“Lion of the Hour”

Lots of people made and sold reapers in the 19th century—but McCormick made his more efficient than anybody’s.

Cyrus McCormick, born 200 years ago in Virginia, was described by some as “cold, imperious and calculated to inspire awe.” Perhaps that’s because he spent his life obsessed with a grain-harvesting contraption known as a reaper. Lots of people made and sold reapers in the 19th century—but McCormick made his more efficient than anybody’s. This combined with his marketing innovations would make him synonymous with a revolutionary farming machine.

Forget what you learned in school: While historians credit Cyrus Hall McCormick as being the “father of the mechanical reaper,” the quiet farmer from the Valley of Virginia did not actually invent the famous grain-harvesting machine. Other men built reapers before McCormick, born 200 years ago in Rockbridge County, and other men manufactured them before and during his time. What McCormick did do, however, was more important than mere conception: He was the first to demonstrate the labor-saving value of a reaper—and the first person to sell it on a widespread basis, across America and in other nations. In doing so, he brought about the greatest revolution in farming since the invention of the plow.

     Since the earliest days of farming, people had talked of developing a tool that would ease the backbreaking drudgery of harvesting with sickles. It was the industry’s Holy Grail. In the days of the Roman Empire, Pliny the Elder described an early reaping device consisting of an ox-pushed cart with a wooden comb that would cut stalks of grain. Over the centuries, various attempts were made to conceive such a machine, but the abundance of cheap labor—serfs, slaves or peasants—mitigated the potential economic rewards of replacing muscle with machinery.

     But in the vast continent that was America, conditions were different. Labor was scarce and expensive. Land was limitless and cheap—even free. This was the logical birthplace for a mechanical reaper, and in the 1830s, several Americans patented their designs. During the next two decades, numerous American inventors entered the field, literally and figuratively, each patenting reaper improvements and each manufacturing a few—or a few dozen—machines. In the end, Cyrus McCormick outmaneuvered them all. How? His edge over his competition was simple: He was a farmer who invented, while his rivals were inventors who knew little of farming.

     That difference proved significant. At one time, probably before the Civil War, McCormick had almost 100 competitors, and yet he became the largest producer of reapers in America. At the time of his death, in 1884, McCormick’s company was making 50,000 reapers a year.

     McCormick inherited his inventive nature from his father, a tireless tinkerer who designed and manufactured a hemp binder, a thresher and some blacksmith bellows, and sold a few of each to nearby farmers. In fact, Robert McCormick had been working on a reaper when Cyrus, his oldest child, was born in February 1809, so there was never a time in Cyrus’ life when reapers weren’t part of the family agenda. The McCormicks lived in a log cabin in Rockbridge County until Cyrus turned 13. That year, they built a fine brick house on the edge of a pretty farm they called Walnut Grove, located today just off Interstate 81, halfway between Lexington and Staunton.

     In the blacksmith’s forge and workshops at Walnut Grove (now a small museum), young McCormick, his father, brothers and slaves worked to design and improve farm implements. By 1831, McCormick and one of the slaves, Jo Anderson, had fashioned a rudimentary, horse-drawn reaping machine that seemed to work better than his father’s previous attempts. He tested it before a crowd of Lexington farmers in a neighbor’s oat field, and according to historical accounts, it worked well enough. There were problems, though. The noise scared the horses, requiring two men to walk alongside to keep the animals calm.

     McCormick made some alterations, but testing a reaping machine was problematic. There were only seven to 10 days in the summer when wheat was ready to harvest. Once that window closed, the inventor had to wait a whole year for his next chance. There was another trial run in 1833, and a Lexington weekly newspaper reporter who witnessed the demonstration penned a tepid endorsement, saying of the machine, “It gave general satisfaction.” The year after that, McCormick secured his first patent and offered his machine for sale. The price: $30.

