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Harvesting the Future

Virginia’s Cyrus McCormick was a contributor to the American Industrial Revolution


by Gregg MacDonald, Staff Writer

Cyrus McCormick with his mechanical grain reaper, 1843. (Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Nearly everyone is familiar with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and its transformative influence on American labor. But how many know about Virginia native Cyrus McCormick?

While McCormick may perhaps be somewhat lesser known, his invention — the mechanical grain reaper — had no less of an impact in the mechanization of agriculture during the 19th century.

Before McCormick’s mechanical invention, the amount of grain that laborers could cut by hand during a short harvest season severely limited the sizes of working grain farms and available grain supplies.

Working on his family’s Virginia farm in Rockbridge County in 1834, 22-year-old McCormick took his father’s conceptualization of a mechanical reaper and made it a reality. He implemented features still used today in modern combine harvesters.

The mechanical reaper included gearing, a divider, a reel, a straight reciprocating knife, a finger, a platform to catch the cut stalks, a main wheel and a draft traction on the front.

After receiving a U.S. patent, McCormick began manufacturing his reaper, and, after his father’s death in 1846, moved his manufacturing plant to Chicago and expanded it.


Two of the original McCormick Farm buildings can be visited today. (Photo By: Gregg MacDonald)

According to the Public Broadcasting Service, in 1848, McCormick’s Chicago factory manufactured 500 reapers. In 1851, it doubled that number and produced 1,000. By 1857, it was churning out 23,000.

Continuously introducing improvements, McCormick launched new models every year, as car manufacturers do today. He bought other agricultural patents and companies, expanding his empire to sell mowers, harvesters and more. He offered money-back guarantees and credit to struggling farmers, saying, “It is better that I should wait for the money than that you should wait for the machine that you need.”

The reaper’s design won international acclaim in 1851 at the first world’s fair in London’s Crystal Palace and as it grew in popularity, it freed U.S. farm laborers to work in factories during the expanding industrial revolution. McCormick’s manufacturing plant eventually became the International Harvester Co.

Grist mill stones still being used today. (Photo By: Gregg MacDonald)


Part of McCormick’s original 19th century, 620-acre property, known historically as Walnut Grove Farm, is open to visitors. Eight of the farm’s original nine buildings are still standing. Many have been renovated since Cyrus’ father, Robert, created the farm in1822.

The existing buildings include a grist mill, a blacksmith shop, an enslaved persons quarters, a carriage house, a manor house, a smokehouse, a schoolroom and a housekeeper’s quarters.

Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative members Charles, Charlton, Mary and Chris Huppuch, visit McCormick Farm. (Photo By: Gregg MacDonald)

McCormick’s descendants retained ownership of the farm until 1954 when they donated it to Virginia Tech’s Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Soon after, a 2-acre site including several buildings was set aside as the McCormick Memorial Plot.

In 1956, the Cyrus McCormick exhibit from the Virginia State Museum in Richmond was relocated to the second floor of the blacksmith shop. Included in this display are 14 miniature models of the McCormick reaper that are like those used by McCormick salesmen in the late 1800s.

In June 1966, the memorial area was designated as a National Historic Landmark and Virginia Wayside site. It attracts thousands of visitors annually.

For more information, go to arec.vaes.vt.edu/arec/shenandoah-valley.