One of the more fascinating aspects of history is its interconnectedness. Agricultural equipment history is no exception. Case in point: The long, strange history of the Peerless separator. Within the convoluted framework of its past, the Peerless would be tied to names which are still honored in the industry -Geiser, Case, McCormick - and to personalities who shaped the course of the American destiny. The very nature of its changing of corporate hands and, thereby, surviving the changes in farming techniques seems a testament to the creativity and business know-how of America's early farm machinery manufacturers.
The Peerless separator began in the mind of Peter Geiser. Born near Smithsburg, Md., in 1826, Geiser took out his first patent for a 'Geiser Thresher, Separator, Cleaner and Conveyor' in 1852. Due to this patent, he is credited by many (and especially in the pages of the Geiser Manufacturing Co.'s history) as the inventor of the world's first working separator. Geiser had tested his theories for the machine's construction on his father's farm in Smithsburg, but didn't build the first Geiser separator (as it was first known) until 1854. He built four more that year - three for sale and one for display at the Hagerstown (Md.) fair.
The next year, Geiser began building machines in earnest. Shops sprang up on the Geiser farm, two employees were hired to help build separators, and a new Geiser patent - for an automatic, or self-regulating fan - was issued. Geiser made his first agreement with another manufacturer to build Geiser separators. He signed that first contract with Jones & Miller of Hagerstown.
In the next five years, Geiser made many such manufacturing agreements, adding to the reach and renown of the Geiser name. George Frick began building them in 1858 in Ringgold, Md., and then moved to Waynesboro, Pa., where he also began building the Frick steam engine. John Snider built them in Mt. Joy, Pa., A.B. Farquhar produced them in York, Pa., and J.A. Peters also made Geiser separators in Middletown, Del.
In 1863, the first major controversy over the separators erupted when W.W. Dingee left Farquhar's operation in York, taking with him both castings and patterns for Geiser threshers. He showed up working for the J.I. Case company in Racine, Wis., soon thereafter, assisting J.I. Case in the manufacture of the Agitator thresher. As the story is told (by, admittedly, fans of the Geiser), J.I. Case's threshers were only popular around the Racine area before the defection of Dingee from Farquhar. The reason for this purely regional popularity was due, supposedly, to the fact that Case was the only person capable of adjusting his machines in order to make them work properly. The historical record is unclear concering which patterns and components Dingee carried with him, but one of the most difficult operations in separating grain from chaff was in setting the cleaning fan according to variations in moisture, weight, etc. It seems sure that at least a portion of components were for the self-regulating fan blast control.
Geiser Price and Co. was formed from Geiser's company in Waynesboro, Pa., in 1866, by Daniel Geiser, Benjamin E. Price, Jacob F. Oiler and Josiah Farney. Peter Geiser assumed supervision of manufacturing at the time, but conveyed all patent rights to the firm. All manufacturing of threshers was then brought 'in house' in buildings Frick had vacated.
Frick himself added Metcalfe threshing machines to his product list in 1869, and that same year, the Geiser Manufacturing Co., a stock company, was incorporated. Stockholders were Daniel Geiser, B.E. Price, Josiah Fahrney, J.F. Oiler, Daniel Hoover, John Phillips, A.D. Morganthall, A.E. Price, Joseph Price and Samuel Hoeflich. The 'new' company began with a reported capital of $134,600, new buildings and 175 employees. Four hundred machines were sold in the first year of business.
Ten years after Geiser's inception, the company moved in the direction that Frick had taken, purchasing Peerless steam engine patterns, along with tools and inventory from the F.F. & A.B. Landis Co. of Lancaster, Pa. Geiser would produce its first Peerless steam engine, competing directly with the neighboring Frick Co.'s engine, the Eclipse. Many students of Geiser history felt that the motive for making the Peerless was at least as tied to a sense of getting revenge on Frick for leaving the fold as it was driven by profit.
Slowed only by a fire in 1882, Geiser broadened its product line in 1884, bringing the Peerless steam-powered gang plow to market, as well as making hay presses and sawmills.
In 1890, the by-then well-known Geiser separator name was changed to the 'New Peerless' separator.
Geiser continued to grow and change as the market dictated, despite the loss of Peter Geiser, who died in 1901 at age 75. The firm introduced its first gasoline powered tractor in 1910.
By 1912, expansion had become an economic necessity, but, while attempting to break into the Midwestern market, Geiser proved unable to overcome the excessive transportation costs incurred from shipping its products westward. Although the firm manufactured several high-quality products, the stockholders decided the company could no longer make it on its own. They sold the company, the plant, designs, patents and manufacturing rights to the Emerson-Brantingham Co. of Rockford, Ill.
