Excerpt: Harvesting History

Daniel P. Ott is a historian with the National Park Service in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He previously taught public history at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire and worked at the Minnesota Historical Society. His newest book, Harvesting History: McCormick’s Reaper, Heritage Branding, and Historical Forgery (Nebraska, 2023), was published this month.

Harvesting History explores how the highly contentious claim of Cyrus McCormick’s 1831 invention of the reaper came to be incorporated into the American historical canon as a fact. Spanning the late 1870s to the 1930s, Daniel P. Ott reveals how the McCormick family and various affiliated businesses created a usable past about their departed patriarch, Cyrus McCormick, and his role in creating modern civilization through advertising and the emerging historical profession.

4. Realigning History with the Rising Corporate Order

In mid-August 1913 residents of Glenwood and surrounding Mills County in Iowa flocked to the chautauqua tent on the east edge of town for a week of lectures, debates, musical performances, and motion pictures. Every summer since 1904 the Midland Chautauqua Circuit had made a stop in Glenwood, erecting a massive canvas tent and arranging a program of interesting, uplifting, and educational talent for each day and evening of its stay. Praised by Theodore Roosevelt as “the most American thing in America,” circuit chautauqua companies toured the Midwest, engaging rural Americans in the cultural, social, civic, and spiritual debates of the Progressive Era. Like most midwesterners, Mills County residents eagerly anticipated and treasured the annual chautauqua as the event of the season. It was not uncommon for attendees to save and cherish programs from each annual gathering and discuss what they had seen and heard in the tent year-round. Local boosters promoted the event for months preceding the arrival of the circuit, hanging banners, decorating storefronts, and widely publicizing the occasion in local papers. In Glenwood adults readily paid $2 for a season ticket in advance to see the whole bill of enlightening presentations and an additional $1 for each of their children to enjoy the festivities as well. Once the chautauqua opened, local entrepreneurs sold food on-site to feed the more than two thousand people that packed into the tent each day. Merchants closed for the week, farmers left their fields, and out-of-towners stayed with local friends and family or camped in the canvas village adjacent to the big top so that they would not miss a moment of the presentations.

Spanning from August 9 to August 16, the Midland Chautauqua Circuit offered an educational and morally enriching variety show of over thirty acts on the platform. Glenwood’s 1913 bill included fourteen choral and instrumental concerts, seven motion-picture shows, an impersonator, a debate on military armament and foreign tensions in Europe, and seven lectures. Directed at intent audiences, the lectures generally focused on Christian morality, ranging in topics from advice for youth in the workplace to the importance of strong parenting for the future of the nation and a sermon on the perils of socialism for the independent Christian.

Among the lectures two addresses focused on the nation’s economic order—a popular topic. Americans, and farmers in particular, were anxious about and hostile toward big businesses at a time when economic power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations. Many saw the corporate merger movement of 1895–1904 as further proof that the farmer’s independence and the nation’s sacred democracy were in jeopardy. Chautauqua performers commonly spoke to these issues and invigorated populist antitrust sentiments. L. F. Lybarger filled this role on the second night of the Glenwood chautauqua, lambasting railroads and robber barons for “gobbling up the country” and the wealth of the common man. At the conclusion of his lecture, “Land, Labor and Wealth,” Lybarger repeated a common Progressive Era call to arms, praying that the government intervene to rescue the nation, lest the country’s children be condemned to a life of poverty at the hands of trusts. In juxtaposition to Lybarger’s tirade, Frank Stockdale offered a harmonious rendering of the nation’s interests, titled “The Dawn of Plenty.”

As the closing lecture of the week, Frank Stockdale took center stage and for an hour regaled the audience with a history of the world “as a record of man’s struggle for bread.” Assisted by illustrations, motion pictures, and dramatic lighting effects, Stockdale argued that, prior to the nineteenth century, 97 percent of humanity struggled merely to provide bread to feed themselves because they lacked the appropriate tools to harvest grain efficiently. For over fifty centuries progress stood still, while farmers were enslaved by tyrants who stole the fruits of their labor. Crucially, Stockdale explained that this condition of drudgery and deprivation ceased in 1831, when Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper. He illustrated that the reaper and its successive improvements freed Americans to leave the farm and pursue the progress that made the nation great, while other “lesser races” were still enslaved by the tools of the ancients. Stockdale preached that in the reaper’s wake cities sprang up, Americans pushed westward, railroads followed across the continent, industry boomed, commerce matured, universities opened, and technological ingenuity was unleashed, creating a modern civilization of abundance. He opined that modern industrialization, urbanization, and corporatization were not at odds with agrarians. Rather, the farmer’s “common sense” and embrace of “up-to-date methods” allowed him to profit as a partner and crucial contributor to the new economic order. The grain the farmer raised enabled civilization and progress to flourish.

The audience sat in rapt silence throughout Stockdale’s performance and was wowed by his accompanying multimedia imagery. The editor of the Glenwood Opinion believed that Stockdale’s show alone was worth the price of the season’s admission. He raved that “The Dawn of Plenty” was “meritorious for its instruction and education,” placing the week’s preceding lecturers “far in the shade.” Billed as the “Mirthful Orator,” Stockdale was a polished and engaging public speaker. He had taken “The Dawn of Plenty” to lyceum halls the previous winter. During the summer of 1913, Stockdale executed it at scores of chautauqua across the Midwest, including three other times that same week for audiences in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. Unpublicized and unbeknownst to all these onlookers, and indeed the editor of the Glenwood Opinion, Frank Stockdale worked for the International Harvester Company. The rural masses filling the chautauqua benches had paid to witness a public relations spectacle prepared by the despised “harvester trust.”

As a growing monopolistic power in the United States’ farm-implement industry, the International Harvester Company was beset during the Progressive Era by antitrust antagonism and real legal threats since its creation in 1902. The trust’s illegal competitive practices, deplorable treatment of workers, and outright bribery of public officials made it the target of rural animosity, labor strikes, muckrakers, middle-class concerns, political stumping, and, eventually, government inquiry and regulation. Rising from this swirling cacophony of protest, in 1912 the U.S. Department of Justice brought suit against the harvester trust to dissolve the corporation.

As antitrust pressure against the company mounted and the real threat of destruction emerged, the company developed an evolving and increasingly sophisticated public relations campaign to convince Americans that it was a “good trust.” This initiative began in 1907 with new corporate welfare programs for its workers and then a 1909 overhaul of advertising material and branding efforts. By 1912 it included an Agricultural Extension Department to demonstrate the corporation’s goodwill toward farmers and a public education campaign under the auspices of its own Service Bureau. At the height of antitrust antagonism, the Service Bureau saturated the nation with a wealth of veiled propaganda in the form of educational lectures and materials for schoolchildren. These “indirect advertisements” reimagined and realigned traditional understandings of the past to demonstrate that the corporation was a cooperative ally of the common man in the present, happily aiding in his pursuit of progress and prosperity. To further legitimize these public relations narratives, the company’s ownership also set out to influence the academic historians of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association to ensure that their corporate myths would stay in the public mind for generations to come.

International Harvester was founded in 1902 to eliminate competition across the harvesting industry and to increase profits. One of many such mergers during the era, it quickly earned a reputation as another hated “trust” designed to rob the common man. In an industry previously defined by consumer power and rigorous competition, the corporation unified the five largest harvester manufacturers—McCormick, Deering, Milwaukee, Osborne, and Champion—and immediately gained the power of price making over its customers. The corporation soon faced animosity from a variety of sources, including agrarians, laborers, journalists, and politicians. These forces culminated to instigate government inquiry, regulation, and, eventually, an antitrust suit against the harvester trust in 1912.

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