Hoosick Township Historical Society
Walter A. Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Company
(1865 - 1924)
By 1852 Walter Abbott Wood had a partnership with his brother-in-law James Russell Parsons. Wood was the working partner in a foundry where they made cast iron plows and repaired broken farm machinery. Wood was looking for some piece of farm equipment to manufacture. In the fall of 1852, the partners traveled west to Geneva, NY, where there was an agricultural society sponsored trial of farm machines. The best mower-reaper demonstrated was the one of John Manny of Rockford, IL. Wood and Parsons purchased a shop license to build this machine for sale in New York State.
Wood’s Manny Patent mower-reaper as reaper
Back in Hoosick Falls, there was an apparent disagreement on how to proceed. Parsons joined with another brother-in-law in forming Ball & Parsons to manufacture Manny Patent mower-reapers. The first ever train into Hoosick Falls arrived in 1853. It carried wood and iron for Ball & Parsons and left with some of their machines. Ball & Parsons would cease production in 1858. That year J. Russell Parsons would join Wood and the next year Wood would lease the former Ball & Parsons works. Walter A. Wood had grown up at his father’s forge and foundry. He apparently decided to examine the Manny machine piece by piece for improvements, to make models for standardized parts, and improve the design for production. Consequently, he started production later, but produced a superior product. About 1854 he also purchased a license for the Haines Header – a machine better suited for dry grain growing area like California. The header design changed little over its long production life. Because the header was used in the dry areas, it was replaced by the first combines since they didn’t have much moisture to deal with and consequently didn’t plug up.
In 1856 he also introduced his first separate mower.
By 1860 he had an improved mower and a new combined mower - reaper. He soon decided the combination machine wasn’t as good a mower as his separate mower. The mower version of the combined machine was sold as a separate mowing attachment to the reaper. This increased its cost to near that of the separate mower while providing a “combined” machine for those who insisted in buying one. The reaper was improved and became the chain-rake reaper – an early machine that no longer needed a second operator to rake the grain from the platform. Wood had all the patents for this early one-man machine, and was able to sell a license for the reaper and the improved mower to Hart Massey for sale in Canada.
During this early period, Wood also established offices in London and Berlin. Wood also made the Thomas Pilter Company, owned and operated by and Britain in Paris, his agent for French speaking Europe and North Africa. Europe would be the primary sales area for the Wood Company, which never had a major role in the North American market. Wood production had grown from 500 machines for 1853 to 5,500 for 1859. He had purchased several other buildings near his foundry and leased the former Ball & Parsons shops. In 1860 his company made and sold 6,000 machines. In November 1860, the entire manufacturing area north of the Hoosick River burned. The Massey license provided some income. Wood purchased more land and built a new foundry and factory. In 1865 the Walter A. Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Company was incorporated. Walter A. Wood would be its president until his death in 1892. The other initial officers were William Tibbits – vice president, A. C. Geer – Secretary, and Willard Gay – Treasurer. In 1865 the company made 8,500 machines, the highest total to date and the last time under 10,000 during Wood’s life. The Wood Company continued to grow. In 1868, it purchased an old factory south of the river to gain more water power at the falls. 1869 production was 23,000 machines. In March 1870, there was another disastrous fire which leveled the buildings on the north side of the river. The old factory on the south side was put into manufacturing use while a temporary foundry was built on the north side. The company still managed to produce 15,000 machines for 1870 and 15, 771 for 1871. A new 105 feet by 410 feet factory was completed in 1871 with fire sprinklers fed directly from a new reservoir on the nearby hill. The new building was wood frame inside brick. In 1873 a new foundry 85 feet wide and over 200 feet long was built along Mechanic Street.
Another change was the building of the Malleable Iron Works. The Wood Company had been purchasing malleable iron castings from Tuttle & Whittemore of Naugatuck, Connecticut. Bronson Tuttle and others investors organized the Malleable Iron Works in 1871, and built the factory in 1872. Employment was over 200 workers. In the mid 1880s the Wood Company purchased the Malleable Iron Works. One other loss in the 1870 fire was a prototype binding-harvester. Wood had heard of Sylvanus Locke of Wisconsin working on a binder. Locke had contacted a major western manufacturer who concluded the idea was impractical. Wood invited Locke to come to Hoosick Falls. Locke designed a patented wire binder to go on a Wood harvester. Now one machine could cut and bind grain into sheaves. (Reapers merely cut grain and left it in loose bunches to be handled loose or more often to be hand bound into sheaves.) The Wood – Locke machine was the first commercially successful binding harvester in the world.