Before following the trajectory of the Peerless threshers further, it seems appropriate to back up at this point and investigate the parallel history of Emerson-Brantingham.
The Emerson-Brantingham Co. traces its roots to John H. Manny in the 1850s. John Manny, sometimes referred to as a 'tinkerer,' was consumed with the desire to make farming easier for his father. John, along with Cyrus McCormick and others, was attempting to mechanize the mowing, gathering, tying and stacking of wheat. With his father's help, he developed a horse-drawn machine for this purpose. In 1852, his machine won the coveted Gold Medal for Achievement at competitive trial in New York.
In 1854, John Manny moved his operation to Rockford, 111., because of the proximity to resources and the growing agricultural heartland. There he met Wait and Sylvester Talcott, who bought in as investors. J.H. Manny and Co. was started, and soon was known as the largest manufacturer of reapers in the world. That same year, financier and businessman Ralph Emerson, a cousin of writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, joined the firm. With the guidance of Emerson and the Talcott brothers, John Manny's mechanical capabilities soon became the basis for a profitable venture. At this time, Cyrus McCormick decided that his reaper patent was being infringed upon and filed a suit against John Manny, which McCormick lost. Attorney for Manny was Abraham Lincoln from Springfield, Ill., and attorney for McCormick was Edwin M. Stanton, who eventually became Secretary of War under President Lincoln.
In 1856, John Manny became ill and died at the age of 30, leaving 28 patents. The company changed its name to Talcott, Emerson and Co., grew quickly, becoming, several years later, the Emerson Manufacturing. Co.
Ralph Emerson, eager to expand, brought into the company Charles S. Brantingham, from the Nelson Knitting Co. at Rockford, Ill. Installed firmly in charge of the company, as Emerson went on to other pursuits, Brantingham envisioned the company as a global supplier of agricultural equipment. The main thrust of his plans was rapid expansion through purchasing other product lines. He acquired Geiser Manufacturing Co. for steam engines and threshing/separating equipment, and the Osborne Co., which was being divested from the International Harvester Co. after the loss of a monopoly suit with the government, for tillage equipment. For carrying and hauling, he acquired the Pontiac Buggy Co. and the Newton Wagon Works. To fulfill the demand for auxiliary gasoline engines, the Rockford Gas Engine Co. was purchased. Capitalization was increasing at a very fast rate. Emerson-Brantingham's last acquisition was the Big Four Tractor Co. at Minneapolis. This company's tractors (with rear wheels more than 8 feet tall) were used to break out and plow huge land tracts in the western states. However, at that time the country was in an uncertain financial situation and farms were becoming smaller and more efficient. The need for such huge tractors was fading quickly. Also, with improvements for gasoline engines coming in quick succession, the need for steam engines was declining rapidly.
In 1925, in order to raise capital to help save the declining company, Emerson-Brantingham divested itself of Geiser Manufacturing Co., which was sold to a group of investors from Waynesboro, Pa., who went on to produce small numbers of Peerless thresher/separators.
The end was coming for threshers, though. Combines, which provided all of the harvesting functions of the reaper and thresher, were coming into vogue, and competition in the thresher/separator market was becoming more fierce. Also, due to the smaller scale of operations, this group could not purchase more efficient equipment and practice economies necessary to compete. In 1939, a bankruptcy hearing to sell all assets was held, and in 1940, the manufacturing facility was destroyed by fire as M.N. Landay Co. was in the process of removing obsolete equipment.
J.I. Case Co. acquired all components, patents and facilities of Emerson-Brantingham in 1928 and went on to produce threshing machines until 1953, for those who didn't trust those new-fangled combines.
Most companies that began in the mid-19th century did not manage to survive anywhere close to the life of the Geiser Manufacturing. Co. Rapidly changing business environments and increasing demands for more sophisticated machinery by potential customers led to their demise. Geiser Manufacturing Co. was in business for three quarters of a century. As much as to management and business acumen, the credit for Geiser's success must be attributed to the originality and creativity shown by Peter Geiser in the creation of his separator, many technical aspects of which are still used in machinery made today.