     The earliest reapers were complicated contraptions, with lots of moving parts, and did not hold up well. Perhaps for that reason, it would be another six years before he sold his first machine, which by then was known as the Virginia Reaper. Realizing that customers were not going to beat down his door, McCormick decided to sell the machine himself. He became a traveling salesman, venturing as far as Ohio and Pennsylvania, with one intention: to create a market for reapers. He sold two in 1841 and seven in 1842, a pace that did little to distinguish the device from competing reapers being made in various northern states.

     Long before the Civil War took place, what historians call the Reaper Wars were fought in wheat fields across America. The goal was to find the best, most efficient machines—and the stakes were extremely high. Whenever two or more competing reaper makers accepted the challenge, a reaper contest between them would be held—all too often accompanied by cheating and sabotage. Impartial judges were rare; violence was not. In 1843, the Reaper Wars came to Richmond. In a wheat field at Tuckahoe Plantation, Cyrus McCormick staged the first of what would be many challenges against his leading rival, Obed Hussey, whose Baltimore reaper had been outselling McCormick’s. Both machines clattered through the field, and a committee evaluated the results. The Richmond Enquirer reported, “Both performed most admirably. The committee feel great reluctance in deciding, but upon the whole, prefer McCormick’s.” McCormick sold 29 Virginia Reapers that year, all manufactured in the small shop at Walnut Grove Farm. Two horses pulled the machine, walking alongside it so as not trample the wheat.

     In subsequent years, McCormick methodically boosted the efficiency and reliability of his machine, mainly by buying the rights to mechanical improvements patented by other people. In the 1840s, when six laborers could harvest two acres of wheat in a day, the earliest Virginia Reaper allowed eight men and two horses to harvest 10 acres in a day. By the Civil War, the advent of a so-called sweep-rake feature, which swept the grain off a platform on the machine, enabled a woman or even an older child to operate the horse-drawn machine alone.

     In 1844, McCormick took a 3,000-mile sales trip through Ohio, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin, and returned a changed man. Having seen the endless prairies of Middle America, he understood that Virginia’s reign as the dominant wheat producing state was at an end. The future of farming lay in the Midwest. The demand for his reaper would always be limited in the East, where most farms were small, rocky and hilly. He realized, too, that he could not efficiently deliver his product to Midwest customers if it was manufactured in the Valley of Virginia.

      Transportation was the issue. In those days, the only way to get a Virginia Reaper from Walnut Grove to a customer in the Ohio Valley was to put it on an eastbound wagon over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Scottsville on the James River, where it was transferred to a canal boat and sent to Richmond, where it was loaded onto an ocean-going vessel that sailed into the Atlantic Ocean and around Florida to New Orleans. There, the reaper was placed on a riverboat and sent up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Cincinnati, where it was carted to the town nearest the purchaser. McCormick did this for the eight reapers he sold on his western trip; most arrived too late to help with the following year’s harvest.

     To solve the problem, he tried selling licenses to manufacturers in Missouri, Illinois and Ohio, but the quality of the machines suffered—and so did his reputation. Clearly, he and his brothers had to supervise the manufacturing personally—and that meant setting up a factory closer to the customers. “Much as I love old Virginia,” he wrote brother William, according to biographer William Hutchinson in Cyrus McCormick: Seed Time (1930), “we should have starved in our business had we remained there.”

     McCormick moved to Cincinnati and set up a factory. Almost at once, however, he realized he’d made a mistake; he had not gone far enough west. He set his sights on another town, one of barely 17,000 people that had neither railroad nor telegraph, nor even a paved street. McCormick gambled that it would be the portal to the American West—and he was right. In 1848, he cast his lot with Chicago.

     McCormick’s understanding of the farmer drove his success. No one had ever sold a product the way he sold his reaper. He offered a written guarantee—some claim he invented the concept. If his reaper did not work as promised, McCormick vowed to take it back and refund the down payment. It was, in effect, a free trial. He established a fixed price, sweeping away the uncertainties of haggling. He advertised, using testimonials by farmers for farmers, with arguments farmers understood. He also offered easy credit. “It is better that I should wait for the money than that you should wait for the machine that you need,” he wrote to one customer. He knew farmers were honest people, and he trusted them. They seldom let him down.

