Farm Collector

The Story of The Reaper

Route 4, Huntington, Indiana 46750.

Cyrus Hall McCormick has always been given credit by Historians
as being the inventor of the Reaper. It might be surprising to some
that this can be quite disputable. He was born Feb. 15, 1809 of
Scotch-Irish ancestry at the family farm called Walnut Grove in
Rockbridge County, Virginia. His father, Robert, had tried from
1809 to 1816 to make a reaper, but with little success and had quit
trying to go any farther with it.

In 1831 the entire population of the United States was thirteen
million people of which seventy five percent lived on farms. The U.
S. Dept. of Agriculture said in 1841 it took 65 man hours of labor
to produce, harvest and thrash one acre of wheat. In 1941 it took
two and one half hours to do the same thing. I can remember my
grandfather saying that one man could cradle two acres if he worked
real hard. In 1831 all small grain, and wheat was the main one, was
cut with cradle or scythe, bound by hand and shocked. After
experimenting with a reaper of sorts for a few years, McCormick
demonstrated in July 1831 in a field on the family farm. After more
adjusting, he and his faithful black slave helper, Joe Anderson,
made it workafter a fashion. Now unknown to each other, several
other men in Ohio and New York state were doing the same thing with
varying results. The most important was Obed Hussey from near
Cincinnati, Ohio. He patented his in 1833 while McCormick patented
his in 1834. However in 1831 McCormick had patented, made, and sold
a few hillside plows in the stone blacksmith shop on his
father’s farm which was still standing at least a few years
ago. In 1832 and 1833 he was again in the field with a still better
machine which in 1834 he had patented. He continued to build more
reapers for which he had a ready sale. At this stage his brothers
helped and they built an iron furnace on the farm. During the panic
of 1837 he and his father about went broke and lost part of their
home farm. But he went right on making and selling reapers for one
hundred and twenty dollars each.

It is interesting to note that his seven principles of grain
cutting would still be good today. They are as follows: 1. A
reciprocating knife for cutting the standing grain. 2. Fingers or
guards as we know them today to hold the grain in place. 3. The
reel for holding and pushing the straw back to the platform.
4. The platform on which the grain falls. 5.   The
drive wheel for operating the machinery. 6. Having the platform
offset so it runs along side the standing grain. 7. The divider on
the outer end of the platform to separate the standing grain.

Everyone has seen the pictures of an early reaper pulled by one
horse, while a man walked along the side to pull off the grain with
a rake in bunches later to be bound by hand. McCormick continues to
make improvements. He added a seat, and in 1851 he riveted the
cutting section to the knife for easier replacement.

Now to get out more reapers, he either sold or allowed on a
royalty basis the rights to make the reaper; mainly to two men in
New York state and in Illinois. Later this worked against him, as
they made improvements from which he got little or no benefit. As I
had mentioned before, Obed Husset, had patented his own invention
at his home near Cincinnati. He later moved to Baltimore, where
most of his sales were in eastern states. A bitter feud broke
between McCormick and Hussey which lasted for years. Hussey did not
have a reel on his machine. In 1848 McCormick lost his patent
rights, or could not get them renewed, and which was the start of a
long list of lawsuits with a number of concerns which lasted for

In 1847 McCormick realized the better agriculture outlook in the
middle west and moved to Chicago, at that time only a small place.
In 1848 he took into partnership a man, Gray, and they built and
sold over five hundred reapers that year. Gray sold out to Ogden
and Jones later.

In 1849 McCormick bought out Ogden and Jones for $65,000. In
that year he made 1500 reapers which sold for $125 each. By 1856 he
was making forty a day, and four thousand for the year. He was
going to town. His factory was the finest of its day. A forty horse
steam engine ran saws, shapers, lathes and drills. It was as near a
streamlined assembly as had been seen at this time.

McCormick had plenty of competition. Nanny was making reapers
and mowers and was a thorn in the flesh. Later Talcott and Emmerson
took over Nanny, and it later became Emmerson and Brantingham of
Rockford, Ill. B. H. Warder and J. J. Glesson of Springfield,
Ohio., Osborn of Auburn, N. Y. were making mowers and reapers, as
well as The Plan Mfg. Co. and Woods Bros. in N. Y. State. In 1863
Marsh Bros. of Piano, Ill. came out with a machine which used an
elevator canvass to bring the grain up and two men stood on the
side of the machine on a side step, and bound the grain as it came
up and dropped the bundles on the ground. This was a great
improvement as this machine had a much wider cut. This machine was
not in production very long because of impending improvements to
come. By this time most of the companies were building reapers or
self rakes that had five or six arms with teeth on that would swing
around and sweep the grain off onto the ground in piles that could
be bound by hand. At this point it is interesting to note that
several companies continued to make a few reapers up to some where
1920s. There was a small demand on small eastern farms for cutting
and bunching buckwheat, clover seed and soybeans. The woman I
bought the reaper from that I have in my museum told me her husband
bought it around 1920. Of course it could have been a hold over.
It’s not uncommon to see one at a steam show or a museum yet

In 1872 McCormick bought an automatic wire tying device from
Chas. B. Withington and after working it over, made their first
wire tying binder in 1877. There was much objection to it because
the wire would wind around the threshing cylinder, and also wire
would get into the stomachs of livestock and prove fatal.

E. H. Gammon, a native of Maine and a Methodist Minister, who
had been selling binders and reapers on the side, gradually got
controlling interest in the Marsh Company, at Piano, Ill. In 1873,
William Deering a well-to-do merchant, also from the state of
Maine, came to Chicago, and went into partnership with Gammon in
the business. In 1879 Gammon’s health failed and Deering became
the sole owner, which was the exact thing he wanted. Deering was a
farseeing, aggressive, business man, and as you will later see, it
was his foresight that later gave The International Harv. Co. the
big lift. In the same year, 1879, Deering bought out the twine
tying patents from John F. Appleby for his binder, and in 1800, he
built and sold three thousand twine tying binders.

From now on everything was different. This was something so much
more improved that there was no comparison.

In 1881 McCormick got the right by royalty to the Appleby twine
tying attachment and put it on his binder, and from then on they
were called Binders and not Reapers. As of now one would have
thought that everything in this industry would be wonderful, but
such was not to be as we’ll find out in the next issue.

  • Published on Sep 1, 1972
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