The West: Farming in the Great West (Part 2): Thresher's Coming, Putting Hay in the Loft

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH)Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

From roughly 1790 through about 1920 farming in the United States was transformed. And the farmer (usually a man, but sometimes a woman) took on a greater and greater importance, as he or she became the major provider of the foodstuffs for a rapidly growing population, which by 1920 was 50 percent urban. That contrasts sharply with the situation in 1790, when only some 10 percent of America's people could by any stretch of the imagination be considered as urban in character.

But, from the 1790s, and most assuredly by about 1825, the year the Erie Canal was completed between Albany and Buffalo, New York, the latter on the shoreline of Lake Erie, towns and cities near and along the eastern seaboard were demanding more and more food, which began to come in ever increasing amounts from the numerous farms to the West. Foodstuffs, including wheat, corn, beef, pork, and dairy products, entered eastern produce markets by various routes and means. Not only by the Erie Canal, but by inland waterways and by shipping as well from New Orleans eastward around Florida and up the Atlantic coast to such major entrepots as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

Then, by 1850, the canal-, river-, and ocean-hauling trade began to experience a competition from the railroad transport of foodstuffs. The decade of the 1850s was only the harbinger of things to come, however, for the United States had but 9,000 miles of trackage in 1850. By 1860, though, the situation had changed dramatically. The nation in just the ten-year period attained a rail mileage of 30,600 (with the important states, carved from the Old Northwest, of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, having about 9,500 miles of those rails). It is indicative too of what was underway that by 1850 the New York Central reached the Great Lakes. Two years thereafter the Pennsylvania Railroad linked up with Pittsburgh. Then, in 1853, the Baltimore and Ohio arrived at Wheeling, West Virginia. In the next year the Mississippi River could be accessed by rail. And, by the 1860s there began what would amount to a sustained development of railroad networks beyond the Mississippi.

At the same time, and dating from the 1830s, new technologies, applied to farming, made it possible to supply those developing transport lines or arteries on land or by water, with the required foodstuffs (plant and animal). For example, Obed Hussey of Cincinnati, Ohio, patented his first reaper in 1833. Then, a year later Cyrus H. McCormick, later of Chicago fame, but then residing in Virginia, patented his model. The Hussey and McCormick reapers revolutionized the harvesting of grain. The latter's machine outperformed Hussey's though in time, as McCormick took out two more patents on his machine in 1845 and 1847. Sensing the potential for greater sales to the West, the latter man, as indicated above, moved to Chicago in 1847, where he built a factory. And, McCormick's business acumen was sound, for by 1851 he was finding a ready market for a production per year of a 1,000 reapers.

The 1860s, or the decade of the Civil War, brought the amplification, soon to be within no more than forty years, the fulfillment of the first American agricultural revolution--that is, the mechanization (for the most part) of U. S. farming operations. That was assisted greatly by two ancillary developments, one dating from the 1830s, and the other from the 1870s. In 1837 John Deere of Moline, Illinois, came out with his steel-bladed plow, having a smooth, wrought-iron moldboard. Also, in Illinois, two men invented what would make possible the economical fencing of the Great Plains from the 1870s onward--barbed wire. On a farm west of DeKalb, Joseph F. Glidden perfected the first strands of such wire in 1874. In the same year at DeKalb a lumber dealer named Jacob Haish in his carpenter's shop fashioned another famous barb, called the"S", which became a close second to Glidden's variety of barbed wire in popularity. With the John Deere plow and the mass production of barbed wire (in abundance by the 1880s at the latest), the way was open for a farming in earnest of the Great Plains.

In the region though further advances in farm machinery and new sources of power for them were essential to complete the first American agricultural revolution. Here, but three technologies will be treated, along with an evolution of three successive sources of energy. The machines to be considered are the thresher, the combine, and the tractor. The sources of power for them in order of use, the horse, the steam engine, and the tractor itself. From the primitive thresher of A. H. Pitt of Winthrop, Maine, in the 1830s, which by the 1840s could process but 20 to 25 bushels of wheat per hour, to the threshing of from 750 to 800 bushels per day by machines of the 1880s, represented real progress.

