaft there was turned by a sweep-type horse power on the building’s upper floor. Forges and melting pots were heated first by wood fires and later by coal.
One of the first products manufactured at Harris’s new shop was a “flop-over” hay rake invented by his father. In addition to his work in ministry, the elder Harris was an inventor, focusing on methods to eliminate the drudgery of farm labor. Other products of the Harris factory included wood and metal tools, such as hand rakes and pitchforks. Profits were plowed back into the business, which was soon powered by steam, retiring the noisy second-story horse sweep.
Harris’s oldest son, John, inherited his grandfather’s mechanical propensity. Taken into the business in 1863, he immediately pushed for acquisition of manufacturing rights to patented American machines. The first obtained was the Kirby mower/reaper, rival of the Ketchum mower manufactured by Massey. The Kirby machine was owned and manufactured in the U.S. by D.M. Osborne & Co., Auburn, New York. Harris formed a relationship with Osborne that would be instrumental in the future success of his family’s firm.
Revolutionary Osborne reaper propelled Harris enterprise forward
With creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, which made a confederation of the Canadian provinces, came a push to open the Great Plains. The westward migration was spurred on by construction of the transcontinental railroad, the longest in America. The opening of the railroad through the vast Canadian prairies also fueled the growth of the farm implement business.
John Harris’s Osborne connection paid off impressively in 1870, when Harris obtained manufacturing rights to Osborne’s reel-rake reaper. The Osborne unit revolutionized harvesting, at least for a time. Combining the function of the conventional reaper reel with an automatic raker, the unit resembled a cockeyed windmill, with paddles driven by a skew-axis gear and cam mechanism.
The paddles’ rake-type teeth drew stalks into the cutter bar and then, in a semi-circular platform, raked the cut grain off onto the ground for binding. At that point, the cams came into play, lifting the paddles to a vertical position to clear the operator, seated next to the mechanism.
The mechanism may sound outlandish, but it worked very well and was generally trouble-free. Several other companies had similar reapers on the market, including Deering and McCormick, but the Harris machine was considered among the best.
Business was so good that Alanson took on two partners: his son, John, and James Kerr Osborn, a longtime trusted employee and advisor. The company was renamed A. Harris, Son & Co. When a new factory was built in Brantford, Ontario, in 1872, the workforce numbered 45. By 1878, expansion was needed, doubling the floor space.
Harris, the company’s guiding technical genius, died in 1887 of an illness contracted during binder trials in Texas. Englishman Lyman Melvin-Jones, who had earlier immigrated to Canada to open an implement distribution warehouse on the Great Plains, was named general manager.
Massey and Harris organizations go head-to-head in binder war
A great harvester war erupted during the agricultural boom time. Heated competition in the harvester business had existed since the days of the battle to acquire inventions. In the 1880s, another battle was waged, this one to win farmers’ hearts and minds. Dealers who got a foothold with a farmer found it easier to win subsequent sales. Everything hinged on the harvester.
Sales budgets soared as armies of salesmen swarmed the countryside in search of prospects. When a sale was made, competing salesmen would descend on the unsuspecting farmer to try to change his mind before delivery and payment could be affected.
Field challenges often resulted, with neighbors traveling for miles to see the contest and, as often as not, the fisticuffs that erupted between the various agents. When a sale was finalized, the agent treated the farmer and his family to a grand restaurant meal, and in some cases, bands and carriages were hired and customers were honored with a parade through town.
Hart Massey was a natural at this game. Delighting in the thrill of competition, Massey was a consummate showman. The smaller Harris firm was no less aggressive in the binder battles that began in earnest in about 1883.
The two firms’ products were similar in functionality, appearance and cost. Both were based on the original Marsh harvester patents and both had modified Appleby knotters. As time went on, weak areas in both were corrected, and the machines became even more similar.
Boom economy short-lived
For most manufacturers, the harvester/binder was the line leader. Sales of lesser items followed the most successful binder. The company’s prestige accordingly rested on binder sales. While Massey touted honors bestowed by international shows such as the Paris Exhibition, Harris boasted of endorsements from large Canadian farmers and government-sponsored experimental farms.
Binder tournaments became features of the traditional fall fairs held under the auspices of government agents who acted as referees. Victorious agents immediately sought out the local printer and had flashy handbills printed announcing their triumph.
During the binder battles of the 1880s, the Canadian economy enjoyed a boom of sorts as the West was opened. By the end of the decade, however, the boom began to fade and competition intensified. Credit terms were liberalized to a dangerous extent, and extravagant trade-in allowances were made. Although several lesser competitors went under, the Massey and Harris firms were not seriously affected. Massey, in particular, was “sitting pretty” with little concern for the future.
Two Canadian companies join forces in the face of competition
That situation changed abruptly in 1890, though, when rumors filtered back to Massey that A. Harris, Son & Co. was successfully testing an “open-end” harvester in England. Development had been shrouded in secrecy and testing was conducted across the ocean to avoid prying eyes.
The open-end harvester/binder offered little in advantages other than it enabled the farmer, for the first time, to cut grain with any length straw. This was an important advantage in areas where straw had a useful purpose, such as for cattle bedding or thatched roofs.
Hart Massey sailed for England to investigate. He found that the Harris harvester/binder was truly innovative, and British firms were simply copying it, a scenario made possible by English patent law. Returning to Canada with little appetite for a marketplace battle, Massey determined to bring about an amalgamation of the two principal Canadian implement firms.
While Massey, as sole owner, could act for himself, the Harris company was represented by several factions that had to be brought into agreement. With a perceived advantage in the open-end harvester, some factions were hesitant. Nevertheless, face-to-face meetings between Hart Massey and Lyman Melvin-Jones took place and the details were finally resolved. On May 6, 1891, the amalgamation was announced to the Toronto press. The name of the combined company was to be simply Massey-Harris Co., Ltd.
New company faces new challenges
After the merger of 1891, Massey-Harris accounted for about 50 percent of all Canadian implement sales. The other 50 percent was divided among some 250 smaller firms.
Massey-Harris then went head-to-head with American competitors. The Canadian company soon realized that Case and IH enjoyed an advantage of having a gas tractor as the line leader.
Additionally, by focusing attention on power farming, the Winnipeg Light Agricultural Motor Contests of 1908-’13 had proven the gas tractor ready for acceptance. Massey management began casting about for a good candidate for which to obtain production rights. They went through the Bull (1913), the Parrett (1918) and the Wallis (1919) before deciding to design their own tractor.
The ill-fated 4-wheel-drive Massey-Harris Model GP of 1930 made its debut in the depths of the Great Depression, followed, finally, by the bright red Model 25, the first of a long line of stylish and good-performing red tractors. This tradition continued after the 1955 merger with Harry Ferguson, Ltd., the company becoming Massey Ferguson in 1957. In 1991, Massey Ferguson (minus the hyphen) was folded into the giant AGCO conglomerate, where it resides to this day. FC
After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.