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.
Documenting photographs were taken of the mower before any work was done to it. Research, light wire brushing and evidence of paint hiding under nuts and bolts revealed that much of the mower was bright orange. Almost the color of construction barrels — it was Champion orange.
In January of 2011 we moved the mower to a heated park maintenance building for disassembly, inspection, and cleaning. The first object was to obtain evidence of paint and striping on all the parts. Most of the mainframe was orange. The wheels, seat bracket, and the gear drive for the reaper attachment were cream with black and orange pin striping. After thorough inspection of the cutter bar, no paint was revealed. Various period sources indicated that it might have been black. The entire piece had been covered in a metal primer that preserved remaining paint on the machine; however, the paint was in poor enough condition that after documenting it was completely stripped. For this process we sent the wheels, gearing, gear housings, seat, and the cutter bar to a local sandblaster for cleaning. All other metal parts were cleaned with wire wheel brushes.
Unlike later mowers, many pre-1880s mowers had numerous wooden parts. Many were made with the gearing exposed and the driver sitting on a seat attached to a wooden platform supported above the main drive axle. The wooden parts of the machine were rebuilt using new materials. The original wooden parts of the machine were used as patterns. The main decking of the mower was made of oak on the original and was reproduced. The swath board was made of ash. The cutter bar lift handle was made of hickory. The toolbox was made of poplar.
After metal pieces were sandblasted, wooden parts rebuilt, and the mower completely disassembled it was time for priming and paint. Replicating original paint color proved easier than expected. The One Shot company produces a paint for the sign painters trade that is a oil based paint very similar in appearance and texture to period paint. Luckily for our project One Shot produces paint they call “Vermillion”, a very close match to Champion orange without any tinting. The primer used was NAPA brand automotive primer. For the wheels we used One Shot “Ivory” and for the cutter-bar and pin striping we used their Black. The machine received one coat of primer and two coats of paint mostly applied with a paintbrush as the original. A spray gun was used for more intricate pieces.
During analysis we discovered that the machine had black pin striping on the wheels, deck, seat mounting bracket, and toolbox. The pin striping was applied with a paint pen. Templates were made out of foam board for the curved stripes on the wheels. The striping on the seat bracket, toolbox, and decking was applied using painter’s tape as a guide.
Stencils were produced based on engravings of the Champion Light Mower and No. 4 Reaper dating from 1875-1878. The stencils were made on Publisher, printed, and cut out of construction type paper using a razor knife.
A final coat of TWP sealer was applied over the paint as a protective coat.
Points of Interest
Oiling the machine
Oils at the time the Champion mower was built were primarily animal fats. Although, Colonel William Drake’s oil strike in Titusville, PA. in 1859 hastened the birth of the petroleum age, petroleum oils prior to 1880 were crude in comparison to today’s oils. Developing suitable oils for the expanding steam industry spurred on the oil refining during the last quarter of the 19th century. The Centennial Handbook of Champion Harvesting Machines published in 1876 states that the farmer should “Keep all of the bearings and working parts well oiled with number one lard or sperm (whale) oil”. Sperm oil — a standard for machine lubrication and lighting faded rapidly with the introduction of petroleum and gas lighting. Evidently many farmers of the period diluted lard oil with other oils such as neats foot, kerosene, or cottonseed oil. The Champion Harvesting machine manual of 1878 specifically underlines the danger of using kerosene for lubrication due to its poor lubricating qualities as well as its potential of combustion. The manual states, “If Coal Oil, or what is called Machine Oil, is used, the Warrantee on the Machine is forfeited.” Interestingly, the Champion No. 4 restored by the farm had charred wood on the underside of the wooden platform directly above the main bevel drive gear. Was kerosene used?
In the years prior to grease cups or zerk fittings, lidded oil ports were used on farm machinery main drive shafts enclosed in cast housings. The idea of oil bath gearing on farm machines was in its infancy. Lubrication of the machine was mostly done with simple exposed portholes or grease applied to exposed gears. When restoring the Champion it was discovered that all of the main drive shaft oil ports had been filled with sheep wool to act as a filter for dirt and debris.
The toolbox on the Champion had an interesting feature. Set to the rear of the drivers seat, the toolbox had a circular hole cut in the lid and a cast iron bell shaped cover mounted over the hole. Upon examination it was found to be a cover for the oil can when it was stored in the tool box. This feature showed up in some of the engraved illustrations of Champion mowers of the time.
Other uses for the Champion
When its days as a mowing machine were through mower wheels were often reutilized as wagon wheels, boat anchors, or anything imaginable. Shortly after the completion of the project I was looking for a part in one of our other machine sheds and happened to glance at our field roller. There they were! Two Champion No. 4 wheels used as the interior frame of the roller. Holes had been drilled through the wheels and wooden staves had been bolted on and a long axle was inserted through the wheels into the frame of the roller. They had the exact casting numbers as the mower we had just restored.