The combine, which reaped, threshed, and bagged the grain in successive operations, revolutionized the harvesting scene on wheat farms (often in the thousands of acres) of the trans-Mississippi West, especially on the Great Plains and in California. For instance, using the combine, along with other machinery, two farmers were able to readily produce more than 250 acres of wheat by the 1890s. Whereas, back in the 1830s, one farmer, assisted by his son, for the sake of an example, could plant and harvest no more than some 15 acres of grain.

The 1890s saw the introduction of a third major technological breakthrough, so far as American farming was concerned--the tractor! In 1892 appeared the first practicable field use of a gasoline-powered tractor on wheat farm in South Dakota. John Froelich of Iowa had mounted this tractor with a stationary two-cycle engine (rather than the four-cycle one, which drove most of the automobiles of the time), which required, of course, a flywheel to move the piston.

By 1903, and the fact here given should begin to demonstrate the wave of the future, Charles Hart and Charles Parr, also of Iowa, opened the nation's first tractor company at Charles City for manufacturing their highly successful Hart-Parr model. By 1909, 31 firms were producing about 2,000 tractors. By 1914 some 30 companies still made them for American farmers, the total number of machines in use that year being no less than 17,000, up from no more than 5 primitive ones in 1900.

Before closing out this account of the American tractor, it is well to point out a major improvement in that machine. The frameless, or unit design, came into vogue by the second decade of the twentieth century. It became a unit (so-called), because the engine, instead of being simply mounted on a frame, formed what one should refer to as a unified body in construction. The first such unit-designed tractor became the Wallace Cub of 1913, having another advantage, that is, three wheels (one in front and two behind) for much easier travel down rows of crops.

No matter how one views the first American agricultural revolution and its primarily westward advance, along with its farmers, including a goodly number of immigrants, mainly from Europe and arriving especially following the Civil War, as related to the wholesale dispossession of Native Americans, one thing can not be denied. By 1920, when half America's diverse peoples had become either town or city dwellers, the farms in what had become the continental United States were supplying sustenance for all. To give but one example in support of that fact, though admittedly it comes from the year 1960. By that time one American farmer was providing the essential foodstuffs for himself or herself, along with 22 other people! Now, you the reader tell me--how could the United States have become such a cornucopia for its own peoples, not to mention its largesse exported year after year to hungry millions abroad, if the settlement process had proceeded much differently? To answer the question, at least tentatively, I am borrowing a sentence from Wayne D. Rasmussen, ed., Readings in the History of American Agriculture (1960):"The story of this great achievement is the history of American agriculture" (p. v).

Bibliographical Note: An indispensable book for the student of any age is John T. Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972 (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975). To which should be added Maisie Conrat and Richard Conrat, The American Farm: A Photographic History (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1997). Other essential reading, before the 1860s in American farming, is Percy Wells Bidwell and John I. Falconer, History of Agriculture in the Northern United States 1620-1860 (New York: Peter Smith, 1941). To view the agricultural scene in America in more detail (with statistics in depth), don't fail to use Joseph C. G. Kennedy's Agriculture of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1864). For the dates of pivotal events utilize"A Chronology of American Agricultural History" (pp. 295-311) in Wayne D. Rasmussen, ed., Readings in the History of American Agriculture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960). And, for William Jennings Bryan's"Cross of Gold" speech of 1896, find it (in full), pp. 37-46, in Ray Ginger, ed., William Jennings Bryan: Selections (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1967). For trans-Mississippi farming, the researcher can do no better than consult Rodman W. Paul's The Far West and the Great Plains in Transition, 1859-1900 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), especially chapter 11,"Farming in a Land of Limited Rain" (pp. 220-51). Apropos a chapter, see Allan G. Bogue,"An Agricultural Empire," in The Oxford History of the American West, ed., Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O'Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 275-313. To put"flesh" on this necessarily"skeletal" note and make it live, read from Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's"Women in Agriculture During the Nineteenth Century," in Lou Ferleger, ed., Agriculture and National Development, The Henry A. Wallace Series on Agricultural History and Rural Studies (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990), pp. 267-301; and from Carolyn E. Sachs, The Invisible Farmers: Women in Agricultural Production (Totowa, New Jersey: Allanheld, 1983).

comments powered by Disqus