IDAHO HISTORY: Harvesting machines became ever more efficient

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANDecember 15, 2013 

As more and more Idaho farmland came under cultivation through the clearing of sagebrush and the development of irrigation systems, more farmers were in need of agricultural machinery.

The 19th century saw a dramatic increase in agricultural productivity due to the use of machines. The invention of reapers and mowers meant that one man and a team of horses could harvest more grain in a day than a hundred men with sickles or scythes could, and when self-binders came into production, more back-breaking hand labor was eliminated.

In June 1881, the Idaho Statesman took note of the impact of invention on agriculture when it reported: “Farm Machinery — Danskin Bros. have a large supply of reapers, mowers, horse rakes, and other farming implements, but the most attractive machine, and one that has taxed the ingenuity of inventors for many years, is a self-binder, which stands in the street on the west side of their store. This machine is simple in its construction, and is managed solely by the driver, and saves all the work of the binders who are compelled to follow a reaper that only cuts the grain. All you have to do is follow the machine and gather the bundles of wheat. Farmers will do well to look after this labor saving device.”

The first self-binder, invented in 1874 by Charles Withington, used wire to bind the bundles of grain, but bits of wire that got mixed with the straw or grain could prove fatal to animals that swallowed them. The wire also cut the hands of men picking up the bundles. The twine self-binder soon followed and was a decided improvement; by 1880, manufacturer William Deering was selling 3,000 a year. The machine’s inventor, William Appleby, collected royalties from all of the companies that made and sold them.

The Complete Harvester was the logical next step, and one that was to be of enormous importance in the wheat fields of Idaho’s Palouse country. Giant machines, pulled by as many as 40 horses, cut and threshed the grain as it went, separating the grain from the straw and other chaff. It was a far cry from the days when Colonial farmers did the separating by walking animals back and forth over hand-cut grain on a wooden threshing floor, or did the exhausting work of pounding it by hand with a wooden flail.

It was then winnowed by tossing it up into the air to let the wind blow away the chaff. All of this was hard manual labor, and not very efficient.

The next step, already begun in Idaho in the 1870s, was replacing horses and mules with engines, first powered by steam, and eventually, in the 20th century, with gasoline and diesel tractors.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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