The world’s biggest plow maker back when plows ruled the world

Time Before Now, February 1869The first U.S. president, Andrew Johnson, had escaped being convicted and was serving the last two months of his troubled administration.   Jesse James had held up the bank  in Gallatin Missouri, killing cashier, John Sheets.  It was the first robbery confirmed to be committed by James.  It was another first of a different kind when in January, social activist, Elizabeth Caddy Stanton, became the first woman ever to testify before Congress  And Daniel C. Stillson was about to strike it rich with his pipe wrench. (Right)  A machinist during the Civil War, earned royalties totaling $80,000 for the invention, about $2 million today.

February 2, 1869

On this day, James Oliver patented the plow that his company rich and  made him “plowmaker to the world,”

Called the chill-bottom, it wasn’t the Scottish-born inventor’s first patent noet the first one to make improvements to the plow.   Timing, as they say, is everything and Oliver’s innovation arrived on the heels of President Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Homestead Act.  The act shifted thousands of prairie acres into the hands of small farmers, many of the  them new Westerners unfamiliar with the challenged in cultivating the clay soils of the plains.  The process of “scouring” the sticky earth and tough grass, simply ate up plow shares that had worked well on lighter soils.

1860s homesteader 

Benefits of  the Homestead Act and better plows  were not equally shared nor universally celebrated, however.  The nation’s production of food and fodder increased exponentially.   It also provided an important profit center for the nation’s new transcontinental railroad.   Native American populations, however, were dispossessed and the bison driven to near extinction.  Today historians can now calculate the damage to habitat, fragile top soil and water degradation as negative aspects of the farming revolution of the 1860s.

The genius of Oliver’s design lay in adding metal slugs in the sand before casting. The slugs cooled more rapidly, creating a much harder outer layer and a much thicker point. The innovation improved performance and durability, saving  farmers both time and money.

Oliver chill-bottom plow 

Efforts to improve the plow had been going on since Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden of Eden.  Neolithic Brits used a sharpened stick to dig a furrow, ancient Egyptians attached an ox to an improved stick and early Celts added wheels.  Three plows with cast iron plow shares designed by James Small were imported from Scotland in 1780.  New Jersey inventor, Charles Newbold, cast an American version in 1797.  

Farming on the Nile, 1200 B.C.

Cast iron plows never really caught on. Many farmers were convinced the blades “poisoned the soil.”  It took another 30 years and a man from Grand Detour, Illinois, named John Deere to take a huge leap forward in 1837 with the steel plow.  The share’s shiny surface prevented sticky soil from clinging to the blade

What Deere (right)  and Oliver had in common was their experience in casting iron.   Deere was a blacksmith and Oliver was a foundry worker with a long history in agriculture.   Oliver was the youngest of nine children born to Mary and George Oliver in Liddesdale, Scotland.  The family immigrated to the United States in 1835 following an outbreak of cholera in Scotland decimated the country’s sheep herds where the elder Oliver worked as a shepherd.  Settling near Alloway, New York, young James “hired out,” doing manual work on nearby farms, becoming familiar with field plowing.    

But when a sister and her husband began homesteading near Mishawaka, Indiana, Oliver and several brothers joined the couple.  The boggy area around Mishawaka, rich in iron, was home to a number of foundries where Oliver found work, learning the basics of casting. 

Two decades later Oliver and a partner, Harvey Little, went into business for themselves, founding the South Bend Iron Works.   He began seriously studying improvements to the plow and the pair managed to make a modest profit selling their “Indiana” plow.   Oliver  travelled the countryside demonstrating its advantages at fairs and other public gatherings and in 1857 South Bend Ironworks sold 50 plows .

In less than a decade, however,  Oliver’s revolutionary casting process had catapulted the company into market dominance.  By 1878, South Bend Iron was selling 300,000 plows a year.   

South Bend Iron Works at its zenith, 1900

A significant expansion resulted from a sizeable investment by another South Bend business man, Clement Studebaker, (below) co-founder of Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing.  It was at the time the world’s largest producer of horse-drawn vehicles, having struck it rich making wagons for the Union Army during the Civil War.

The generally forward-looking Oliver inexplicably resisted the development of a riding plow, which eventually slowed the firm’s meteoric rise.  Despite increased competition from John Deere and International Harvester, customer demand for the Oliver plow eventually won out and South Bend Iron Works  continued to be a leader in agriculture into the 20th century.

 Studebaker Brothers survived, as well, the only wagon-maker to successfully transition to automobiles in 1902.   While the last Studabaker car rolled of the assembly line in 1966, the company diversified.  It joined with  Wagner Electric and Worthington Corporation  in 1967, emerging as Studabaker-Worthington.

Oliver received 45 patents during his lifetime, a spit in the ocean compared to Thomas Edison’s 1093, but he  earned millions much of it going to benefit his home town.   Becoming a civic dynamo and benefactor to the city of South Bend he built the Oliver Hotel, the Oliver Opera House (left)  and  provided a major portion of the money  for South Bend’s city hall.  Much like the chill bottom boom, the public buildings he inspired were all razzed by the 1970s.

After his death on March 2, 1908, Oliver’s only son Joseph took over the company, expanding the product line, merging with four other companies to become the Oliver Equipment Company.  But in 1960, Cleveland’s White Motor Company acquired the company  and the original chill-bottom plant was closed in 1985.

Perhaps gone but not forgotten, today the company known as “Plowmaker to the World” retains a place in the heart and history of American agriculture, celebrated by collectors not only here but around the globe. 

The National Park Homestead National Monument of America and the Heritage Homestead Center  8523 West State Highway 4 Beatrice , Nebraska, features 100 acres of restored tall grass prairie with three miles of hiking trails.  In addition , the restored Palmer-Epard Cabin which was built in 1867 and moved to the park from its original site 14 miles away. 

The Homestead Heritage Center provides interactive displays which tell the story of America’s homesteaders as well as a restored one- room Freeman School.    Admission to the park is free.  The Visitor Center, Palmer-Epard Cabin, Homestead Center and Freeman School are open in summer Memorial Day to Labor day Monday through Friday 8:30 to 6, Saturday and Sunday 9 to 6  Trails are open daily sunrise to sunset. All facilities are closed only on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years.  For more information go to nps homestead national monument call (402) 223-3514 or write 8523 West State Highway 4, Beatrice, NE 68310. 

Face masks are currently required in all federal federal lands  and buildings and park hours may vary based on local public health department requirements. Before visiting, please go the park website listed above .

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.