Economy & Business

Taking Risks, Building the West

Cyrus McCormick, his invention, and his entrepreneurial spirit changed America.

‘Go West, young man,” Horace Greely wrote in an 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune editorial encouraging Civil War veterans to take advantage of the Homestead Act and populate our vast public lands.  “Washington is not a place to live in,” he argued. “The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, and grow with the country.” And go west America did.

Much has been written about the American West, and popular culture has burned searing images of frontier life into the world’s consciousness. But most of us would be hard pressed to answer a simple question that is at the heart of Phil Anshutz’s book Out Where the West Begins: Who created the American West? Who built it?

It should come as no surprise that one of America’s most successful businessmen chose to focus his efforts not on the iconic names of Hollywood’s West, like Wyatt Earp, or on politicians, poets, or artists, but on businessmen and entrepreneurs — the men who, as Anshutz notes in his foreword, transformed the West from an idea into a place.

Men like Cyrus McCormick.

When Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, he was certain it would take Americans a thousand years to settle the West and become the republic of small family farms he’d dreamed about. When we consider what he knew at the time, Jefferson’s prediction wasn’t all that crazy. With state-of-the-art farming technology in the early 19th century, it took a full day’s labor to cut one-half to three-quarters of an acre of wheat. Most farmers gathered enough wheat in a season to feed themselves and their families.

Had Jefferson been able to consult with Cyrus McCormick first, he might have forecast differently. McCormick, born in Virginia in 1809 and not nearly the political genius that Jefferson was, did, however, manage to perfect and market a machine, the mechanical reaper, that not only would prove his fellow Virginian wrong about how long it would take to settle the West but would alter Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian republic.

Who was this man who helped forge the West and change the American landscape? Cyrus McCormick was the son of backcountry settlers, and his father Robert tinkered in many fields, operating flour mills, a smelter, a blacksmith shop, and even a distillery. A mechanical reaper of his own did not work well in the rugged and rocky hills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Cyrus followed in his dad’s footsteps, adopting the old man’s Protestant work ethic. The great agricultural historian Craig Canine described Cyrus as an “intense, severely sober man” with piercing dark eyes, a thick beard, and an unruly patch of hair. A career in entertainment did not beckon.

He was 6 feet tall, making him a big man for those days (George Washington towered over his peers at 6 feet 2 inches), but what most impressed people was not Cyrus’s height but his gravity. His personal lawyer credited all of the inventor’s success to his “terrible willpower.” So obsessed was Cyrus with his work that he delayed marriage until his 50s.

Young Cyrus’s work, it turns out, was his father’s. Determined to improve his father’s reaper, in 1831 he unveiled his new version. It was, as Anshutz described it, “somewhat less than successful,” cutting “six acres of oats in less than a day, which was good. But it left the field looking like a tornado had hit it.”

Cyrus might have moved on to other endeavors but for the arrival of some real competition in the form of a one-eyed whaler from Maine named Obadiah Hussey, who stoked a rivalry that would drive Cyrus McCormick and his machine to greatness. The southern farmer’s son and the New England big-fish hunter — as unlikely a pair of adversaries as any screenwriter could conjure — engaged in day-to-day business warfare, purchasing advertisements that directly attacked each other’s products. They raced each other through fields like NASCAR drivers to prove whose machine were superior.

Hussey was one of more than 200 entrepreneurs in what was becoming a very crowded field, and the intense competition compelled McCormick to improve the design of his reaper — or lose. He soon added a seat, allowing farmers to ride rather than walk, thereby dramatically speeding up the harvesting process. He also came up with components that would cut labor time in all phases of that process, from gathering stalks into sheaves to binding them, drying them, and threshing out the wheat kernels.

Higher crop yields only increased demand for McCormick’s machines, as thousands of Americans were enticed to try their luck at farming in the 1850s, and once again after the Civil War. Throw in abundant land, big urban demand for farm products, and the vast new markets that railroads were opening up for production and consumption, and McCormick had nearly a perfect storm of economic opportunity before him.

Like all great businessmen, he seized the moment, beating back his competitors at every turn. His Chicago factory was lauded as a modern marvel of automation. A marketing genius, he even wrote his own advertising copy, which was known for its boldness. He also litigated relentlessly: No infringement on his patents was considered too small to enforce.

Perhaps McCormick’s greatest innovation had nothing to do with engineering. With a window sticker price of $100, one of his reapers represented the single biggest purchase a farmer would ever make. McCormick’s answer to that problem was simple: He created revolving credit, allowing his customers to own the machine while paying less up front: He offered the nation’s first money-back guarantee. For $30 down, a farmer could test one of McCormick’s reapers for six months. If he liked it, he paid the remaining installments. If not, he sent the reaper back. Imagine a car company making that kind of offer today.

Some experts think that McCormick’s reaper had an impact on our nation’s military history, too. Business historian Henry W. Brands called the American Civil War a competition between Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and Cyrus McCormick’s reaper. Advocates on both sides of the great battle believed that the labor-saving technology of both machines would free farm workers to take up arms on the battlefield, and both hoped that their exports, southern cotton and northern grain, would sway European sentiment to their side.

It was no small irony that the Yankee innovator Whitney hated slavery, while the Virginian McCormick was rooting for his Confederacy: The beloved invention of each was fueling the economy of his enemy in the war. As fate would have it, those northern grain exports helped keep Europe neutral, while helping fund the Union Army to victory.

The impact of McCormick’s reaper on America was profound. When he was born, nine out of ten Americans lived on a farm. By 1900, the ratio of rural to urban dwellers had shrunk to three to two, and by 1920 urban dwellers outnumbered rural dwellers for the first time in our history. McCormick’s machine helped propel that change, creating the agricultural conditions that not only would free rural labor to pursue opportunities elsewhere but would feed an ever-growing urban population at the same time.

As Jefferson would have learned if he’d lived long enough to see the effect that the McCormick reaper would have, making predictions about anything in American life without first talking to the consummate American Dreamers — our entrepreneurs and businessmen — is always tricky, and sometimes humbling.  

Anshutz in his book offers roughly 50 individual short stories of individuals like McCormick: men who worked in fields as divergent as manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mineral extraction, transportation, communications, and entertainment. They were all very different from one another, each born to very different circumstances, but they had one thing in common: a huge appetite for risk. Many risked everything they owned, and their reputations, too, on their businesses. Others risked even more: their lives.

Many exhibited a remarkable generosity with the rewards they reaped from their risk taking. They believed in giving back to society and in sharing the fruits of their success. None was perfect, some were difficult, a few were not very good men at all, and none escaped controversy in his life. To not know them, we learn from this entertaining and important book, is to not properly understand the formation and development of the American West.

It’s to not fully understand the words to the great old Arthur Chapman poem and song:

Out where the world is in the making,

Where fewer hearts in despair are aching,

            That’s where the West begins;

Where there’s more of singing and less of sighing,

Where there’s more of giving and less of buying,

And a man makes friends without half trying —

            That’s where the West begins.

Lee Habeeb — Lee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for and National Review.

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