- Historic Sites
Sheaves Of Golden Grain
Cyrus McCormick fought hard to win the “harvester war”—and brought the machine age to America’s farms
October 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 6
The world Cyrus grew up in was simple, solid, and sweaty. Like most farm boys of his time, he had little formal education, picking up what book learning he could at the hearth and the old field school. He studied Webster’s speller, Murray’s grammar, Adams’ geography, and (most of all) the Bible. He learned much from nature too; learned of the mystery, the wonder, the symmetry of things. He listened to the sassy, chirpy insects as the rich, green grain blew in the wind. In the fall there was a transformation in the valley, colored now with scarlet, russet, gold, and umber. The sun stayed hot in September and October. The men went out with their hand instruments, mopped their brows, and harvested the grain. If they didn’t finish before the rain came, the crop was ruined. Innately mechanical, Cyrus devised a locust-wood cradle which made the job a bit easier. But not easy enough. He thought and wondered about the problem. Inside his mind wheels began to turn.
In 1822 Cyrus’ father decided it was time to build a new house. Aided by his sons and his servants, he erected a red brick residence, 50 by 65 feet, with a broad hallway and eight rectangular rooms on two floors. He included wainscoting, broad fireplaces, and a porch on which he could sit and rock in the springtime. McCormick had named his home Walnut Grove.
The porch is still there; with the right kind of chair, it makes for good rocking. The spring behind the house still flows fresh and free; on the right kind of hot afternoon, it makes for good drinking.
Like most Shenandoah Valley homes, Walnut Grove was practically self-sufficient. There were flax and wool for clothing. Sheep, cattle, and hogs furnished plenty of meat. There were hides for shoes and harness, grain for flour and whisky, vegetables and fruit for the table, wood for the fires and sawmill.
Young Cyrus was proud of his father’s place and the growing things all about it. He enjoyed riding about on the back of his white-footed sorrel, Peacock. Most of all, he liked to putter about in the smith and to work on the tools that were broken or bent. Cyrus was so reserved as a boy that his neighbors commented on it, and so concerned with his dress that barefoot boys poked fun at his broadcloth coat and black beaver hat, which he liked to wear to church.
Like all young men everywhere, Cyrus had an eye for pretty girls. On October 31, 1831, he wrote to a friend:
“Mr. Hart has two fine daughters, rite pretty, very smart, and as rich probably as you could wish; but alas! I have other business to attend to and can … devote but a small proportion of my time to the enjoyment of their society. …”
The “other business” was to carry the name of Cyrus McCormick to the four corners of the world.
That business was the developing and perfecting of the reaper. Earlier machines, both here and abroad, had paved the way for McCormick’s success, and the involved story of just what had and had not been done before his famous demonstration in the midsummer of 1831 need not be told here. The incontestable point is that here on this Virginia field a machine was tried which included all the basic parts of the modern graincutting machines—the straight reciprocating knife, reel, knife-guards, platform, main wheel, the principle of cutting to one side of the line of draft, and the divider at the outer end of the cutting bar.
Cyrus McCormick paid $30 to the United States Treasury for a patent extending “the full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using, and vending to others to be used, the said improvement.” The next season saw exhibitions on half a dozen Rockbridge County farms and brought a commendation from the editor of the Lexington Union. Encouraged by this and a glowing account in Edmund Ruffin’s Farmers’ Register , he took out a second patent on a self-sharpening horizontal plow. The “other business” was about to get under way.
Oddly enough, the Panic of 1837 speeded up the process. The year before father and son had gone into the iron business with a furnace they called Cotopaxi. When this failed in the panic, leaving Cyrus and his father deep in debt, the two of them decided to concentrate everything on the reaper.
To appreciate just what a revolution the reaper brought about for agriculture, one has to realize that up to 1830 the Industrial Revolution had been concentrated in the factories, not the fields. Centuries old methods still held in the country, and the sickle held unchallenged sway over the harvest fields of the world. Since grain was a staple crop throughout the temperate zone, an invention which allowed the farmer to reap as much as he could sow quite literally affected the whole culture. “This machine,” Dr. William Hutchinson points out, “was necessary if the increasing millions of city dwellers were to have low-priced bread. City and country life must be complementary for industrial society to exist. Cyrus McCormick conspicuously aided in maintaining this equilibrium.”