The Champion No. 4 Combined Mower and Self-Raking Reaper: A Restoration
by Charles Brookover
Some people like to restore sports cars, I’d rather work on farm equipment. The progression of farm technology and the way implements are constructed is as interesting to me as how they function. My position as a historic farmer at Slate Run Living Historical Farm, a 1880s living history farm near Columbus, Ohio, provides an outlet to explore the construction methods of late 19th Century farm implements. The 19th century was an astounding decade of rapid transformation of agricultural tools and the companies that made them. Agricultural historian R. Douglas Hurt in his book, American Farm Tools (1982), writes “By the turn of the twentieth century… someone born at the end of the War of 1812 could have been able to recount harvesting wheat with a sickle, cradle, reaper, and a binder. One could recall threshing the crop with a flail and separator as well as turning a furrow with wooden, steel, and a sulky plow.” [Hurt, Douglas R. American Farm Tools, Journal of the West Inc., 1989, pg. 6.]
At Slate Run a month or two during the winter is often set aside for staff and volunteers to work on restoring a farm implement in our collection. Often, these tools are put in operation for visitors to view during the year and add a new level of interpretation to the farm.
The farm’s approach to restoration is three-fold. First documentation. Like a museum conservator the farm has an obligation to document the process of restoration with measurements, photos, research and documentation. This approach provides a reference point throughout the process as well as evidence of original details. Second is accuracy. In order to fulfill the goals of the site we strive hard to salvage or reconstruct original hardware, use the same wood as the original, as well as paint, stripe, and stencil the implement to its original colors and designs. Finally, usability is required. The value in farm implements for us is in demonstrating their use. The ability of visitors to see a 19th century tool in use can open up a conversation of agriculture and technology. Since most farm implements from the late 19th century were constructed largely of wood many items purchased at sale are in poor condition from years of use and decay. Farm implements from this time period in good condition do not belong at Slate Run but rather at a agricultural exhibit or museum. Therefore, we often purchase tools that are better suited as patterns than museum artifacts.
The project for the winter of 2010 was a Champion No. 4 mower made sometime around 1878 by the Champion Machine Works of Springfield, Ohio. The Champion mower was donated to Slate Run in November of 2010 and was determined a good candidate for restoration that winter. The machine was designed primarily as a mower yet for an additional charge a reaping attachment could be added. Unfortunately the donated mower had only a few parts of the reaping attachment intact.
The mower was in remarkably good condition for its age. Typical wear areas such as the cutter bar, gearing, etc. were very minimal. After cleaning dirt from gears and oiling, we put the machine on blocks and found that none of the parts were frozen and everything moved. Staff assessed the mower and it was determined that most of the metal parts (save a few nuts and bolts) were restorable. The wood parts including the deck, foot platform, toolbox, and swath board were in need of rebuilding. Enough of the wood was intact that these pieces were used to obtain accurate patterns.
William Whiteley founded the Champion Reaper and Mower Works in Springfield, Ohio in 1855. Growing up on a farm outside of Springfield, Whiteley’s interest and ability in machine design and operation led him to experiment with reaping machines. At age 22 Whitley entered a local trial of reaping machines and demonstrated a superb machine in the field. Turning down offers to sell the patent of his machine he entered into business with Jerome Fassler and O.S. Kelley to finance production of his Champion Reaper. With the outbreak of the Civil War the demands for farm machinery increased and the Champion Company blossomed. The company eventually went head to head with another Springfield firm: Warder, Bushnell, Glessner, & Co. who also made mowers. The two companies eventually merged. By the 1870s the company was one of largest manufactories of its type in the nation. Competing only with Chicago in size of operations. A company brochure from 1877 entitled Champion Harvesting Machines states that the company was being run by three firms being the Warder, Mitchell & Co. supplying the North Western states from their sales office in Chicago as well as the European Market, Michigan, Northern Ohio, Indiana, Western Pennsylvania, and New York. The firm of Whiteley, Fassler & Kelly sold to the Middle & Eastern states from their branch houses in Baltimore, MD and Schenectady, NY and the Champion Machine Co. sold to the Southern & Western states from their offices in Cincinnati, St. Louis, & Kansas City. [Champion Machine Works publication-Champion Harvesting Machines, 1877]
By 1877 the company was selling three major designs including the No. 4 Combined Reapers & Mowers, Single Mowers, & the No. 1 Single Reaper. The Combined Reapers & Mowers were either “self-rakers” (a sweeping arm on a platform brushing grain into a pile after being cut) or “droppers” (cuts and drops), however, these attachments could be removed and they could be used as a single mower. The single mowers were for grass cutting and the single reapers were for grain only. All of the machinery produced for the firm was manufactured exclusively in Springfield, Ohio. Supporting companies The Champion Bar & Knife Co. and The Champion Malleable Iron Foundry were also located in Springfield.
