The Reaper King

Illinois is many things, but first and foremost we are an agricultural state. Agriculture built Illinois; whether it is the small family farmer, the truck driver who delivers their products, the tractor factory employee or those who work at the Chicago Board of Trade, agriculture touches every part of Illinois’ economy and remains the state’s largest industry.

Geography plays an important part in that history. Our state happens to sit atop some of the most fertile farmland in the entire world and the development of the nation’s transportation infrastructure put us right at the crossroads of the continent.

It was this meeting of geography and infrastructure which brought to Illinois an inventor who believed he could revolutionize farming with a contraption which came to be known as “The Mechanical Man.”

In the early 1830s Cyrus McCormick started tinkering with a machine that he thought would make harvesting much less labor intensive. In 1834 he got his first patent for a mechanical reaper, a machine which was pulled through the field by a horse while the human operator walked alongside. As it moved across the field, its steel blade chopped down wheat stalks and the farmer collected the grain.

He sold a few machines each year. But in 1842 word of his apparatus spread to the vast farm country west of the Appalachians and orders started pouring in. Demand soon expanded beyond what his workshop could accommodate and McCormick started looking for a place to build a factory.

Even though other Midwestern cities were larger and businesses seemed to be booming there, McCormick chose Chicago. He saw something in the lakeside metropolis that made it a more attractive option than other cities. The proximity of the lake would give him just the transportation link he needed to obtain the raw materials for his products, and the railroads which even then were beginning to reach out toward the vast wheat fields of the Great Plains would help him deliver his finished products to the farmers who he hoped would buy them.

Construction on the first McCormick Reaper Works began on the banks of the Chicago River in 1847. Though he might not have known it, McCormick’s invention would be the second part of a one-two punch through Illinois which was changing the face of farming forever.

John Deere had recently started producing steel plows in northwestern Illinois, allowing farmers in the Midwest to plow up more land and plant more crops. Having plowed and planted more land, farmers now had to solve the problem of how to harvest this much larger bounty. The labor-intensive planting had been made easier, but the labor-intensive harvesting had not. Some farmers who could not bring in their full crop before it spoiled would let their livestock loose into their fields to eat the unharvested grain before it went bad.

McCormick had the answer and he set to work immediately. He built a four-story factory in Chicago for the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. A writer for the Chicago Daily Journal was awestruck by the impressive new machinery in the factory.

“Shafts plunge, cylinders revolve, bellows heave, iron is twisted into screws like wax, and saws dash off at a rate of forty pounds a second, at one movement of its mighty muscles,” he wrote.

In a short time McCormick’s Reaper Works were among the city’s largest employers, with 120 workers.

McCormick’s reaper was a hit. On average it could cut down about 1.5 acres per hour or 10 acres in a day, about five times more than a person on foot could do. Production and sales soared. The results were clear: Illinois became the nation’s leading grain-producing state by the outbreak of the Civil War. By then Chicago had deposed a pair of port cities near the Russian steppes to become the leading grain port on Earth.

The abundance of the farms produced profits not only for the farmers who could now bring in record crops, but also for the railroads which shipped the grain to markets, the elevators and warehouses which stored it, and, of course, the farm implement manufacturer who produced the machines that were playing such an important part in feeding a fast-growing state and nation.

McCormick rode the wave and stayed atop by a series of smart business decisions. He sold his reapers for $120, no haggling or negotiating. But he also allowed farmers to purchase the equipment on an installment plan and even offered extensions for tough seasons. He also provided a full money-back guarantee if the product did not meet expectations. Today these sorts of sales practices are common. In McCormick’s day they seemed almost radical.

His sales strategy helped McCormick overcome the challenges posed by a number of similar products then hitting markets. He also was aided by a bit of good luck. Traveling to a world’s fair in London McCormick had the chance to demonstrate his product alongside a competitor: his product worked, the other failed.

McCormick’s companies would be tied up in litigation from competitors for decades, including an especially aggressive challenge from another Illinoisan, John Manny of Rockford, with whom McCormick tangled in an 1850s lawsuit over alleged patent infringement. When it initially appeared that the case would be heard in Springfield, Manny hired a local attorney named Abraham Lincoln to be part of his team, but when the trial was moved to Cincinnati Lincoln was pushed out in favor of more sophisticated eastern lawyers. McCormick could not stand Lincoln, opposing him for the rest of his life.

McCormick lost the case and paid a settlement to Manny, then went right back to producing his reapers, which were selling as fast as his reaper works could make them.

Cyrus McCormick
Cyrus McCormick soon earned the nickname “The Reaper King” for the widespread popularity of his product. His fame was international, selling a quarter of a million machines in Europe, and investing the returns in railroads in the United States and mines in South America. One British newspaper called the reaper, “the most valuable contribution from abroad, to the stock of our previous knowledge, that we have yet discovered.” The French Academy of Sciences would honor him as “having done more for the cause of agriculture than any other living man.”

As the railroads expanded west from Chicago to every little town on the plains, the idea of the traveling salesman became common, with McCormick once again in the lead. McCormick’s salesmen crisscrossed the plains giving demonstrations of how easy the machine was to assemble and maintain.

Next to McCormick’s riverside factory were built a dozen massive grain elevators to hold the bounty of the prairie which his machines made possible. These elevators, which could hold up to 700,000 bushels of wheat, were the tallest structures in Chicago for a time and were often the first glimpse of the city for arriving rail passengers.

As the city grew and developed, the land on the riverfront near the McCormick works became a burgeoning business district for commodities flowing into and out of the city. Near the grain elevators stood a massive lumberyard for wood products coming down from Wisconsin intended for quick construction in the fast-growing city.

This accumulation of grain and wood in a small space led to disaster on the night of October 8, 1871, when fire swept the city, taking with it the grain, the lumber, the adjacent railyard and the factory. McCormick and his family had barely escaped the conflagration with their lives. Their business was destroyed.

McCormick was not to be deterred, even by a fire which had turned most of the great city to ashes. He immediately announced that a new factory, bigger and better than ever, would be built in Chicago, and that he, now in his 60s, would personally supervise the construction. The new factory opened less than two years later.

Gradually the Reaper King’s health declined and he handed off more and more of the business responsibilities to his brothers and his son. He was paralyzed by a stroke in 1882.

Cyrus McCormick died on May 13, 1884, at age 75. By the time he died his company was producing and selling around 150,000 mechanical reapers a year, most of them made of steel. Never one to rest, his last words were said to have been “work, work!”

Photo from the Chicago Historical Society 

McCormick’s company merged with a J.P. Morgan firm to create the International Harvester company in 1902, now more commonly known as CaseIH. Members of the McCormick family remained in the company’s leadership into the 21st century.

That company’s trademark red tractors and other machinery are a nod to the 1840s when McCormick’s bright red harvesters first rolled out of a Chicago factory to help feed the world.