Every time I've driven past the interchange of State Road
606 and Interstate 81, halfway between Lexington and Staunton, and seen
VDOTs signage pointing out the Cyrus McCormick Farm, I've silently
reflected on my own farm beginnings.
I learned a long time ago from comparing 19th-century farm
tools in museum exhibits with those I had seen growing up on my parents and
grandparents farms that a lot of farm machinery did not change
significantly for a hundred years. Seeing an image of McCormick's
internationally celebrated Virginia Reaper from the mid-1850s brought back
distant images of the harvester operated by my grandfather and father in the
late 1940s, when I was a pre-schooler.
Though we lived on the Eastern Shore and were isolated by
the Chesapeake Bay from what we called the mainland, McCormick's great
accomplishment was not lost on my father, who went to Virginia Tech for a
year before the Great Depression brought him home. He often mentioned the
innovation of working farmers as the reason that fewer and fewer of them
were able to produce more and more food and fiber for the rest of the world.
Always one to point to the nuances of history, he recognized other factors
contributing to that success, such as the slaves who assisted in
developments without any recognition (in McCormick's case, the trusted
helper, Jo Anderson) and the arrival and encouragement of easier credit,
enabling farmers to purchase the latest machinery.
As Labor Day nears I can almost feel the stickiness of the
early-summer rye against my skin as my brother and I ran through the tall
crop on our farm before the harvest and then behind the harvester as it cut
the rye. What we as teenagers came to think of as the same, slow-moving,
boring routine year after year was nothing less than participation in the
timeless, universal ritual dating to early civilization when groups of
people settled down to cultivate crops of small grains.
Young Cyrus was a different kind of teenager without
exposure to the rest of the world through television or motor travel and
with a father who had worked on the reaper concept long into the night. At
age 15 in 1824, Cyrus picked up where his father left off with refinement of
the reaper in the farms blacksmiths shop. Over the next decade, he further
refined the machine, demonstrated it commercially and finally took out a
patent in 1834 a year in which 80 percent of Americans were employed on
As the popularity of his reaper spread, the demand for it
grew far beyond the blacksmith shop and his 532-acre farm on the
Rockbridge/Augusta County line. In 1847 he moved to Chicago, where his two
brothers joined him in a company that served vast Midwest prairie grain
fields. They learned the value of advertising the McCormick company, and
within 10 years the McCormick name was famous the world over. The Virginia
Reaper hastened the westward expansion of the United States, an expansion
that, in turn, produced new markets for the reaper.
Until the middle of the 19th century the human hand,
leveraged by the bending back that went into hard labor, touched virtually
every grain harvested. My father taught Sunday school at Parksley Methodist
Church and loved scripture about the men who harvested and the women who
gleaned in the fields of Boaz. Although he was happy to be rid of as much
backbreaking work as possible, he admired paintings and poetry reflecting
the toil of the binders that followed closely the song of the scythe when
the whole land went forth to harvest.
As my husband and I traveled in rural Poland last year, we
noted agricultural practices ranging from the scythe and cradle on small,
poor, grain farms to American-style, gigantic harvesters that would astonish
Cyrus McCormick. Less than 2 percent of the U.S. population is now directly
involved with the soil. Americans freed from the soil have been able to
devote their energy to science, the arts, and industry and technology, which
have improved the quality of life for people worldwide.
Our food variety today is so
enormous that its easy to forget the impact of small grains on our
civilization. A visit to the five-acre Cyrus McCormick Museum on the grounds
of the Virginia Tech Shenandoah
Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center reminds us of their great
significance and of why McCormick has been referred to as the father of
modern agriculture. The museum is open year-round, 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m., with
Martha Wessells Steger, a native of Accomack County,
is a Midlothian freelance writer and editor who still calls the Eastern
Shore of Virginia home.
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