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Sheaves Of Golden Grain

July 2024
12min read

Cyrus McCormick fought hard to win the “harvester war”—and brought the machine age to America’s farms

It’s the snugness that makes the valley. On both sides blue mountains hem it in, brooding over the farmhouses like a mother hen blooding over her chicks. There is a time, just when the sunlight touches the crest of the Blue Ridge, when there is too much beauty for believing. This is land to come to and not leave. The Indians loved it, and named it Shenandoah —“Daughter of the Stars.” They came to hunt in the thick green foliage, to drink the cool water, and to make up poetic stories that expressed their love for the valley.


It’s the snugness that makes the valley. On both sides blue mountains hem it in, brooding over the farmhouses like a mother hen blooding over her chicks. There is a time, just when the sunlight touches the crest of the Blue Ridge, when there is too much beauty for believing. This is land to come to and not leave. The Indians loved it, and named it Shenandoah —“Daughter of the Stars.” They came to hunt in the thick green foliage, to drink the cool water, and to make up poetic stories that expressed their love for the valley.

White men, coming first in the late Seventeenth Century, found grass growing from the limestone soil so high that they could tie it across their saddles. Many kinds of people came to settle. In the northern portion were Palatinate Germans, Mennonites. and Lutherans. Farther south were the Scotch-Irish, a brave and iron-veined people, who had such a fear of God that it left no room in their hearts for fear of any man. They liked this land, this gateway to the West. Fifteen hundred feet above sea level, with a brisk, pleasant climate, it was ideal for stock, grain, orchards, and tobacco. Settlers could stand on the crest of the Blue Ridge, wash their faces in the clouds, and look out over miles of land as bonny as that of Scotland.

This is the story of a Scotch-Irish family that came, and one member of it who changed our agricultural history.

Like many a Shenandoah saga, this begins not in the lonely valley, but in crowded Philadelphia. In the spring of 1735 Thomas McCormick and his wife Elizabeth Carrutli disembarked there and set out to make a new home in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. They eked out a living and brought five sons into the world. The filth, Robert, fought with Washington’s army against the British, returned home to marry Martha Sanderson, and then set off to the Virginia frontier. Hallway up the valley he found the right place, rolling fields into which he wanted his wooden plow to bite.

Though it was only 1779, the land had already had lour owners. Benjamin Borden, was the first; he obtained a grant of 100,000 acres in 1737 and opened the area for white settlement. Borden sold a portion of the tract to Tobias Smith, who in turn sold it to William Preston on May 12, 1760. On August 5, 1765, Preston deeded it to Daniel McCormick, who was no relation to the newcomer, Robert McCormick. Daniel’s heirs were willing to sell 450 acres and the two log structures erected by Tobias Smith, right on the boundary between Rockbridge and Augusta counties.


There exists no exact account of the buildings which Robert McCormick bought, but they doubtless had hewn logs for walls, shingles for the roof, plank doors cut with a whipsaw and trimmed with a broadax. There must have been an open stone fireplace, a pine table with benches, garners for holding grain, beds filled with straw or chaff. To the modern eye, little comfort here; but to the pioneers, home.

The newly established immigrants did the one thing all newcomers had to do. They got to work. That was the only way to put down roots, to belong to the land. Robert McCormick and the family he had brought with him worked hard; at the time of his death he would leave three slaves and eight horses. His only Virginia-born son, also named Robert, was born oil June 8, 1780. Young Robert grew up, learned to work the land, and married Mary Ann Hall, who lived two miles down the Great Path. Until they could build a home of their own, they lived in one of the log cabins on the McCormick homestead.

A year later, on a cold February night in 1809, their first child was born. They named him Cyrus Hall McCormick.

These were hardheaded, hard-working country people. Even if they had had time, they would not have daydreamed much about the little baby’s future. Surely they would not have supposed he would become one of the most important persons in the nation—any more than would another log cabin family out in Kentucky, the Lincolns, who had also had a new son just three days earlier and had named him Abraham.

