A breakthrough came in 1831 with the development of the first commercial reaper by Cyrus McCormick. The Museum is fortunate to have a replica of the first McCormick reaper in its collection. The replica had originally been given to the Minnesota State Historical Society by International Harvester Company in 1945, when it was placed on display. After that, it languished in a disassembled state in a storeroom of the Minnesota Historical Society. It was given to the Grant County Historical Society if they would reassemble and display it.
At first glance, the replica of McCormick’s first reaper appears crude and clumsy. It is. But it was the beginning of a revolution in agriculture. The reaper is constructed mainly of wood with a minimum of metal gears and shafts. It rests on a single wooden wheel (bull wheel) with metal cleats inset crosswise on the face for traction. On the right side is a short four-foot cutter bar is at the front of a low wooden platform. The right side and the rear platform are supported by wooden skids (runners) that dragged on the ground. The reaper was pulled by a single horse hitched ahead of the bull wheel. The offset arrangement keeps the horse walking in the cut stubble instead of trampling the standing grain. Power is supplied by the bull wheel as the reaper moves, transferred through gears and shafts to drive a rapidly reciprocating cutter or sickle (in appearance, the cutter appears to have been derived from a wood saw blade). The cutter moves back and forth horizontally between guard teeth at the front of the reaper platform. A belt from the bull wheel runs a light reel with wooden slats that press the grain stalks against the cutter bar. The grain stalks fall onto the wooden platform as they are cut. In operation, one farmhand would drive the horse, while a second had the easy job of walking alongside raking the cut grain stalks off the platform into neat piles ready to be bound into bundles.
The plaque on the reaper states that under ideal conditions, it could cut an acre of oats in 22 minutes. A farmhand with a scythe would have taken half a day. The time is probably at a demonstration. Sustained cutting probably would have been slower, but cutting 10 acres a day would be reasonable – with a horse doing the hard work. This was a sort of miracle. The amount of cropland that was planted had been limited by how much grain could be harvested in the limited available time in the fall. The introduction of the reaper eliminated this bottleneck. Looking ahead to the grain binder, there are further refinements and innovations, but the basic operating principles of the old reaper are there.
McNamara, Robert. Invention of the McCormick Reaper: Cyrus McCormick's mechanical harvester increased farm production https://www.thoughtco.com/mccormick-reaper-1773393
Grant County Historical Society vertical files.
By Don McCollor. October 2022
Photos by Linda Westrom