Mechanizing the farm: Part 1 of 3 in a series exploring a history of mowers and reapers and their improvements.
Today, petroleum-based products are essential to farm operations. But for thousands of years, fodder – specifically, hay – was the most critical form of fuel on the farm. Up to the late 18th century, the process of making hay remained essentially unchanged. By the 1850s, though, the impact of the Industrial Revolution on farming equipment history was unmistakable.
In this article, the first segment of a three-part series on hay equipment (see Part 2 and Part 3), the focus is on mowers. Farmers who still cut hay with sickles or scythes well into the mid-1800s were quick to embrace new technology. One of the most labor-intensive chores a farmer faced, the harvest and storage of hay was hard, hot and dusty work. Mowers were the first step toward making that job less brutal and more productive.
References to cutting and drying grass for fodder are found as far back as Biblical times. Up to the late 18th century, though, the process of manual mowing remained essentially unchanged.
Robert L. Ardrey compiled the history of companies and inventors who played key roles in the history of American agriculture in his 1894 book American Agricultural Implements. Ardrey acknowledged that early mower inventors had a difficult time moving away from their attempts to imitate the cutting motion involved in the manual harvest of hay.
“It was this natural primitive movement that the first constructors of both reapers and mowers tried to imitate or reproduce in their machines,” Ardrey wrote. “Early American inventors of mowers persistently endeavored to make practically operative this original principle. Indeed, it was many years before the rotary or scythe-curve theory of cutting was abandoned.”
Peter Gaillard, Lancaster, Pa., is credited with conceiving the idea of mowing grass with horse power in 1812. Several crude reaping machines were produced prior to that time in England, but none proved practical enough to come into general use. In his research, Ardrey found that the early interchangeable use of the words “mow” and “reap” had already made it difficult to clearly identify the origin of the earliest mowers.
“As reapers and mowers belong to the same original general class – harvesters – and have so many features in common,” Ardrey wrote, “it is somewhat difficult at times to draw the line between them. In many of the older patents they are described as machines for reaping and mowing, having been designed for both purposes. And in some specifications they are described first as one and then as the other without distinction of purpose. So one cannot always clearly understand to which division of the general class the inventor intended his machine, or to which it really belonged.”
Jeremiah Bailey, Chester County, Pa., patented a mower (or grass-cutting machine) in February 1822. It was supported by two wheels on different axles and was said capable of mowing 10 acres per day. John Wadsworth, Portsmouth, R.I., obtained a patent in 1824 for a horse scythe. A year later, in 1825, Ezra Cope and Thomas Hoopes Jr., both also of Chester County, applied for a patent on a mowing machine similar to Bailey’s. Their machine was more simply constructed and said to be “of better form.”
By 1831, several inventors had developed mowers using a variety of techniques to cut forage. Those included use of a revolving reel of blades, a rotating knife-edged disc and mechanical scissors. None was completely satisfactory. In 1833, Obed Hussey, Cincinnati, improved upon an 1831 design by William Manning, Plainfield, N.J., creating what would eventually be refined as the sickle bar mower. Hussey’s design principles remained the foundation for subsequent mower development.
Cyrus McCormick and Hussey designed mowers around a sickle bar that bore teeth and moved back and forth horizontally. McCormick’s mower sat on a single broad main wheel that rotated and imparted motion to the cutter bar. Wire fingers (or guards) in front of the blade helped hold brittle stalks upright against the cutter. Horses used to power the machine walked behind or beside the bar. McCormick’s first design put the horses behind the mower, which proved unsatisfactory. His next design put horses alongside the mower.
Hussey’s machine rested on two wheels and a roller and allowed the horses to walk alongside the bar. His design did not include the roller found on McCormick’s model, but Hussey’s mower was more effective. It featured 21 lancet-like teeth riveted to a flat iron rod, and a seat for the driver. McCormick’s mower required the operator to walk alongside.
Other early inventors included Enoch Ambler, Root, N.Y.; Abraham Rundell, Verona, N.Y.; and William F. Ketchum, Buffalo, N.Y. Ketchum is credited with being the first man to put the mower successfully on the market (in 1844) as a machine separate from a reaper. In 1847 he improved on his single-wheel mower, gaining the interest of farmers because of the unit’s extreme simplicity and “great possibilities.”
Eliakim Forbush, Buffalo, N.Y., obtained a patent for his mower in 1849. He improved on his machine by 1852 and obtained a new patent, manufacturing his machines in Buffalo. His machine could be bought in combination with a reaper or just as a mower. His invention was quite similar to Ketchum’s; Forbush was forced to discontinue production when Ketchum sued him for infringement.
