“Indomitable perseverance in a business, properly understood, always ensures ultimate success.”—Cyrus McCormick, inventor and industrialist
Walnut Grove does not appear to be a place where much history was made, particularly history that forever changed the face of American agriculture. It is a peaceful farm like so many others in the Great Valley Region of Virginia. There is the big brick farmhouse and a handful of stone and log outbuildings in Walnut Grove, as well as a small mill and a shop with a forge stand just down the hill from the main house.
The buildings are a beautiful example of what farms looked like in the 19th century. It was here that Robert McCormick, with his bride, Mary Ann Hall McCormick, emigrated from Great Britain. In 1809, their son Cyrus was born, the first of eight children.
Robert McCormick was a farmer, but he was also a miller and an inventor. In his forge and shop next to the mill, he worked on some agricultural devices. He successfully created a clover huller, a blacksmith’s bellows, a hydraulic power machine, and other labor-saving devices for the farm.
There was, however, one design that eluded him. He wanted to mechanize the process of harvesting. He had in mind a horse-drawn reaping machine.
A Practical Reaping Machine
In the first half of the 19th century, harvesting grain was still done by manual labor. Cutting the stalks and binding the sheaves required an army of laborers. Farmers and their neighbors would come together for the task. It was long and tiring, and it limited the amount of grain a farmer could realistically plant.
Scottish inventor Patrick Bell had built a machine for harvesting grain but never patented it. It was pushed by horses and was cumbersome and impractical. Robert McCormick was aware of this device but worked out some fundamental changes in the design.
Young Cyrus took up tinkering with his father’s design. Though he had little formal education, he loved to work in his father’s shop. With the help of Jo Anderson, a slave on the farm, he made even more changes to the machine.
In just 18 months of serious tinkering, and at the young age of 22, Cyrus had a functional reaping machine. The year was 1831, and McCormick gathered friends and neighbors in the village of Steele’s Tavern for the first public demonstration of his labor-saving device.
The neighbors must have scratched their heads as the younger McCormick hitched up the strange-looking device. It looked like a huge sled with machinery piled on top. There was a cutting blade and a rotating device to hold the stalks to be cut. Surely, there was skepticism and some outright laughter—until the machine started moving.
At first, Cyrus built a few more of the machines and sold them to local farmers. He applied for a patent in 1834. Then, he set the reaper aside to focus on running his father’s iron foundry. That business failed in the panic of 1837, leaving the family deeply in debt. It was then that Cyrus returned to the reaper.
He set up a small production facility in one of his father’s shops, and by 1841 he was producing the machine for sale. He noticed that orders were coming in from the west, where the vast flatlands, largely free of rocks, allowed for acres of crops to be planted and harvested.
In 1847, convinced that the future of agriculture lay in the fertile fields of the Midwest, Cyrus and his brother Leander opened the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company in Chicago, Illinois. In their first year in business they sold 800 of the machines.
In 1851, the reaper won the gold medal at the Great Exposition in London’s Crystal Palace, the first great world’s fair. The machine, with continual improvements, revolutionized agriculture around the world. The factory was destroyed in the great Chicago fire, but the family rebuilt it. Eventually, it would become International Harvester—and it all began in the inauspicious shops at Walnut Grove.
Today, you can still see the shop and forge where the McCormick family wrestled with the design of their reaper. Upstairs from the forge, there is a room containing a full-sized reaper as well as many meticulously crafted models of the reaper and other agricultural devices made by the company.
These particular models were shown at the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Virginia. At that fair, hidden motors powered the little models so that viewers could envision the machines at work. Though they no longer move, they remain an inspiring testimony to American inventiveness and its contribution to the world.