I couldn’t help but smile at the special childhood memory brought to mind recently when local historian Manton Bailie, lifelong resident and farmer in rural community of Mesa, Washington, showed me some old farm equipment in rusty retirement at this place. When Manton told me about playing on the old horse-powered mechanical reaper it instantly brought back memories of my own Palouse Country boyhood. Although the old McCormick reapers on the hillside above our house had largely been invaded by the branches of cherry tree, a skinny youth could still wiggle down between wooden draper roll and outside iron wheel and dream of driving a tank.
The effectiveness of mechanical reapers like Manton’s and my grandfather’s equipment led to their widespread use throughout the country and subsequent improvements further reduced the need for rural laborers and rendered traditional field gleaning virtually impossible. While some loss of kernels took place as grain heads could shatter from the reaper’s wooden reel paddles, the stalks were effectively captured to be bound, carted, and threshed. But the ancient grain varieties native to Europe for thousands of years and introduced to the New World as early as the 1500s remained essentially unchanged until twentieth century plant genetics spawned hybridized cultivars resistant to shattering and lodging. The inexorable shift to technological modernity eclipsed eons of social and economic relationships that had guided human endeavor since the beginning of recorded history.
The momentous tilt that brought greater productivity can be dated with some specificity through art and literature from the period. Explicit depiction of the new horse-power order was shown graphically in an August, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The unattributed author and artist depicted a gathering during the previous week of the influential U. S. Agricultural Society near Syracuse, New York. Crowds had surrounded a grain field there to witness a competition among ninety-five different mechanical reapers. A grand parade of contestants preceding the event led through an impressive castle façade adorned with colorful flags and banners casting mythic significance on the mechanical marvels, jousting drivers, and patron inventors.
“…[T]he days of the sickle are over,” proclaimed the reporter, who advised readers, “Lay it up—the old tool—in a museum, on a fair cushion; label it, number it, …for the time is coming when the sickle will be as rare as the headsman’s axe or the Spanish blunderbuss. We must have a machine like a steam-engine, with two horses to draw it, which shall tear devastatingly through a field of oats or wheat, cut ten feet wide of grain at a stroke, and lay it all ready for sheaving.” The advent of this “startling mechanical enterprise” would lead to the manufacture of an estimated 200,000 machines the following year, with one of the biggest beneficiaries of such land office business being the manufacturer of the Syracuse contest’s gold medal winner—the McCormick’s Reaper.