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Wisconsin Historical Society Whi58739. Used With Permission.
Romance of the Reaper
This production still is from the 1937 Fox Hearst film “Romance of the Reaper,” which was produced by International Harvester to celebrate the McCormick reaper’s centennial. The scene is a re-creation of the first reaper test.
The rolling hills and valleys of western Virginia today feel far removed from large-scale industrial agriculture.
But in the mid-19th century the region contributed heavily to feeding the still-new United States of America, serving as the highest grain-producing region in one of the highest grain-producing states.
And, the Valley of Virginia produced in that era a man who would forever leave a mark on American agriculture and business in general: Cyrus McCormick.
His invention of the reaper dramatically changed food production around the world. It represented the first major advance in grain-harvesting technology since the scythe came along to supplement the sickle. Farmers have only a small window – 10 days or so – in which to harvest their grain for the year. With a sickle, a person could harvest about half an acre of grain in a day. In one of his first field exhibitions of the reaper, McCormick harvested six acres in an afternoon.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that the invention of the reaper there in 1831 was the beginning of the agricultural industrial revolution,” says Jay Gilliam, who lives near Walnut Grove in Raphine, Virginia, and who has researched McCormick. “It changed the world in many many ways.”
McCormick did much more than invent a farm tool. He revolutionized agriculture worldwide, drove the growth of the U.S. as a world power, contributed to the emergence of Chicago as a major city, pioneered business practices that today are standard protocol, and influenced the outcome of the Civil War.
He was born in 1809, the year the presidency passed from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, from one Virginian to another. McCormick’s family came from the Irish province of Ulster, joining the great wave of Scots Irish landing at Philadelphia and then traveling down the Great Wagon Road to the Valley of Virginia and points south.
“All these people were streaming into the valley bringing culture with them, and that includes agriculture,” says Kenneth Koons, history professor at Virginia Military Institute. “Their agriculture is what we call general mixed farming. They grew lots of different crops and kept on their farms lots of different livestock...The idea is that they’re trying to be self-sufficient, if not at the individual household level, then at least at the neighborhood level.”
Cyrus came in the fourth generation of American McCormicks. His father Robert invented things too, tinkering constantly in his blacksmith’s shop. In fact Robert conducted a fair bit of work on his own mechanical reaper before giving up and turning it over in 1831 to Cyrus and Jo Anderson, a slave who was brought up as his companion. Cyrus McCormick successfully demonstrated the new version later that year.