Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the Northwest Thresher Co.
Like many successful farm machinery companies, Northwest Thresher Co. of Stillwater, Minn., enjoyed the fruits of work done by earlier sister companies. Unlike many others, the company endured an early, unsuccessful corporation filled with lawsuits, accusations and court cases that went as high as the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The first mention of Seymour, Sabin & Co. was in an 1872 Minnesota "Report of the Committee," discussing state contracts from 1866 for the company's use of prison labor for workdays of 6:30 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Company representatives included U.S. Senator Dwight M. Sabin, his brother Jay and Geo. M. Seymour. By 1872, the company employed 185 convicts at $.40 a day, each.
A Nov. 1, 1879, article, in Independent Farmer and Fireside Companion describes Seymour and Sabin's Minnesota Chief, saying that the farmer's profits depended on getting every kernel of grain. "A thresher must be built that would do all this. But it takes capital to build such machines; capital composed of brains and energy as well as money to carry out and manufacture what invention produced; and this is why the "Minnesota Chief" became a success as a specialty of Seymour, Sabin & Co."
The "manufactory" is described in fascinating detail: "Here are horse thieves, petty thieves, forgers, defaulters and murderers, some of whom were once lawyers, doctors, merchants, farmers and mechanics, all filing, fitting, cutting and hammering at the various parts that go to make up the perfect machine. As you go through one room, blue-eyed Bob Younger looks up from his work, and Cole gives you a look like a startled wolf, while Jim hangs his head sullenly. They are busily engaged making belts, rakes and riddles, doing excellent work."
Excepting its connection to the companies that followed, little else is known about Seymour, Sabin & Co.
The first mention of Northwestern Mfg. and Car Co. was in a letter on company letterhead stationery, which noted that "1 engine, 0 separators and 1 H. Power" had been sold in 1878. An advertisement for the company in the 1882 City of Stillwater Directory advertised the Minnesota Chief Thresher and the Minnesota Giant "straw-burning engines." Sales increased rapidly, with 170 total machinery items sold in 1884, suggesting the company's prospects appeared to be good.
However, at the stockholders' meeting on Nov. 25, 1884, a grim picture was painted by the company leadership. The company needed to be reorganized, and the new business would be called Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co., with the same products as previously - steam traction engines, horsepowers, separators and more - with the exception of railroad boxcars.
Many who had invested in the previous company bought stock in the newest one. A couple of years later, a series of lawsuits were filed against the company.
Curiously enough, Northwestern remained in business two years later, producing an 1886 catalog, and a separate 1886 magazine advertisement. In addition to the Minnesota Giant steam traction engine and Stillwater agricultural engines, the company advertised "Passenger, Caboose and Freight Cars" for trains.
"Minnesota Thresher Co." and "Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co." were the same company. People could be forgiven for thinking they were different, as magazines of the time, and even the company's literature, sometimes used "manufacturing" as part of the name, others times, not. For example, the August 1888 Farm Implements and Hardware stated, "The Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. show for the work done during 1888, 900 machines and 450 engines. The labor of the convicts has not been an unmixed blessing to the Company and as the contract of the Company with the state expires Sept. 1st we may expect to see the next season one of far greater activity outside the walls of the prison than this last one has been inside those same walls. The company will utilize several large buildings for machine shops that have heretofore been used for storage."
On the other hand, Farm Implements and Hardware reported in November 1889, "The Minnesota Thresher Co. has made a contract whereby a portion of the convict labor at Stillwater will be employed by them. The stone building, used as a machine shop, has been torn down and a new building is being erected in its stead, which will be 12 feet wider than the original one."
Then again Farm Implements magazine in December 1897, said, "The Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. of Stillwater, Minn., has begun the erection of a foundry and machine shop adjoining its large iron clad warehouse in that city. The machinery owned by this company and formerly operated in the prison shops is being overhauled and will be set up for operation in their new quarters."
The 1898 report to the stockholders had "manufacturing" in the name, at which time the treasurer reported, "During the past year, in addition to our usual construction and repair work, we have put upon the market a new-style separator called the 'North West,' which gave such excellent satisfaction that we found a ready sale at a reasonable profit for all that we were able to manufacture."
Minnesota Giant self-steering traction engines had been sold all over the U.S., the 12 HP in Virginia for $1,350 each, the 14 HP in Carolina for $1,450 each, the 16 HP in Georgia for $1,550 and the 18 HP for $150 more. Stillwater self-steering traction engines were exactly the same price in four different states, although there was no 18 HP Stillwater. A 10 HP sold for $1,250 in Florida.
This 1898 report also discussed the Giant boiler: "As a straw burner it is the best and most easy steam generator on earth. This is a universal verdict, well sustained … easy of comprehension to the mechanic …" with detailed description of how the boiler works. Another major point is the almost-equal distribution of weight on the four wheels, "removing the danger of tipping up when ascending hills, and obviating the necessity of loading it down with a large water tank at the front of the boiler, and what is still more unpleasant to an operator, going up a hill backward."
The Stillwater boiler is also discussed as a boiler of the firebox or locomotive style designed for the use of coal and wood as fuel. "It, too, is of the return flue pattern and its reputation as a fuel saver is just as great as that of the Giant. Its roomy, well-proportioned firebox, with the large direct and small return flues, gives it a greater number of feet of heating surface than a direct flue boiler of larger dimensions. The return flues being placed above the lines of the crown sheet, ensures a depth of several inches of water over it, so that it is never exposed in ascending or descending hills, and this, with the arch-like shape of the crown sheet makes it so strong and safe that not a single instance of collapse or sagging of the crown-sheet has occurred in any one of the many hundreds of these boilers that have been and are now in use."
The North West separator is also described: "The cylinder of the North West is substantially the same as in the Minnesota Chief (their other separator). Experience has taught us that the cylinder in the Chief is perfect, and perfection having been attained, we simply let well enough alone."
However, since the 1899 Stillwater city directory lists only "Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.," it doubtless means the two companies, with or without "manufacturing" in the name, were the same.
Perhaps the clincher comes in an 1890 Farm Implements and Hardware: "Two important suits are now on trial before the Supreme Court, brought by the Minnesota Thresher Co. against R.B. Langdon and Thos. Lowry. These famous suits have now been in the courts for four years, having been continued from the October term of the Supreme Court. In them the Minnesota Thresher Co. seeks judgment against each of the respondents in the sum of $3,000 and accrued interest for several years. The Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. succeeded the Northwestern Mfg. and Car Co."
A peculiar but unsolved note in a November 1889 Farm Implements and Hardware states, "A plan is on foot for the thresher company at Stillwater to lease some of their buildings at that place, and take stock with eastern capitalists in a company Senator Sabin is organizing to build cars at Stillwater." It is unclear what this company could have been, or whether it ever came to fruition; perhaps it is one of the many dead-end scraps of information often found in old agricultural magazines.
Next issue: Part II, Northwest Thresher Co.
Contact Bill Vossler at: Box 372, 400 Caroline L, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; firstname.lastname@example.org