November 1989

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Otis Edsall's Reaper


John Rezelman

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One July day in 1831 Cyrus McCormick drove into a Virginia wheat field, behind one horse, the reaper he had worked on for years in his blacksmith shop. The occasion was the machine's first public trial. Before a group of interested but skeptical observers, it worked! It did what was expected of it. It cut wheat, cleanly and steadily as it moved forward, and dropped it on a platform. A man walking behind with a rake cleared the platform periodically, leaving the cut grain on the ground in bunches, ready for other people who came on after him to tie it into sheaves.

Simple as it seems in retrospect, this was really a world-shaking event. It freed agriculture at last from having to cut grain with a hand-powered sickle or scythe and transferred that hitherto limiting task to the power of a horse by means of a "ground-driven" machine. It ushered in the era of farm machinery operating from a wheel running on the ground, with its consequential much greater abundance of food produced.

On an August day in 1989 a McCormick-Deering reaper pulled by two handsome mules rolled into William Slayton's oat field located on Jim Stewart's Brooklea Farm at Kanona, New York. Before some twenty-odd interested and expectant people, it, too, did what was expected of it. It faced conditions more difficult than Cyrus McCormick might have anticipated—a heavy growth of oats, bent down and crinkled over and filled with thick, heavy new-seeding clover—a harvesting nightmare—but it cut them. It needed no man walking behind; it raked off its platform periodically all by itself, for it was a self-rake reaper, a model developed and perfected from Cyrus's original.

This was not an earth-shaking event, just a very unusual and remarkable one. It did not mark the beginning of any era, only the beginning of this reaper's final trip to the Patterson Inn Museum, where it is now on public display in the Inn's wagon shed. The most remarkable thing about it was that a machine sixty-four years old should still operate just as it was designed to do, when nearly all such implements of its age and category have long ago been junked, broken up for scrap, or rusted and rotted away.

From McCormick's original model of 1831, development and improvement proceeded over the ensuing decades in two separate directions. One direction resulted in the reaper-and-binder, or "binder", as it was commonly called. This cut grain, elevated it over the drive wheel by canvas belts to the knotter, where the machine made it into bundles, tied them automatically with twine and dropped them to the ground. This was by far the more popular direction and, until superseded in mid-twentieth century by the "combine", in combination with the threshing machine, it was long the last word in grain-harvesting procedure.

The other direction produced the self-rake reaper, exactly like the one now at the Patterson Inn. There were no significant changes in this machine from about 1890 until its manufacture ceased in the 1930s, except for the substitution of steel for certain wooden parts. Although its usage became limited compared to the binder, demand for the rake reaper never died out completely as long as it was made. It was preferred in certain special circumstances, as where a crop cut rather green needed extra drying before tying, where easier draft was important, or for export, where simpler design and lighter draft made if preferable to the more complex and heavier binder. It was particularly popular in New York for buckwheat harvest.

Otis and Marjorie Edsall bought one—this very one now at the Inn—when they married and started farming at Thurston in 1925. It was brand-new then. The hilly nature of their farm, Marjorie said, entered into the choice of reaper rather than the more common binder. The fact that it still works today is due to the exceptional care Otis Edsall gave it. It obviously was kept under shelter when not in use, never was mis-used, always kept in repair and adjustment, and never lacked for oil and grease. Even the sheet-steel deck, due to applications of roof paint, has not rusted through. In making some minor repairs, I scraped off nearly an inch of caked grease and dust in places and exposed bright paint, factory-applied, that had probably not seen daylight for over sixty years!

When the time came a few years ago for Marjorie and Shirley Edsall, Otis's survivors, to sell the farm, they wanted to donate this reaper to the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society. The Society wanted it, but had no place to put it at that time. Jim Stewart solved this problem by furnishing temporary storage for it in his barn at Brooklea. Bill and John Treichler hauled it there from Thurston in their truck.

When the Treichlers and I were partially dismantling the machine for transport, at the Edsall farm, I remarked "The way this man took care of things, there's probably its Manual around here somewhere, maybe up on a beam." Tall and agile John Treichler reached high to the top of a beam in the tool shed. From the first spot his hand landed, he retrieved a booklet—"Instructions For Setting Up And Operating The McCormick-Deering Reaper." Otis Edsall had come through again!

In addition to instructions for assembly and maintenance and a list of repair parts, the manual contained advice for fine-tuning the machine's operation under different crop conditions. It was yellowed and brittle, but only a little tattered and hardly stained at all, perfectly legible and susceptible to copying. The original is now in the Patterson Inn archives and a few copies exist, in case they're ever needed.

If you like such things, allow a little extra time when you next visit Patterson Inn to study this machine. See if you admire as much as I do the engineering, rather primitive yet ingenious, simple yet precise, of the mechanism that insures each rake being in just the right position at all times when in motion. And remember, it has now been proven—this thing still works!

© 1989, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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