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The Grain Harvester
and the
Kalamazoo Connection

by Larry L. Coin

Cyrus McCormickAmerican history books credit Cyrus McCormick with inventing the reaper, linking him with the likes of Eli Whitney and Thomas Edison as the men who led the way to America's industrial progress.

That's not the whole story as far as the residents of Climax, Michigan, a small town in Kalamazoo County, are concerned. They think they know better and in Climax, Cyrus McCormick is a bad word….as welcome as a big dose of caster oil.

In Climax, the story goes like this. Hiram Moore, one of the village's founders in eastern Kalamazoo County, did all of the work and McCormick, by hook or by crook, took all the credit, wealth and fame.

Moore missed fame and fortune by only a few years. He failed principally because he attempted to combine the reaper and the thresher at a time when neither of these machines had been perfected.

That might be true. But the provincial feelings around Climax are that McCormick's tactics weren't exactly above board either. Each time, Moore drew a set of blueprints for a part of the machine and sent it to a New York foundry, McCormick somehow always came up with a copy. In effect, he beat Moore to the patent office with Moore's own concepts. Moore's machine was more complex, while McCormick was just interested in the reaping parts.

Hiram Moore didn't take it lying down. He started a lawsuit and the bitter legal fight cost McCormick some $40,000. That may not be much money now but in the 1840's, that was one heck of a lot of money.

Moore's first patent on the combine was issued June 28, 1836. At the start, John Hascall, another Kalamazoo pioneer who shared in the patent rights, backed him financially. Before the machine was finally abandoned as a failure, Lucius Lyon, Michigan's first U.S. Senator had invested considerable money in it.

Hiram's combine machine successfully cut and threshed grain in Prairie Ronde Township, Kalamazoo County, in 1839 and furnished valuable experimental data upon which other men later built commercially successful machines. His machine was the first to combine a fanning mill. It was a traveling type of threshing machine, designed to harvest as well as thresh. Behind the threshing cylinder was a large sieve upon which the threshed straw fell. The sieve was vibrated in such a way that the straw worked back until it fell on the ground, while the kernels and chaff fell through holes in the sieve. The fan blew the chaff away. The separated kernels were then elevated to the top and fed into bags. Previously, this had been all manual labor.

After watching the machine in operation, Lyon became enthusiastic and he bought Hascall's share of the patent rights. At the height of his optimism, Lyon wrote: "I have no doubt the invention will ultimately prove one of the most important labor-saving inventions ever brought into use."

Moore's machine was pulled by a team of 20 horses and was exceedingly bulky. Its "bull wheel" was 10 feet high and it took a high degree of maneuvering to get the combine turned around. Lyon observed that was one of the reasons it failed.

"A machine to be useful on a farm must be far lighter and more manageable than this one," he wrote. "It is too heavy and unwieldy for the average field, be it large or small, for the machine to ever be introduced into general use."

However, when the machine worked, it was an eye-opener. Despite two "trifling accidents", Moore's machine could handle 20 acres a day "in very superior style." The cost of threshing was $1.00 per acre.

"When the machines are driven with an ordinary degree of care," Lyons wrote, "every grain of wheat is saved, while under the old method nearly one-fifth is lost." The old method also cost $5.00 an acre.

"The machines will work on any ground that is free from large stones and stumps and may be operated by any man of common sense after two day's experience," Lyon said. "It will take money to manufacture and put the machines on the market." And that was the rub. The average wheat farmer couldn't afford such a piece of equipment and the days of cooperative financial efforts had not yet dawned.

Moore's innovations, which some claim were pirated by McCormick, included a new method for throwing the machinery into and out of gear; a new method of standing the wheat shocks up for the sickle or cutter; revolving racks filled with teeth for bringing the grain to the cutter and conveying it to the thresher; and a revolving wire screen for separating threshed wheat from the straw.

But the operation of cutting, threshing and cleaning the grain in the field at one time was so complex and the harvest season, which was the only time for experiments, was so short that six years passed after Moore's patent in trying to perfect the machine to the point that it might be profitably marketed.

Mechanical failures and difficulties prevented the Moore combine from becoming a commercial success. However, a few of them were built and put to work in the wheat fields of Schoolcraft, Michigan. Some were sold and shipped around South America to the West Coast for the huge California fields where they remained in operation for several years.

In 1844, Lyon, then in Washington, wrote to his partner, Hiram Moore, and reported on harvester patents, which had been issued to various inventors, including Mr. McCormick. Lyon said that Moore "had been anticipated in some of his improvements." The bitter legal fight over patent claims ensued.

One day in October 1852, a stranger drove from Battle Creek, Michigan to Climax and requested to look at the Moore Harvester. After spending about an hour checking it over and taking notes, he was asked what he thought of it. "It is a wonderful machine," said he, "and it does the most work with the least gearing of any machine I ever saw. I think McCormick must have seen this machine before ever he invented a reaper." "Why so," he was asked, "Well, I will be candid with you. I am the foreman of Mr. McCormick's machine shops in Chicago. He has had several costly suits with Seymour & Morgan at Albany and got beat every time by this harvester. Now he has sued again in the same court and the suit comes off in November. I have come expressly from Chicago to see if the bone of contention is in this old harvester and, by thunder, there it is and a much better one than in either of them." He then pointed to the divider, which separated the cut from the standing grain. "Now," said he, "there is not a single important part of a reaper, or a threshing machine either, so far as I can judge, but can be found in this harvester. That is why I think McCormick saw it before he invented a reaper."

Moore died May 5, 1875, at the age of 74 after waging a long battle with McCormick over patent rights. The governor of Michigan and Michigan State Legislators fought with Congress and the U.S. Patent Office on Moore's behalf, but the man who settled Climax lost the battle and moved to Wisconsin.

Moore's machine that was developed in Kalamazoo County was the forerunner of today's modern combine and was nearly 100 years ahead of its time. Patents for threshers had been granted, but none of the inventions combined cutting, separating, cleaning and bagging all into one operation. Oddly, the modern combine came out of California and moved eastward, becoming an important Michigan farm tool 100 years later.

As far as anyone knows, there is nothing left of the original Moore combine or even parts of it. The closest thing would be a working miniature model made by a group of Climax citizens. That model now is in the hands of the Agricultural Engineering Department at Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

- end -

March 15-16, 2008
March 21-22, 2009

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