The Heritage of a Farm Machinery Company

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An overhead view shows the Stillwater Traction Engine. Figures 2 and 3 show the application of power to the traction wheels by the traction clutch and the reverse clutch, respectively.
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Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. had as one of its mainstay products the North West thresher, shown ready for a day’s work, probably somewhere in North Dakota, circa 1910. (Photo from the Richard Birklid Collection.)
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One of Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.’s earliest products was this Stillwater traction engine. Note the large flywheel on the other side of this No. 10 engine. The plate under the cylinder says, “Pat. March 29, 1881.”
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Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. made steam traction engines under at least three names, including Giant, New Giant and Northwest. This is a 20 HP New Giant. The X-shaped lugs on the rear wheel indicate it is a 1904 or older, as different lugs were added in 1905. (Photo from the Richard Birklid Collection.)
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Early in its history, Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co. made North West threshers, which were their mainstay products.
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This view of the Stillwater boiler shows how narrow the machine was. It was made to burn wood and coal, and had a large direct flue and a small return flue to give it more heating area than a direct flue of larger surface.
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The New Giant traction engine (erroneously called “Minnesota Giant” in this cut) was the follow-up to Minnesota Thresher Mfg. Co.’s earlier Stillwater traction engine. The engines were stubby and compact.

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.

SEYMOUR, SABIN &
CO.

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.

NORTHWESTERN MFG. AND
CAR 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./MINNESOTA THRESHER
MFG. CO.

“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; bvossler@juno.com

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