Episode 103: The Grain Reaper

Written, Produced, and Edited by Connor Pope and Broc Miller

Podcast Script

The Erie Canal was an impressive engineering venture by the United States from 1817 to 1825. Prior to the beginning of its construction in 1817, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Alexander von Humboldt, a prominent naturalist of the nineteenth century, and noted, “The most gigantic undertaking yet proposed, is that of New York, for drawing the waters of Lake Erie into the Hudson. The distance is 353 miles, and the height to be surmounted 661 feet. The expense will be great, but its effect incalculably powerful of the Atlantic States.” [8] When Jefferson and many others attempted to forsee the impacts the Erie Canal would have on American society, most noted such a manipulation of nature would act as a tool of public improvement, particularly to the states of the eastern seaboard. However, the construction of the canal and the invention of the McCormick wheat reaper actually forced the Atlantic States, particularly upstate New York, to undergo a massive agricultural transition from wheat production to the farming and production of perishable products. This agricultural transition continues to display lasting societal impacts, particularly in the relationships humans form with nature.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baron Alexander von Humboldt, 1817 [1]

To begin, one of the earliest impacts of the construction of the Erie Canal was a decrease in freight costs from moving tonnage to the East Coast. In fact, such price decreases were often dramatic: “The cost per ton-mile of moving freight from Buffalo to New York in 1817, before the Erie Canal was opened, was 19.12 cents. The average over the Erie Canal for the 1857-1860 period was 0.81 cents.” [4] At first, the farmers in upstate New York benefited from such price decreases, as they were able to improve profit margins on products shipped to the metropolitan centers of the East Coast. However, inexpensive transportation was one of many drivers of westward expansion, and such decreases in freight costs allowed grain farmers in the West to be competitive with the farmers of upstate New York. Thus, wheat production began to move westward:

“New York and Pennsylvania were the leading wheat-producing states during the first quarter of the nineteenth century. But during this period wheat production was shifting westward in those two states. By the 1830s Ohio had become an important producer of wheat, and wheat and wheat flour began to move eastward through the Erie Canal upon its opening in 1825. Wheat production continued to move westward north of the Ohio River in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1860 the five states of the Old Northwest (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) were supplying about one-half of the wheat produced in the United States. Wheat had become the leading cash crop in the Old Northwest.” [6]

Despite major decreases in freight cost in the years just following the completion of the Erie Canal, the westward movement of wheat production appeared to progress slowly. For instance, the tonnage over the Erie Canal from western states actually decreased by approximately 1% (308,025 to 304,551 tons) and from New York increased by a more significant 33% (491,791 to 655,039 tons) between the years of 1844-1845. [9] This was almost twenty years after the Erie Canal had been completed! Clearly, there was still a major impediment to the cultivation of the West that the construction of the Erie Canal was unable to overcome. In the eyes of Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the wheat reaper, this impediment was labor.

Tonnage Over Erie Canal to Tidewater from Western States and from New York: 1836-1860 [9]

Cyrus McCormick began to manufacture reapers in Brockport, New York in 1845, a period when most farming west of the state of Ohio was primarily subsistence-based. However, by 1846, he began to receive orders for reapers west of Cincinnati. McCormick was intrigued by a friend who asked him, “Cyrus, why don’t you go West with your Reaper, where the land is level and labor is scarce?” [5] Thus, McCormick decided to visit the the city of Chicago:

“For the first time he saw the prairies. So vast, so flat, so fertile, these boundless plains amazed him. And he was quick to see that this great land ocean was the natural home of the Reaper. The West must, accept his new machine. Already the West was in desperate need of a quicker way to cut grain. As McCormick rode through Illinois, he saw the most convincing argument in favor of his Reaper. He saw hogs and cattle turned into fields of ripe wheat, for lack of laborers to gather it in. The fertile soil had given Illinois five million bushels of wheat, and it was too much. It was more than the sickle and the scythe could cut. Men toiled and sweltered to save the yellow affluence from destruction. They worked by day and by night; and their wives and children worked. But the tragic aspect of the grain crop is this: it must be gathered quickly or it breaks down and decays. It will not wait. The harvest season lasts from four to ten days only. And whoever cannot snatch his grain from the field during this short period must lose it.” [5]

Thus, without access to agricultural technology like the reaper, farmers quickly realized the vast and unpopulated land of the West was only as valuable as the labor force, and this often led to poor yields. Due to Chicago’s advantageous geographical location on Lake Michigan, McCormick decided to move his reaper factory to this city in 1847, an event that allowed for the development of the West into an agricultural empire. For instance, the tonnage over the Erie Canal from New York increased by only 3% (600,440 to 818,412 tons) and western states increased by a more drastic 60% (506,830 to 812,840 tons) between the years of 1846-1847. [9] The stark differences between these statistics and those presented before the movement of the reaper to Chicago suggest McCormick’s reaper finally gave the West the advantage over Western New York in regard to extensive agriculture. The mechanization of agriculture through the incorporation of the reaper decreased the labor required to yield a maximum harvest.