The above image show the No. 4 Champion as a mower (top) and with reaping attachment (bottom).
The company changed in the early 1880s as U.S. settlement moved further west. Springfield, once a western city, found itself competing more strenuously with Chicago’s agricultural implement companies and distribution system. Chicago bore a great advantage through rail and boat lines. Whiteley’s solution was to create a factory that would outsize the rest. As one historian wrote, “To build a shop so huge and produce reapers so efficiently that it would more than counter Chicago’s geographical advantage.” [Stafford, Tom City’s industrial crown jewel burns, Springfield News-Sun. Dec. 7, 1999, pg 22] The factory would eventually increase in size to more than 1 million sq. feet giving Springfield the name “Champion City.” Although set back by huge expenditures, the factory when completed was producing in a single place — from raw materials to finished product — the Champion line.
The new Champion works completed in 1884, was second in size only to the Krupp Agricultural Works in Germany, whose factory produced more than $4 million worth of machinery that year. By 1887, Champion was one of the most profitable companies in America… when it collapsed.
Whiteley had business dealings with E.L. Harper — vice president of the Fidelity National Bank of Cincinnati who had led a “syndicate” that secretly tried to corner the wheat market on the Chicago Board of Trade. Using a strategy to keep the price of wheat high by filling all the storage area certified by the Board of Trade, they made millions until the corner collapsed and the price of wheat tumbled 20 cents a bushel in two days. Trading houses went bankrupt, Fidelity National Bank failed, and Harper went to jail for 10 years. Creditors targeted Whiteley, who had signed some of Harper’s papers, in their collection efforts. Combined with tightening restrictions and pressure from the Knights of Labor ultimately the company caved under pressure. [Stafford, Tom City’s industrial crown jewel burns, Springfield News-Sun. Dec. 7, 1999, pg 23] After the fallout of 1887 Whiteley’s business partners, the firm of Warder, Bushnell & Glessner, tried to keep the Champion line alive to no avail. The “Harvester Wars” of the late 19th century, an era of unprecedented rivalry between competing harvesting companies, ultimately led to the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., Deering Company, Milwaukee Harvesters, Plano Mfg. Co. and Warder, Bushnell & Glessner Co. merger to create the International Harvester Co. in 1902.
Albert Krell, of the Krell-French Piano Company, purchased and remodeled the Champion factory in preparation to begin production of pianos when the factory went up in flames on Feb. 10, 1902. William Whiteley was reportedly seen at the fire scene weeping. Whiteley died in 1911 leaving behind 125 patents in machinery design and methods of manufacturing them.
Restoration of the Champion No. 4 began with researching the company history. Farm staff members made a trip to Clark County Historical Society to inspect their archives for Champion materials. Due to the extensive fire of 1902, factory records were scarce. However, the Clark County archives yielded a few promotional brochures, newspapers (the company produced a newspaper entitled The Champion) and a ledger book belonging to an engineer who had worked with Champion beginning in the mid 1880s.
Likewise, staff visited the Ohio Historical Society archives and special collections to inspect their Champion holdings and came away with two brochures on Champion products.
An article on the Champion mowers and reapers was found in the American Agriculturalist for 1878 that depicted the Champion No. 4 mower in engravings. Research ultimately revealed that the mower donated to the farm was a Champion No. 4 produced by the company in the 1870s. The machine was produced with slight modifications for several years.