The world Cyrus grew up in was simple, solid, and sweaty. Like most farm boys of his time, he had little formal education, picking up what book learning he could at the hearth and the old field school. He studied Webster’s speller, Murray’s grammar, Adams’ geography, and (most of all) the Bible. He learned much from nature too; learned of the mystery, the wonder, the symmetry of things. He listened to the sassy, chirpy insects as the rich, green grain blew in the wind. In the fall there was a transformation in the valley, colored now with scarlet, russet, gold, and umber. The sun stayed hot in September and October. The men went out with their hand instruments, mopped their brows, and harvested the grain. If they didn’t finish before the rain came, the crop was ruined. Innately mechanical, Cyrus devised a locust-wood cradle which made the job a bit easier. But not easy enough. He thought and wondered about the problem. Inside his mind wheels began to turn.

In 1822 Cyrus’ father decided it was time to build a new house. Aided by his sons and his servants, he erected a red brick residence, 50 by 65 feet, with a broad hallway and eight rectangular rooms on two floors. He included wainscoting, broad fireplaces, and a porch on which he could sit and rock in the springtime. McCormick had named his home Walnut Grove.

The porch is still there; with the right kind of chair, it makes for good rocking. The spring behind the house still flows fresh and free; on the right kind of hot afternoon, it makes for good drinking.

Like most Shenandoah Valley homes, Walnut Grove was practically self-sufficient. There were flax and wool for clothing. Sheep, cattle, and hogs furnished plenty of meat. There were hides for shoes and harness, grain for flour and whisky, vegetables and fruit for the table, wood for the fires and sawmill.

Young Cyrus was proud of his father’s place and the growing things all about it. He enjoyed riding about on the back of his white-footed sorrel, Peacock. Most of all, he liked to putter about in the smith and to work on the tools that were broken or bent. Cyrus was so reserved as a boy that his neighbors commented on it, and so concerned with his dress that barefoot boys poked fun at his broadcloth coat and black beaver hat, which he liked to wear to church.

Like all young men everywhere, Cyrus had an eye for pretty girls. On October 31, 1831, he wrote to a friend:

“Mr. Hart has two fine daughters, rite pretty, very smart, and as rich probably as you could wish; but alas! I have other business to attend to and can … devote but a small proportion of my time to the enjoyment of their society. …”

The “other business” was to carry the name of Cyrus McCormick to the four corners of the world.

That business was the developing and perfecting of the reaper. Earlier machines, both here and abroad, had paved the way for McCormick’s success, and the involved story of just what had and had not been done before his famous demonstration in the midsummer of 1831 need not be told here. The incontestable point is that here on this Virginia field a machine was tried which included all the basic parts of the modern graincutting machines—the straight reciprocating knife, reel, knife-guards, platform, main wheel, the principle of cutting to one side of the line of draft, and the divider at the outer end of the cutting bar.

Cyrus McCormick paid $30 to the United States Treasury for a patent extending “the full and exclusive right and liberty of making, constructing, using, and vending to others to be used, the said improvement.” The next season saw exhibitions on half a dozen Rockbridge County farms and brought a commendation from the editor of the Lexington Union. Encouraged by this and a glowing account in Edmund Ruffin’s Farmers’ Register , he took out a second patent on a self-sharpening horizontal plow. The “other business” was about to get under way.

Oddly enough, the Panic of 1837 speeded up the process. The year before father and son had gone into the iron business with a furnace they called Cotopaxi. When this failed in the panic, leaving Cyrus and his father deep in debt, the two of them decided to concentrate everything on the reaper.

To appreciate just what a revolution the reaper brought about for agriculture, one has to realize that up to 1830 the Industrial Revolution had been concentrated in the factories, not the fields. Centuries old methods still held in the country, and the sickle held unchallenged sway over the harvest fields of the world. Since grain was a staple crop throughout the temperate zone, an invention which allowed the farmer to reap as much as he could sow quite literally affected the whole culture. “This machine,” Dr. William Hutchinson points out, “was necessary if the increasing millions of city dwellers were to have low-priced bread. City and country life must be complementary for industrial society to exist. Cyrus McCormick conspicuously aided in maintaining this equilibrium.”

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.

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.

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