World’s First Binding Harvester
By 1875 production again reached 23,000 machines, and other than 1877 when only 19,000 were built, would never be lower than 23,000 during Woods’ lifetime. The bad side effects of wire were well known when Wood introduced his first twine-binding reaper in 1880, the same year as Deering and a year before McCormick. Wire had to be separated from the grain sheaves or it could damage the thresher, ruin millstones, and kill cattle that swallowed pieces of wire. Even if carefully sorted, it still had to be disposed of. Twine could pass through threshing machines and end up in the straw with no side effects. H. A and Watson A. Holmes invented a patented knotter to tie the twine and Wood’s new twine machine replaced the wire machine in 1880.
Twine Binding Harvester
The 1882 Directory reported employment at 1,500 men and payroll about $70,000 per month. Another 200 to 225 men were employed by the Malleable Iron Works which the Wood Company would soon acquire. In 1884 the Wood Company made its 500,000th machine. Production that year was 48,315 machines, and the company employed 2,000 men. In 1887 production reached 51,000 machines or 270 per workday. In 1889 over 66,000 were built. In the late 1880s the Wood Company purchased the Minneapolis Harvester Company of St. Paul, Minnesota. This company was experimenting with alternatives to twine, an expensive import for farmers. Wood was interested in any alternative that could reduce the twine cost. (They never found a successful alternative.) In 1889 Walter A. Wood returned in triumph from his third Paris Exposition where his machines were victors in field trials. The next year the census takers would find over 7,000 people in Hoosick Falls, many of them Wood employees. The company was known worldwide for its quality products and after sale support. By 1890 the company added dump hay rakes to its products. Walter Abbott Wood died in 1892. He was one of the pioneer manufacturers of farm machines to reduce farm labor. E. Oliver of Ruston, Proctor & Co., Lincoln, England, wrote: “For one who has spent a life so long and so active in the fore-front of mechanical enterprise, and whose labors have produced signal benefit to agriculture, the world must cherish an unfading remembrance. The loss of such a pioneer makes us all feel the poorer.” By 1895 a hay tedder was produced. In 1895 a national financial panic left the Wood Company unable to pay bondholders. Two receivers were appointed that year. By late 1897, there was a plan to emerge from receivership and form a new Walter A. Wood Mowing and Reaping Machine Company. At some time during the reorganization, the Minneapolis Company was sold with an agreement that the Wood Company would not sell west of the Mississippi River. This would deny the Wood Company the opportunity to compete in the grain belt until a late agreement was reached. The senior receiver, Seymour Van Santvoord, was elected president in 1898 and was later succeeded by the other receiver, Danforth Geer. Around this time the Wood Company added an early side delivery rake. By this time the Wood Company and its competitors were each building their own versions of standard industry machines: a steel frame two-wheeled mower, a sweep rake reaper, and a twine binding harvester. Details varied, but all companies were now making their version of the same basic mower, reaper, and harvester design. Consequently, resources and sales were the keys to success, not new designs and patents. In 1905, when the Wood Company buildings were surveyed by an insurance company, there were about 1,134 employees.
Dam, Foundry & Pattern Storage
By 1910, International Harvester (formed in 1902) had combined the resources of the McCormick and Deering Companies (the big two) plus several other mower – reaper – harvester manufacturers and dominated the market – 80 to 95% of the sales of these items. International used the income to expand its line with a goal of providing a competitive model of every machine used by farmers in the United States. In 1909, the Wood Company added a manure spreader as its first machine built by an outside manufacturer. In the next few years it would add plows and harrows, hay loaders, small engines, lawn mowers, washing machines, and many other items by contracting for production by other manufacturers. World War I created the conditions that ended the Wood Company. The war destroyed the European market. Europe had war debts to pay to US lenders and consequently needed to cut imports from the US. Funds in French banks were frozen during the war, and French inflation greatly reduced the value of these funds to about 20% of the pre-war value. The Wood Company set up the English company to manufacture the equipment it sold. This avoided the tariff problems, but the American company had to sell the English company to its managers for cash to keep the American company going. At home there were strikes, and too much competition for a now shrinking farm market that had been rapidly expanding during the company’s growth. By 1923 another receiver was appointed and the company assets were sold off in 1924. In England, Walter A. Wood Ltd. continued operation under local ownership. The English company’s finest hours came during World War II, when it provided tillage equipment to farm many acres of Great Britain that had been parkland and pasture. Submarines were limiting imports and more food had to be grown at home. Food was necessary but shipping was limited. Growing more at home reduced the amount to be imported freeing the available shipping for other wartime cargo. The company continued on until the 1980s when it was purchased by Massey-Ferguson – the successor to Hart Massey’s company which had purchased a license to build Wood mowers and reapers around 1860.
Compiled for HoosickHistory - Charles Filkins - January 2007.