- 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
In the half century that followed, one of America’s major business empires was established. It was the story of hard-slugging laissez-faire capitalism. To the Nineteenth Century, it was a glorious and inspiring spectacle. To the early Twentieth Century, committed to greater social and economic justice, the story of the carnivorous Robber Barons was a black page in our national history. In the last decade the historical pendulum, gradually having swung from the thesis to the antithesis, has moved back towards the synthesis. The early economic leaders may not have been demigods, but they were not soulless scoundrels. They were human beings, acting out their roles in an entirely human manner. Few people ever do more.
An important question for the historian, so far as McCormick is concerned, is this one: How did this tinkering farm boy emerge as one of our major industrialists? Even Norbert Lyons, who has written a whole volume which debunks Cyrus and his part in the invention of the reaper, admits he was “one of America’s ablest industrial pioneers and leaders.” Stewart Holbrook, whose much better balanced account, The Age of the Moguls , is perhaps the best book we have on the sell-made men who got to the top echelon, pays McCormick an even greater compliment: “Cyrus McCormick was perhaps unique among wealthy industrialists of his era in that he was a genuine inventor, a creator who also had business ability such as almost no other inventor, until Thomas Edison, displayed.”
McCormick’s chief business asset was his system. In an age when business was conducted on the principle of buyer beware, he gave with every purchase a written guarantee which warranted the performance of the reaper in every respect. At a time when the seller got the highest price he could, McCormick sold at a fixed price, and no haggling. A farmer could have a reaper for §30 down, with six months to pay the rest. If crops were bad or times hard, he got an extension of time without interest. Knowing that a farmer who needed a reaper needed one in a hurry, McCormick set up nineteen assembling plants at strategic points in the Mississippi River Valley, and he made that valley the chief food-producing region of the world.
Cyrus might have been generous with farmers, but he was hell on politicians, inventors, lawyers, and judges who crossed his path. Certainly it is significant that not one of his patents was at any time removed, and that in order to insure his 840,000 loyalties up to 1858, he spent 890,000 in litigation! No man of his time was more obdurate. He dominated his lawyers, alienated members of his own clan, and lashed out at competitors with an Old Testament fervor.
After the Civil War, when grain binders, hayrakes, and corn binders were perfected, a full-scale “harvester war” developed. Cyrus stayed on the front line for the duration. The enemy’s strategy was to stage field trials, in which the advantages of their products could be demonstrated. One rival, William Whitely, hitched himself in the horse’s place and pulled his new mower. Cyrus competed against as many as forty machines in a single day. Mowers were even chained back to back and then forcibly torn apart to test relative strength.
International fame caught up with McCormick in 1851, when the Virginia inventor went to the London International Exposition. To the London Times his machine seemed to be “a cross between an Astley chariot, a wheelbarrow, and a flying machine.” But the English grins disappeared when the Yankee put his contraption to work hi a grain field. So did they vanish in the other countries where the reaper went.
Back home in Chicago, the business boom continued. Cyrus mowed down competitors as his machine mowed down wheat. Then, in 1871 came the great Chicago fire. All the McCormick property and machinery went up in smoke. It was typical of Cyrus that he was in the midst of the fire-fighting and had the coat burned off his back.
After the fire, McCormick promptly got to work. His was the first factory in the city rebuilt and put into operation. When his family admonished him for working too hard, he replied, “I know of no better place for a man to die than in the harness.”
McCormick died in 1884. He had been born in a land that had a few small loaves; before he died, he made it possible to feed the multitudes. He gave his nation a hunger-insurance policy.
When his body lay in state in Chicago, many people came to pay him a last homage, and to place a floral wreath at the toot of his coffin. The design was that of a reaper, with the main wheel broken. At the very end, one of Cyrus McCormick’s oldest associates leaned over and dropped something on his breast. It was a sheaf of golden yellow wheat, from American land on which lie had long worked, and which he left so much more workable.