Varnished Color Lithograph, 1882 [2]

Engraving of the McCormick Reaper Works, 1867 [3]

To understand why this event gave the West an advantage for extensive agriculture, it is important to look to the work of Johann Heinrich von Thünen, a prominent economist of nineteenth century Germany. He published his theory of the Isolated State in 1826, in which he argued the distance from a metropolitan market dictates what crops are grown. The nature of wheat and other durable crops as products of extensive agriculture allowed such crops to be more successful farther away from densely populated centers. In comparison, intensive agriculture of perishable products, like fruits and dairy, had to be located closer to the market, as moving production away from the city center would lead to greater waste than profit. This concept can be directly applied through the agricultural transition of the United States following the completion of the Erie Canal and the movement of McCormick’s wheat reapers to Chicago. While the canal decreased the time required to transport products to the East Coast, the reaper allowed for the mechanization required to reap the benefits of the vast fertile prairies. Similarly, the movement of McCormick’s reaper to Chicago catalyzed the agricultural transition of New York:

“By the 1850s farmers in the Northeast had been largely forced out of the commercial production of wheat and corn. The shipment of cheap grain from the Northwest via the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal brought this about. And through competition from western farmers, eastern farmers were slowly losing their markets. But their proximity to market saved the eastern farmers in the production of perishable products such as fluid milk, cheese and butter, poultry products, and vegetables. Thus by 1860 agriculture in the New England and Middle Atlantic states had become highly specialized.” [6]

von Thünen’s Isolated State [7]

Therefore, while the Erie Canal and the reaper allowed for the westward expansion of wheat production, they also forced Eastern States to adapt to the competition of the West, and the most profitable option was through production of perishable products and intensive agriculture. Of important note was the monumental increase in butter and cheese production during New York’s transition. For instance, production of cheese increased by approximately 80% (2,759,928 to 4,973,165 pounds) and butter increased by approximately 37% (3,397,690 to 4,658,427 pounds) in Western New York from 1846 to 1847, the same time period McCormick moved production of his reaper from Western New York to Chicago. This is of great importance because increased production of dairy products, and subsequent increased consumption of such products, has had significant environmental and societal impacts. In comparison to extensive products like wheat, dairy products require substantial quantities of inputs, especially water and cow feed. Today, dairy products are an almost omnipresent component of the typical American diet, something that would not have been attainable without the specialization of New York farmers following the construction of the Erie Canal.

The von Thünian implication of wheat’s success in the West was not shared by everyone. In particular, this idea clashed with the Frontier Thesis of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who believed American expansion was driven by settlement. In other words, the Turnerian model suggests the success of wheat in the West was simply the next stage in the economic development of the United States. Turner’s Frontier Thesis delineates the supposed stages involved in the development of the frontier:

“The Frontier begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegra­tion of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civiliza­tion; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and  nally the manufacturing organization with city and fac­tory system.” [7]

In other words, von Thünen argues frontier growth is the result of an expanding city, whereas Turner believes growth of the frontier follows a fixed evolutionary pathway, ultimately leading to the development of an organized city. This distinction is especially important when observing the growth of Chicago following the completion of the Erie Canal: Was Chicago the result of a natural evolution of the West, or was the development of Chicago the result of the Erie Canal increasing the extensive agricultural zone of the East Coast metropolis? Clearly, the latter, consistent with the ideas of von Thünen, better describes the westward expansion of the United States, as the development of cities throughout the West, the mechanization of farming practices, and the improvement of the state of transportation in the United States are inseparable.

The Erie canal and the ensuing mechanization of farming, like Cyrus McCormick’s wheat reaper, revolutionized the nature and geography of agriculture in the United States. This can be seen in the expansion of extensive agriculture into the West and the subsequent transition of New York and other Eastern States to relying on intensive agriculture and the production of perishable goods. A road trip from Ohio to Iowa demonstrates the vast monocultures of extensive crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans, whereas a road trip through the state of New York demonstrates the significant roles intensive agriculture and creameries have local economies. All things considered, while Thomas Jefferson was correct in noting the impacts of the Erie Canal would be “incalculably powerful” to the Atlantic States, he failed to anticipate the impending agricultural transformation that would remake the entirety of the United States.

To learn more about the topics discussed, visit:

Primary Source Credits

[1] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Baron von Humboldt (1817) Provided by the Library of Congress

[2] Varnished Color Lithograph Advertisement for the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. Provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society (1882)

[3] Engraving of the McCormick Reaper Works Works Provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society (1867)

Works Cited

[4] Barton, James L. Commerce of the Lakes. Buffalo, NY: Press of Jewett, 1847.

[5] Casson, Herbert Newton. Cyrus Hall McCormick: His Life and Work. Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg, 1909.

[6] Cochrane, Willard W. The Development of American Agriculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

[7] Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1991.

[8] Jefferson, Thomas, and H. A. Washington. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Philadelphia, PA: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1869.

[9] North, Douglas C. The Economic Growth of United States 1790-1860. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1961.

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