Cyrenus Wheeler Jr. was another significant early mower designer. His 1854 patent, which included many important new features, established the mower as an implement separate from the reaper. He continued to refine his original 2-wheel, jointed-bar mower for a number of years and was successful in “developing a practical marketable mower,” leading to the formation of the Cayuga Chief system in the 1860s.
One-wheel rigid-bar mowing machines were in general use in 1855, still sold in combination with a reaper or as a single unit. But many inventors remained focused on perfecting that design. In 1858, Lewis Miller of C. Aultman & Co., Canton, Ohio, unveiled his 2-wheel mower, the Buckeye, complete with several new features.
At about the same time, Walter A. Wood Mowing & Reaping Machine Co., Hoosick Falls, N.Y., was beginning what would become a prominent business, manufacturing mowers and reapers. Born in New Hampshire, Wood worked with his father at wagon building and plow making. At 21, he made his way to Hoosick Falls, where he was employed in the blacksmithing department of Parsons & Wilder.
Within four years, Wood was known as the best workman in the shop. He worked in Tennessee for a time before entering into a partnership known as White & Wood. By 1852, he established a new partnership (Wood & Parsons) and worked under the rights of patents obtained by John H. Manny of Illinois. Parsons left the company a year later and Wood continued on his own. In succeeding years he developed several models of enclosed gear mowers and numerous reapers.
The company launched by Cyrus H. McCormick of Virginia didn’t impact the mower industry until 1908. In 1834 McCormick applied for his first reaper patent. The patent application included his description of the machine’s vibrating blade that cut the grain. “I particularly claim the cutting by the means of a vibrating blade, operated by a crank, having the edge either smooth or with teeth,” McCormick wrote, “and projecting before it, for the purpose of staying or supporting the grain whilst cutting.”
William Deering, who amassed a fortune through a dry goods business, was seeking new opportunities in 1870. An old acquaintance, Elijah H. Gammon, convinced Deering to invest in his harvester manufacturing business. By 1872, he became a full partner in the company. In 1880, Deering bought Gammon’s share of the business.
In 1885, Deering began producing a line of mowers. Between 1893 and 1911, the company produced the Ideal Plain Lift, Ideal Giant, Ideal Vertical Lift, Ideal 1-Horse Plain Lift and Ideal 1-Horse Vertical Lift. Between 1886 and 1915, McCormick marketed the New 4 Mower, New Big 4 Mower and Vertical Lift Mower.
The International influenceInternational Harvester Co. was formed Aug. 12, 1902, when McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., Deering Harvester Co., Plano Harvester Co., Milwaukee Harvester Co. and Warder, Bushnell & Glessner Co. merged. The new company was capitalized at $120 million. Cyrus H. McCormick Jr. was named president of the board and Charles Deering was named chairman.
In 1911, International Harvester began producing implements such as mowers, tedders, rakes and fertilizer distributors under the McCormick name. The McCormick-Deering line of mowers included the No. 6 Plain Mower, No. 6 Vertical Lift Mower and Big 6 Mower. In succeeding years the company produced the McCormick-Deering No. 6 Plain Lift Mower, No. 7 Regular Lift, No. 7 Vertical Lift, Big 7 Regular Lift, Big Trailing – Regular Lift, and the No. 9 mower (also known as the McCormick-Deering Enclosed Steel Gear Mower). From 1939 to 1946, the company offered a regular size and heavy size No. 9 mower.
The No. 9 mower was advertised as designed to “take less power to pull and last a lifetime.” The gears were faster so the sickle ran faster, but more power was required to pull the machine. In addition to the Deering and McCormick lines, the company also offered the Little Vertical Mower, New 1-Horse Plain Lift Mower and New 1-Horse Vertical Lift Mower.
Closed gears were a big improvement in mower design. Because the gears run continuously in oil, dirt can’t cause undue wear or damage to the gear and bearings. McCormick-Deering’s No. 9 mowers were very popular in the Midwest. Some models came with trucks, which lifted the weight of the mower off the horse.
Mowers remained essentially the same until tractors began replacing horses in the 1930s. A popular enhancement of the day was the mower’s response to an obstruction during mowing. “The bar swung back, the power shaft telescoped and the clutch automatically disengaged and stopped the sickle,” notes Ronald Stokes Barlow in 300 Years of Farm Implements and Machinery 1630-1930.
As mowers came into increasingly common use, the time-honored practice of raking hay by hand was abandoned. The advance of technology would soon mechanize nearly every aspect of agriculture and transform the face of the American farm. Continue reading: “Part 2: Rake Development Spurred by Mower Technology” and “Part 3: Hay Press Helped Farmers Meet Market Demands.” FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at email@example.com.
Click here to see a McCormick-Deering No. 7 and a John Deere Big 4 mower in action on YouTube. You can also find the video by visiting Farm Collector's video index, clicking on the Featured in Farm Collector playlist and choosing “First Time on the Mower for this Young Team.”