Cyrus McCormick and the

Meaning of Labor Day


by Martha Wessells Steger, Contributing Writer

Martha Wessells Steger

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 farms.

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 free admission.

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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