The Furrow Autumn 2001/Winter 2002
|"Shaking Off the Shackles of Manual Toil" - The Story of the Binder|
|Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4|
About 1905 an Illinois farmer commented that when he first began farming, "it took ten men to cut and bind my grain. Now our hired girl gets on the seat of a self-binder and does the whole business."
On July 7, 2001 Howell Farm farmer Halsey Genung cut the Farm's winter wheat using a McCormick-Deering binder similar to the one described by the Illinois farmer a century earlier. The binder Genung used was a type of machine that had revolutionized wheat harvesting and was a centerpiece in the mechanization of farming in general. The story of the development of the binder contains a number of elements that illuminate Howell Farm's interpretation of farming at the turn of the 20th century.
The story of the binder starts with the story of wheat. The cycle of wheat production involves a number of operations: preparing the ground, planting the seed, helping the crop grow, cutting the ripe plants, binding the wheat stalks into sheaves, stacking the sheaves into shocks in the field, bringing in the sheaves to the barn, separating out the grain (threshing), and finally grinding the grain into flour.
Before the advent of the binder, two of these steps -- cutting the wheat and tying it into sheaves -- have been described as involving some of the most laborious and tedious work a farmer did, one job the farm family could not do without hiring or exchanging labor. Inventions seeking to make this work more efficient and less backbreaking date from at least Roman times, but up until the mid-nineteenth century nothing worked well enough to provide widespread and permanent relief.
For almost ten millennia technology virtually stood still. From the earliest days of agriculture about 10,000 years ago until the late 1700s farmers harvested wheat by stooping down, gathering, and cutting a handful of wheat at a time with a short handled sickle.
The cutting blade improved from using pieces of chipped stone to metal but not much changed otherwise. The cut grain was raked into sheaves (bundles) that were tied together using several stalks of wheat twisted together. Ten or twelve sheaves were then leaned against each other, heads up, in arrangements called shocks. By shocking the wheat, the farmer created a field storage system that promoted further drying while protecting against the effects of wind and rain, which sometimes caused the wheat to "lodge" (to go down). Later the shocks were taken apart and the sheaves collected for threshing. Using this method a farmer could only harvest up to an acre each day and the work required constant stooping.
The scythe, essentially a long handled, longer bladed sickle used for mowing hay, was not suitable for harvesting grain because the grain head often shattered as the stalk of grain fell, resulting in losses. However, in the late 18th century a cradle of four or five long fingers was attached to the scythe to catch falling stalks and allow the worker to lay them on the ground in neat piles that could then be raked into sheaves.
Using this cradle-scythe, or cradle, the farmer could stand up to cut the grain, although there was still stoop work to do to rake and bind up the sheaves. Now a single farmer could cut two or three acres each day. But additional workers were needed to rake, tie sheaves and shock the wheat.
Both sickle and scythe were used well into the 19th century. The big breakthrough in mechanization came in the 1830s with the work of Cyrus McCormick and Obed Hussey who independently invented horse-drawn machines that cut wheat stalks close to the ground using a cutting bar powered by one of the machine's wheels.
Once cut by the knives on the bar, stalks fell onto a wooden deck and
then were automatically swept off to the ground, forming a continuous
machines became generally available about 1850. A farmer could now ride
a reaper and cut his grain. But, he still needed laborers to rake and
tie it in sheaves and build shocks. The reaper only did part of the
process automatically but the number of workers needed was dramatically
reduced. For cutting the grain the farmer had progressed from stooping,
to standing, to riding but all that really tedious and painful raking
and tying by children, wives, and hired hands was still there.
|Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4|
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2001 and Winter 2002 editions of The Furrow, the quarterly newsletter published by the Friends of Howell Living History Farm. The contents are © 2001, 2002 The Friends of Howell Living History Farm.