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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
Few things could have benefited the young Republic as much as the device perfected by the Virginia farm boy. Transportation facilities, especially in the West, were so poor that it was actually a waste of land and labor to harvest more than could be used in the home. Farm laborers were scarce, and were frequently lured to the cities. The problems of transportation, labor, markets, and inventions were interwoven. In addition to its importance in the fields themselves, the new reaper stimulated the extension of railroads, increased European migration and city growth, and improved methods of cultivation and productivity.
Plainly this invention touched one of mankind’s basic needs—food. From now on there would be fewer backaches and tired fingers throughout the world. McCormick ushered in a new era in agriculture, replacing muscles with mechanical power on a job that had to be done. That he also gave to the North one of the devices that unquestionably helped win the Civil War is one of the ironies of American history.
But Cyrus McCormick’s battles were not over when his reaper cut the grain, they were only beginning. He had invented a reaper; if it were to get onto thousands of American farms, he would have to invent a business.
No easy task, this. After a decade of planning and promoting, he was worse off than he had been when he began. His iron business collapsed, his partner evaded all financial responsibilities, his farm was gone, and creditors hounded him day and night. A teamster named John Brains even sent the constable out with a summons when Cyrus defaulted on a $19.01 debt. McCormick pleaded for, and got, a little more time. Fortune smiled: he sold a reaper, and Brains’ debt was paid. But it wasn’t a very good year so far as placing reapers on America’s farms was concerned. The McCormicks sold seven.
But Cyrus had assets other than his reapers. Inside him was a little machine that drove him on. He knew what he wanted to do. At night, when he lay in the darkness thinking, he saw something “so enormous that it seemed like a dream—like dwelling in the clouds—so remote, so unattainable, so exalted.”
Next year an order for a reaper came in from Illinois. Cyrus was elated—until someone asked how he would get it to the buyer. He would have to send it on a wagon to Scottsville, on the canal to Richmond, on a barge to Norfolk, on a packet boat around Florida to New Orleans, on a Mississippi River boat up to Illinois. Then he’d have to have it loaded on another wagon and try to get it out to the farm.
This would never do. Out west the land was Hat, the grain was thick, and the labor was scarce. In some places they turned hogs and cattle into wheat fields because there were no hands to harvest the grain. Maybe Virginia wouldn’t accept his reaper, but the West would have to.
So Cyrus McCormick left Walnut Grove, his total fortune of $300 tucked in his belt and his visions still sharp in his mind. For ten days he traveled towards the setting sun which he had seen all his life through the twigs and leafage of trees. Then finally he stepped out into the open, standing at last with the forests behind him, gazing with dazzled eyes at the American prairies.
This was the land for the reaper.
He was not hasty in choosing the place for his factory. He traveled thousands of miles before he decided. He talked and looked and pondered. When he made public his decision, people found it hard to take him seriously. The town he favored, one of the youngest and ugliest in the West, was the residuum of a broken land boom. In its ten years of existence it had struggled with dust, debt, panic, and cholera. The only paved street was one block long, made of wood. The unpainted frame shanties where people lived didn’t even have numbers. There was no railroad, no gas, no sewer, no telegraph, no stockyards. The harbor, into which six small schooners sailed in 1847, was blocked by a sand bar. The entire region was a dismal swamp, better for beavers than businessmen. Even the name was discouraging. Who could be expected to remember a name like “Chicago”?
McCormick’s choice was the master stroke of his business career. Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Cincinnati were more prosperous. But as other men were to see, after Cyrus McCormick had first seen, it was Chicago which would link the Great Lakes and the Great West.
Having neither money nor credit. McCormick went into partnership with Chicago’s first mayor. William Ogden. With Ogden’s money McCormick built the largest factory in the city.