Wheat Harvest and Reaper Technology at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford (USA)

Updated: Nov 15

Lazy days of summer start for some farmers only after they finish the most stressful time of their year – grain harvest.

2022 wheat harvest at Firestone Farm (Courtesy of The Henry Ford)

Wheat ripeness dictated the timing of harvest historically (and continues to do so today). At Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, you can learn from presenters about the sense of anticipation that coincided with the annual wheat harvest at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, the birthplace of industrialist Harvey Firestone. The interpretive focus – 1886 – allows for use of a self-raking reaper, manufactured by the Johnston Harvester Company, Batavia, New York.

Farmers invested in reapers to reduce the risk at harvest time. Namely, the reaper reduced the human labor required and the time it took to harvest the wheat crop. How long does it take? Economist Leo Rogin explained that cutting grain with a scythe or a grain cradle was the first step in a team process that involved laborers who bound the grain into sheaves and set up those sheaves in a stook so the grain air-cured in preparation for threshing (Rogin, 72). A cradler and binders could cut, bind and stook between ½ acre and 4 acres in one day, with an average closer to 1 and ½ to 2 acres (allowing for many variables including the experience of the team, the condition of the wheat, and the topography of the field) (Rogin, 125-139).

Innovators in Europe and the eastern United States experimented with mechanical harvesters during the early 1830s. Two of these ventures gained distinction as the first – Obed Hussey in Maryland (patent 1833) and Cyrus McCormick in Virginia (patent 1834). Over the next thirty years the number of patents filed for mechanical harvester innovations and the number of reaper manufacturers increased apace. Farmers and jobbers used as many as 200,000 mechanical reapers, each capable of harvesting as much as 10 acres of grain per day, thus replacing five cradlers, by the early 1860s in the United States (Rogin, 78-79, n63 and n64). These mechanical reapers reduced the time and physical labor and seasonal labor costs required to harvest grain crops. Purchasing a reaper increased capital expenditures for farmers, and the machines did not eliminate labor during harvest. This kept inventors focused on reaper improvements.

During the 1860s, innovators such as Samuel Johnston patented revolving arms that raked the cut grain off the reaper table and into a neat pile on the ground. A company history by Sam Moore explains that, in 1868, Samuel Johnston and Byron E. Huntley formed Johnston, Huntley & Co. in Brockport, New York, to make the Johnston Sweepstakes harvester. Two years later, they organized a joint stock company, with Johnston as president and Huntley as secretary-treasurer. Corporate promotion included international development as Huntley made many trips to Europe and set up a branch office in Paris around 1870. In 1871 the firm’s name changed to Johnston Harvester Co., with capital stock of $300,000 (later increased to $500,000). The Johnston Harvester Company operated in Brockport until a June 1882 fire. After June 1882 the company moved to Batavia, New York.

An expanding wheat belt in the United States stimulated domestic production for the Johnston Harvester Company. Ohio, home to the Firestone family, ranked third in wheat production, behind Illinois and Indiana in 1880. The national average wheat yield was 13 bushels per acre. Benjamin Firestone reported that he planted 10 acres of oats (for livestock feed) and 8 acres of wheat (for sale), as documented in the 1880 agricultural census return. Harvesting these grain crops (planted in winter and harvested during midsummer) “constituted the most frantic times of the year for the Firestones” (Cousins).

Farmers in Ohio, including the Firestone family who farmed in Columbiana County, harvested these grains with a mechanical reaper. Research indicates that farmers preferred the ‘Champion’ combined reaper-mower [made by the Champion Reaper and Mower Works, Springfield, Ohio) or the “American Harvester” reaper made in Auburn, New York. “The ‘Buckeye’ reaper, made in Canton, Ohio,….was surely popular in Columbiana County as well.” (Cousins, pg. 22). Dealers used models like this one of a Buckeye reaper, to encourage farmers to buy the costly machines.

An 1876 Johnston Harvester Company trade catalog in The Henry Ford collections illustrates the Johnston Self-Raking reaper.

Cropped image from the 1876 Johnston Harvester Company “Reapers and Mowers” trade catalog, page 13. THF700709. Pages 13 and 14 discuss the merits of the machine. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

The reaper in use at Firestone Farm is a Johnston Harvester Co. self-raking reaper, dated 1878-1900 (Object# 88.340.1).

Johnston Harvester Co. self-raking reaper at work during the 2022 wheat harvest (Courtesy of The Henry Ford)

Peter Cousins, curator of agriculture and lead on the Firestone Farm project, acquired the reaper in 1988, a gift from Benjamin R. Hall. Since the early 1990s, presenters have used this machine to harvest the heritage hard winter wheat variety planted in Firestone farm fields - Turkey Red. This red bearded wheat supports discussion of different species and subspecies (or races) of wheat, each appropriate to different climatic zones. Each wheat yielded a flour with a flavor and glutton suitable for different types of bread. Turkey Red yields a whole grain or whole wheat flour, reddish-brown in color, favored by artisanal bread bakers. Selective breeding of wheat (mostly after 1887) focused on creating smut-resistant and insect-resistant varieties, and varieties that better suited commercial milling (easier removal of bran, and production of white flour).

Tying Sheaves after the wheat harvest (Courtesy of The Henry Ford)

Grain Kernals from the 2022 harvest (Courtesy of The Henry Ford)

Works Cited:

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

Cousins, Peter H. “Tall Timber, Wheat, and Wrinkly Sheep,” The Herald (1985).

Moore, Sam. “Johnston Harvester Company.” Farm Collector (2009).

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

Prepared by:

Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, USA