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Grain Harvesting Technology at The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, USA

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Museum collections contain material culture documenting grain harvesting tools and equipment. The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan, USA, has collected these artifacts for more than 90 years, and the grain harvesting technology spans three-hundred years. The following features some hand-harvesting tools as well as mechanized reapers, a prototype combine, and a representative harvester with interchangeable head designed for smaller farms.

Left: Mathook (THF172257) and scythe (THF32468), two tools that farmers and agricultural laborers used to harvest grains, including wheat, in areas of New York settled by migrants from the Low Countries. From the collections of The Henry Ford.

The first professionally trained curator of agriculture at The Henry Ford, Peter H. Cousins, analyzed all of THFs agricultural collections over his 25 year career (1969-1995). This included hand-tools used in grain harvesting. He published early findings in the pamphlet Hog Plow and Sith (1973), putting both a mathook and scythe (sometimes called a sith) into larger cultural context, and into regional patterns.

Peter Cousins started his career at The Henry Ford at the same time that the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) began. He attended ALHFAM’s founding meeting in 1970, and engaged with others intent on connecting material culture (the sith) to intangible cultural heritage (surviving folk practices). This connected the artifacts to the historic agricultural practices and to living traditions that endure in many locations today.

Herman Vandenbroeck photographed farmers using a mathook and sith in 2018 during the European Year of Cultural Heritage, as part of the photography context, Wiki Loves Heritage in Belgium. License: Herman.vandenbroeck, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Farmers from other cultures, namely, Great Britain, favored different hand-harvesting tools. The Henry Ford has British grain sickles dating from the late-eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century and favored by Anglo-Americans.

Left: Grain Sickle, circa1790, made by Thomas Stainforth, Sheffield, England (THF171813). Right: Grain Sickle, 1800-1840, made by Richard or Thomas Slagg, Great Britain (THF32781). From the collections of The Henry Ford.

Farmers in the wheat belt of the U.S. South (Maryland and Virginia) used a third type of hand-tool, the cradle scythe. Farmers could harvest more wheat in less time with the cradle scythe than with the hand sickle. Thus, farmers abandoned the tool associated with their culture. The cradle scythe became the ubiquitous grain harvesting tool by the mid-nineteenth century.

Cradle scythe, 1830-1850 (THF32423). Cradle scythe, circa 1830 (THF172813). From the collections of The Henry Ford.

Harvesting wheat at optimum ripeness required rapid response. Demand for laborers exceeded supply, and by the 1830s innovators in Maryland (Obed Hussey) and Virginia (Cyrus McCormick) began experimenting with harvesting machinery. THF’s collection includes models of the earliest patented harvesters, archival collections documenting the corporate wrangling over patent infringement, and numerous mechanical reapers. One of them, a Johnston Harvester Company self-raking reaper, dated 1878-1900, cuts the wheat crop each summer at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, the open-air museum at The Henry Ford. You can read more about it here.

Peter Cousins curated artifacts already in THF collections. Collectively the reapers, binders and threshing machines represent the machine-dependent nature of grain farming that already existed by the turn of the twentieth century. Cousins expanded the collection carefully, identifying only those that demarked additional significant change. He acquired the Massey-Harris Model 20 combine in 1975. This was the first commercially successful self-propelled combine made in North America. Peter described it as “the forerunner of all modern grain harvesters.”

Massey-Harris Model 20 Self-Propelled Combine (Serial no. 202 out of 925), 1938 (THF133854). From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Henry L. Oldham.

The Massey Harris Company, Ltd, a Toronto-Canada-based company, released the Model 20 in 1938. You can read more about the machine in the context of changing grain harvesting technology here. It cut, threshed, and cleaned grain while it moved across the field of its own volition. One person drove it, and while others rode the machine to bag grain, or drove trucks or wagons alongside to collect grain from the 60-bushel grain tank, it significantly reduced the labor needed to harvest expansive grain fields.

Massey-Harris Model 20 with Bagger Attachment, at work in a California Field. Source: Higgins Library of Agricultural Technology, University of California-Davis. Print in E.I. 319: Papers of Peter Cousins, Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford. Box 15, Folder 75.131.1.

The American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE) designated the combine an Agricultural Engineering Landmark during an April 1982 Award Ceremony. The ASAE explained that the combine “opened a new era in farm mechanization and revolutionized the grain harvesting process.” The ASAE dignitaries explained that, after 43 years, the Model 20 “continues to be used throughout the world” (as explained on the handout prepared for the April 23, 1982 Award Ceremony).

Works Cited:

  • Peter H. Cousins Papers, Accession E-319. Benson Ford Research Center, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan. Box 14.

  • Cousins, Peter H. Hog Plow and Sith: Cultural Aspects of Early Agricultural Technology. Dearborn, Michigan: Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, 1973.

  • Massey-Harris-Ferguson Collection (1806-1986), Archival and Special Collections Library, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada.

  • Rogin, Leo. The Introduction of Farm Machinery. University of California Press, 1931.

Prepared by Debra Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, USA


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