Geiser/Peerless threshers had several unique features, the most noteworthy being that they were constructed without cleaning sieves, although a chaffer was still used. After grain was separated from straw and light chaff, it dropped to a short vibrating bottom, which carried it to the front of a roller, which had zigzag grooves. The grooves were U-shaped, and of a size sufficient to allow the grain to pass between them and the edges of a shelf upon which the grain dropped before reaching the roller. All grain that did not drop between the first roller and the edges of the shelf was carried over the roller and dropped upon a second shelf, forming a pile of grain, the top of which was the dividing line between clean grain and coarse trash. A blast of air striking the front of the pile of grain on the shelf would cause all the coarse material to drop to the rear side of the pile of grain, to be carried out by the air blast and to be again operated upon by a second roller, the same as the first roller. This second roller would pick out all coarse material (too heavy to be carried out by the air blast, such as white caps, unthreshed heads, etc.) allowing nearly all of the grain to pass between it and the second shelf. The very small amount of grain that was again carried over the second roller dropped upon a third narrow shelf that had a short-toothed comb along its edge next to the tailing spout, through which the remaining grain dropped. Unthreshed heads and material such as sticks, cornstalks, thistles, etc. would pass over the comb and drop onto a narrow vibrating rack, to be carried over the tail-end spout.
Peerless threshers were equipped with a spike-toothed cylinder, as were all that followed them. These cylinders are still in use today, especially in machines used for harvesting rice, beans and peanuts. Spikes on the rotating cylinder passed between stationary spikes mounted on the concave, and grain was stripped off stalks. Concave crossbars retarded the flow of loose grain, which fell through to the grain pan.
Another feature unique to Peerless threshers was what was called an abruptly rising grate. This grate was installed directly behind the threshing concave and was constructed in a manner similar to beater grates in today's combines. The crossbars were installed at a rearward pointing angle, which allowed straw and other coarse material to move across them, while also providing a retarding action in order to allow grain which had bypassed the concave crossbars to drop through to the grain pan. Behind this grate was installed a rotary separating device comprising rows of discs upon which were mounted curved steel tines. This device further agitated and beat the straw for separation, and helped carry it to the beater, which fed the straw walkers. The tines also traveled past projecting fingers helping to further dislodge grain, which was then dropped against a flexible curtain attached in front of the straw walkers. This forced more of the grain to the grain pan. It was claimed that this would provide 95 percent separation in the rear of the cylinder and left very little work for the straw walkers and cleaning shoe to do.
The patent for an automatic blast regulator purported to provide consistency of airflow through the chaffer whether the operating speed of the fan was increased or diminished. This was done by raising or lowering a blast board behind the fan to increase or decrease constriction of the airflow through the fan throat for a hard or soft blast of air.
These machines were also built with corrugated grain pans tilted toward the front of the machine. As the grain pan oscillated fore and aft, grain was carried to the cleaning shoe by sharply angled, upright ridges at the rear side of the corrugations. This began separation of the grain from the trash, since grain was smaller and heavier than the short straws and chaff. When this mixture arrived at the cleaning shoe, the coarse trash was already floating above the grain. Grain damage by raddle chains pounding grain against the floor of the grain pan was also eliminated.
Thresher/separators were stationary pieces of equipment, and the crop was carried to them for processing after cutting and binding with a reaper. Modern combines are self-feeding and provide the complete process. Combines have easily operated controls and settings for management of the threshing and cleaning processes. Thresher/separators had limitations on these controls due to requirements such as changing pulley and sprocket sizes for varying speeds. However, no one desired to make these changes as the threshing day wore on and conditions varied from easy threshing to hard threshing, or the opposite. In the Peerless machines, at least, this required an extra stage for processing the straw. This stage was the set of tines behind the threshing cylinder. It has been used, as well, in a number of combine models. Massey 510 combines had an option for installing a beater of this type behind the cylinder, and it operated in almost the exact manner as the Peerless. Also, the newest and largest combine built by John Deere, the STS (for Single Tine Separator), uses a cylinder that runs from front to rear of the machine as opposed to the transverse cylinder arrangement of thresher/separators. The STS also uses a very similar arrangement of tines and fingers at the rear of the cylinder to provide the same agitation for separating grain as on the Peerless.
Harvesting today is much simplified and combines are so easy to operate that they are nearly foolproof. However, the basic internal operations still remain much the same as they were 150 years ago. The ingenuity of the pioneers, like Peter Geiser, who put these processes into a single package, cannot be denied.
Editor's note: We would like to thank Arnold Johnson, a reader from South Dakota, for suggesting this article to us. 'I was never sure how you'd work a thresher without sieves,' he said.
Jack Raphael runs a welding and manufacturing company in central Kansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The newest John Deere combine uses a cylinder very similar to that of the Peerless.