     Perhaps the most important McCormick innovation was the system of sales agents he established for his company throughout the country. They would sell, deliver, instruct, repair, and provide replacement parts for this complex—and, to most farmers, intimidating—machine. The federal government’s offer of free land through the 1862 Homestead Act, coupled with McCormick’s offer of credit on a reaper, made it possible for tens of thousands of undercapitalized farmers to move to the Midwest and prosper.

     Having made American farmers the most productive in the world, McCormick cast his eyes across the Atlantic. In England, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had conceived of the first world’s fair, a grand exposition to be held in London in 1851 to showcase industrial marvels from all over the globe. McCormick exhibited his reaper in the U.S. section. The press took it for a joke—the London Times poked fun at the ungainly behemoth, calling it “a cross between a flying-machine, a wheelbarrow, and an Astley chariot.”

      But when McCormick brought it outside the Crystal Palace to a field for a demonstration, the tone changed. Even in the rain, the reaper cut the grain beautifully. In the time it would have taken 14 men to cut two acres, the reaper and one man (with horses) cut 14. The American newspaperman Horace Greeley wrote, “In 70 seconds McCormick had become famous. He was the lion of the hour; and had he brought five hundred Reapers with him, he could have sold them all.” McCormick won first prize. The London Times ate crow: “The Reaping machine from the United States is the most valuable contribution from abroad … . It is worth the whole cost of the Exposition.”

     In the ensuing years, McCormick experienced similar triumphs at the Paris Exposition—where he won the Gold Medal, hobnobbed with Emperor Napoleon III, and raked in orders—and at demonstrations and expositions in Canada, Scotland, Belgium, the German states, Austria-Hungary and Russia. Reapers became one of America’s principal exports. All over the world, wheat production grew more efficient, lowering the price of bread, reducing hunger and freeing huge numbers of farmers to move to cities for industrial jobs. Says Kenneth E. Koons, a professor of history at Virginia Military Institute, “McCormick’s reaper began a wave of mechanization leading to massive productivity gains in agriculture everywhere in the world where farmers adopted it. Its importance to agriculture would be surpassed only by the replacement of horses with tractors in the 20th century.”

Cyrus McCormick was a tall man with the broad shoulders and the strong back of a laborer. Like most men of that era, he wore a beard, which remained dark even in his old age. “His energy was the wonder of his friends and the despair of his employees,” wrote his biographer Herbert Casson in a book published in 1909, at the centennial of McCormick’s birth. “His brain was not quick … . But it was at work every waking moment, like a great engine that never tires.”

     Another biographer, William Hutchinson, wrote that acquaintances considered him “cold, imperious, and calculated to inspire awe,” but his friends said he appreciated a good joke, had a hearty laugh and was good company. He had no hobbies, indulged in no sports, and took no time off. Today, we’d call him a workaholic. A strict Presbyterian, he did not drink, smoke or swear—his foulest insults seem to have been “burned rascal” and “confounded fool.” His inability to engage in small talk was legendary.

     This last trait might explain why he married so late—he was 48 when he asked 24-year-old Nancy “Nettie” Fowler to be his wife. The Chicago Daily Press of January 27, 1858, called Nettie a “prize well worth his waiting” and commended him for “reaping one of the fairest flowers our city can boast.” Excessive fawning, no doubt, but McCormick was, after all, Chicago’s first big industrialist, with a net worth of $1 million. By the end of his life, he would be worth 10 times that.

     The Civil War was anguishing for McCormick. He referred to Virginia as “my dear old state,” but his home was in Illinois now. He abhorred slavery, but he detested abolitionists even more and blamed them for causing the war. Without the abolitionists, he believed, an anti-slavery movement in the South would have been well established and the issue settled without bloodshed. He thought Southerners should cooperate with the federal government to prepare slaves for freedom, and that Northerners should acknowledge that their complicity in the slave trade made them liable as well for the cost of the transition.

