When we think of the Industrial Revolution, big-city images usually come to mind: belching smokestacks, grimy streets and tenements bursting with captive workers who never see the sun. But on the farms where most 19th century Americans lived, that Revolution wore a different face and had a decidedly different effect. Here in Indiana County, nothing embodied that difference better than the Reaper Trials of 1869.
The mechanization of American agriculture hadn’t begun in earnest until just before the Civil War. Devices like the reaper and thresher had been invented decades earlier, but farmers were a conservative lot who looked upon them as unnecessary at best. The price for their reluctance was severe. Plowing, planting and harvesting were labor-intensive and mind-numbingly repetitive; scythe-swinging reapers especially were virtual “slaves of the season.” Yet once accepted, farming technology actually freed an entire class of Pennsylvanians from the very bondage the Industrial Revolution had imposed on workers in other industries.
Why did our farmers finally accept the mechanical reaper? Ads and travelling salesmen had little effect. But in 1857, the United States Agricultural Society held its first “Great National Field Trial of Reapers and Mowers” in upstate New York, where a thousand farmers watched forty different reapers go head-to-head. It was a success, so local Societies held smaller versions across America after the war. Pennsylvania’s trials were held at the new Experimental Farms in Chester, Centre and Indiana counties. Ours came first, in July 1869.
The Western Experimental Farm had only been in existence for a year. In 1868, the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania had provided funds to purchase land totaling 120 acres for its creation. The grounds were located just outside Indiana, where Fisher Auditorium and the IUP Parking Garage stand today. It was an ideal venue for the Trials.
Eight plots of wheat were planted there that spring. Eight manufacturers were invited, and arrangements were made for reapers arriving by rail to be offloaded directly onto the Farm. The Trials Committee published an “open invitation to all interested parties” in county papers; judges were selected from across Pennsylvania, and Harry White (whose efforts had landed the Experimental Farm for our county) was tapped to give the opening address. The stage was set.
One by one, the out-of-town agents arrived and checked in at Indiana House – nice digs for a salesman! Morning on the 14th found them assembled at the Experimental Farm with the contest judges and two hundred farmers from across the county. Each machine was assigned one of the plots of wheat, and lots were drawn to determine starting order….
First up was the two-horse Kirby from New York. A right-handed cutter like most of them, it impressed the judges by turning in the fastest time despite having the narrowest cutter. “This machine, by its smooth cut and ease of draught…operated in tangled grain admirably.” Onlooking farmers were likewise impressed. An eighth of an acre in 15 ½ minutes? Unheard of, even with a six-man team!
On its heels came the only PA-manufactured reaper in the bunch. The four-horse Hoffheim had just two in harness that day, to prove it could be done. Though praised for keeping the standing and falling wheat separate, it “required the driver’s personal attention with a stick to keep the grain out of the gears.” Next!
All but one of the remaining machines were from Ohio, starting with the Buckeye. Best-known of the eight, it was sold in Indiana by A.M. Stewart’s Big Ware House. This one surprised the crowd by working better in the intentionally-tangled half of its plot than in the freestanding half. The World and Excelsior reapers followed; the former was cited for its compactness and low torque, while the latter “did not seem to be in working order, and the committee was not satisfied….”
About that time it began to rain. Committee members, factory reps and reporters (but alas, no farmers) were treated to lunch and “many a toast” at Indiana House until the sky cleared and trials resumed.
Next up was the Hubbard. Despite its back-of-the-pack 29 minute time, it was “judged satisfactory by the committee” given the field’s sodden state. Finally there came the Aetna, which fell victim to its manufacturer’s charitable impulse/marketing strategy. It had been donated to the Experimental Farm back in June, with the resulting publicity one-upping a flood of ads by the other seven. But it was shipped in sections and only reassembled when Aetna’s traveling agent passed through on the day before the Trials; he set the adjustable speed too high to handle wet grain, so it “cut fair but deposited sheaves irregularly” while turning in the second-fastest time. The best-laid plans, eh?
If you’re keeping count, that’s just seven entries. The Wood, a combination reaper/mower like the rest, was withdrawn and entered only in the next day’s mower trials. The Reaper Trial results were written up and distributed, with each entry rated on criteria like adjustability, clean work, draught (torque) and speed of operation. Rather than announcing a winner, the Agricultural Society chose to let guests come to their own conclusion – a good idea in hindsight, since an allegation of undue influence was leveled against one of the manufacturers the following week.
Several newspapers outside Indiana County covered the Trials, but our own were of two different minds on the event’s importance. Perhaps because grain farming was most common in our southern townships, Blairsville’s Press devoted 1200 words to the technical stats and performance of each machine, then followed that up with the full text of General White’s speech on the history of the Experimental Farms. But Indiana’s Weekly Messenger simply copied a Pittsburgh paper’s synopsis, saying “it saved us the trouble of writing up the affair ourselves.”
So, did our Trials accomplish their mission of persuasion? A month later, the Press noted “Our farmers are showing their enterprise by buying labor-saving machinery, including a large number of Reapers and Mowers,” and the fifty mechanical reapers in our county before the trials grew to eight hundred by 1879. “Slaves of the season” no more, even immigrant Scots farmers abandoned their suspicion of the inneal buain.
Mission accomplished. Happy Thanksgiving!