The McCormick-Deering field cultivator, which hadn’t been taken from our machine shed for almost 20 years, once again saw the light of day.
Ed, a farmer in his 70s, explained he wanted to take it because it had been his father’s. It could be assumed that he might restore it to good condition. However, there were four and maybe more projects ahead of it. There is never enough time to accomplish what we’d like to do.
The shed is empty except for a two-bottom plow, which is also an antique and among the dwindling number that haven’t been scrapped. Plows -– horse drawn and six-bottom bemouths -– revolutionized American farming.
Blacksmith John Deere, who started a dynasty with a self-scouring plow, might be shocked to learn that plows are nearly as outmoded as one-row corn pickers and hay dump rakes.
History has been kind to Deere, who although credited with invention, didn’t produce the first self-scouring plow. That honor belongs to the long-forgotten John Lane, also a blacksmith. After moving from the East Coast, Lane found the plow he used back home didn’t work very well on the Midwest prairie's rich, black soil.
He failed to create something better until finding a used sawblade at a mill and forging steel strips to it. Unlike Deere, he didn’t patent his self-scouring invention. However, when other farmers saw how well his plow turned over prairie sod, he began manufacturing them.
By 1850, Lane produced 50 plows annually and had $600 worth of sales. Deere, who was a better marketer and tinkerer, far outpaced competitors.
Another plow inventor -– Jethro Tull -– may have topped both Deere and Lane when in 1819 he patented the first iron plow with moveable parts.
Although John Lane never filed suit against Deere for taking his idea, lawsuits over farm machinery patents kept lawyers busy in the 1850s. Abraham Lincoln, who was raised on a farm but disliked farm chores, represented Cyrus McCormick in a suit involving the invention of a reaper.
Farmers thought McCormick’s machine was unreliable compared to competitors and didn’t sell, but he worked for several years to solve its bugs. McCormick’s first machines, like many others, were pushed by horses and not pulled. His early machines cut stalks but didn’t stack.
A rival sued, claiming patent infringement, and Lincoln was part of the defense team. McCormick won the suit and Lincoln’s role in the case earned contempt from the losing lawyer, who insulted the future president by referring to him as “that damned long-armed ape.’’
By the 1860s, McCormick’s Chicago factory cranked out thousands of reapers and overwhelmed competitors. McCormick’s perfected invention revolutionized farming in the United States and abroad, but he might not have had the opportunity to prosper had opponents hired better representations.
Field farm machinery trials were not for the faint-hearted in the mid-1850s. Newspaper accounts in Illinois and other Midwest states told of brawls between horse-team drivers and manufacturer representatives. Farmers, who brought their families to watch the demonstrations, were appalled at the foul language and bloodletting. Horses were injured when they and machines were intentionally crashed against each other.
Historians, correctly, regard the second half of the 19th century as the golden age of farm machinery and product invention. Gang and sulky plows were produced by the end of the Civil War; steam engines were seen before 1870; barbed wire by 1874; William Deering invented twine balers by 1890; and cream separators appeared in the same decade.
Many inventors never became famous or rich from their work. Some were bitter that their inventions led to financial ruin. The blacksmiths and tinkerers of the 19th century dreamed big, but sometimes dreams become nightmares.
While I watched the McCormick-Deering field cultivator disappear down the driveway, I took solace in knowing that my cherished WD-45 Allis Chalmers remains parked in the garage.