     In 1864, he made his one and only foray into politics, running as a Democrat for Congress from the Illinois 1st District, on a platform to end the war. He lost. A month later McCormick wrote President Lincoln—whom he knew but did not like—offering to go to Richmond on behalf of the North to mediate an end to the war. There is no record of a response from Lincoln.

     Many Northerners cast aspersions on McCormick’s loyalty, but no one could be blind to the role he played in the North’s victory. U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton grasped the crucial importance of the reaper early in the war, writing in 1861, “The Reaper is to the North what slavery is to the South. By taking the place of regiments of young men in western harvest fields it released them to do battle for the Union at the front and at the same time keeps up the supply of bread for the nation and the nation’s armies. Thus without McCormick’s invention I fear the North could not win and the Union would be dismembered.” Stanton did not exaggerate. At the time of the Civil War, a reaper did the work of seven men.

     Although his reaper had been one of the underlying causes of Union victory and although he had not visited Virginia for over two decades, McCormick’s sympathies lay with his native state. After the war, when he learned that his idol, Robert E. Lee, had accepted the presidency of Washington College in Lexington, the town nearest the McCormick farm, he was moved to contribute the princely sum of $10,000 to the school. “I want to see the old warrior and scholar [Lee] surrounded by his regiment of young men, learning lessons of how to fight the great battle of life, and learning them right well,” he wrote, according to an December 1977 article in a Rockbridge County magazine named Main Street. Washington College had been plundered by Union soldiers during the war, and the school, like the entire South, was destitute.

     McCormick was besieged by requests for money. Although he was a man who haggled over small sums, he gave generously of his fortune. He donated at least $30,000 to Union Theological Seminary in Richmond to endow a professorship that exists today; he supported many funds to care for Confederate graves; and he endowed the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago, which would be named for him after his death. But he couldn’t respond to everyone, and he regretfully declined appeals from the presidents of William and Mary, Davidson, Hampden-Sydney and other colleges.

     He was roundly criticized by Northerners for supporting southern institutions, especially that “nest of rebels” in Lexington headed by the “traitor Lee.” In typical McCormick style, he ignored them and became Washington College’s largest benefactor, even serving on its Board of Trustees. Not until 1875 was he able to visit the school, now renamed Washington and Lee. The college, he said, was “dearer to me than any other of its kind in the country.”

     During the two decades after the Civil War, McCormick was active in the Democratic Party. He was often mentioned as a likely candidate for governor of Illinois, senator and even vice president. He was receptive to these ideas, but nothing ever came of the talk. He and Nettie had seven children, five of whom lived to adulthood, including Cyrus Jr., who began working for his father’s company in 1879, at a time when Cyrus Sr. was starting to experience serious health problems. In 1902, the company combined with four small agricultural machinery businesses to form International Harvester, which in 1986 became Navistar, a Fortune 500 company.

     The Virginia Reaper made farming so much more efficient that a massive population shift occurred throughout the developing world in the last half of the 19th century, as people left farmlands for urban life. During the first half of the 1800s, about 70 percent of the U.S. population worked on farms for a living. When McCormick died, in 1884, that number had fallen to 46 percent. Of course, the reaper can’t take credit for all the gains—fertilizers and other mechanized tools also boosted agricultural efficiency—but the reaper was the first and most important improvement. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is directly involved in farming.

     McCormick’s reaper was America’s ringing response to demographer Thomas Malthus and his gloomy predictions of a rising population and a stagnant food supply. Like many others, Malthus saw that, for 10,000 years, farming had required the bulk of every society’s labor. He could not conceive of the effect that technological innovation would have on existing practices. He did not live to see the agricultural revolution that swept the world just decades after his death, courtesy of Cyrus McCormick and his Virginia Reaper.

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