By Rosalie Yoakam
Jesse Sanders must have been excited and anxious when he pulled his invention out of the village of Bellbrook on a sunny July morning in 1844. He had been working on the grain reaper for four years, having started in 1840. Now, he was going to give it a trial run.
Two strong horses pulled the machine from his workshop and up a hill to a wheat field owned by Jacob Haynes. The grain there was ripe and ready for harvest.
Farmers in the area, at that time, usually gathered wheat by hand. In the early days of our country it was cut with a sickle or scythe. The grain fell into disorderly clumps scattered across the field. Then some stalks were gathered into a bunch called a sheaf and tied with string. Several sheaves were leaned against each other and left in the field. This allowed the grain to dry.
In 1794 a Scottish farmer invented a long handled scythe with an attached cradle. The cut grain fell into the cradle and then was dropped into an orderly pile on the ground. Even with this invention, though, harvesting grain was labor intensive. A mechanical reaper would be a welcome tool.
So, a group of local farmers had gathered to watch Sanders’ invention. As the horses pulled the machine around the field, the grain was drawn into the reaper, and a strip of cut wheat was left behind, ready to be bound into sheaves. Everyone was very excited.
Among the group of bystanders was a stranger, a peddler who had come to the village tavern the night before. He was very interested in the machine, asked questions about its operation, and offered suggestions for improvement.
After the demonstration Sanders decided to refine his design before applying for a patent. He was delayed in doing so because of a lack of funds.
When Cyrus McCormick began, in 1847 in a factory in Chicago, to mass produce a reaper, similar to Sanders’ design, Greene County friends suspected the stranger had stolen Sanders’ idea.
The story is recorded in Robinson’s History of Greene County and is also mentioned in Broadstone’s History of Greene County Ohio: Its People, Industries and Institutions. Robinson’s says, “...thus robbing Bellbrook and Jesse Sanders of fame and fortune.” While Broadstone’s says, “Sanders never realized anything for his labors and died a poor man after giving to the world one of the greatest inventions of the age.”
But, Sanders’ friends and the books were wrong. In fact, McCormick of Walnut Grove, Virginia had invented a mechanical reaper in 1831 and his son, Cyrus had patented it in 1834, six years before Sanders began his work.