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‘Binder Wars’ changed Prairie farming

Hand tying stooks effectively limited a single farmer to 25 acres and the invention of mechanical binders was a game changer for both producers and the farm equipment industry

The 1880s were known for the “Binder Wars” — a time farm machinery manufacturers slugged it out for supremacy in grain binder sales.

It was no ordinary battle as hand tying of wheat sheaves was the biggest, single limiting factor on Prairie grain farms at that time. Stooking was critical because the slow-maturing varieties of the day could not be left standing to dry before snow arrived. Hand tying sheaves limited a single farmer to about 25 acres, but mechanical binding would allow him to triple his acreage.

The key to a successful binder was the knotter mechanism. Wire tie knitters were first developed, but wire was expensive, and had to be cut and collected when the sheaves were fed into a threshing machine. Any wire missed would cause problems in milling the grain or feeding the straw and grain to cattle. So when John Appleby patented a twine knotter in 1878 (and incorporated it into a harvester a year later), manufacturers knew it was a game changer.

In 1882, Appleby sold the knotter patent to the Champion Company, giving its subsidiary, the Toronto Mower and Reaper Company, an upper hand on the industry heavyweights, the Massey Company and its then rival, the Harris Company.

However, since equipment manufacturers typically provided financing to farmers purchasing their machines, rapid expansion caused Champion financial difficulties. Massey swooped in, purchasing its subsidiary and the patents for the Appleby knotter and Champion binder.

But Harris countered by obtaining Canadian manufacturing rights to the U.S.-designed Marsh binder, which also incorporated the Appleby knotter. And the Binder Wars were on.

It was a battle waged with beautifully illustrated colour brochures, ads in popular magazines, and field challenges and binder tournaments of all sorts. Hordes of salesmen poured into rural areas and it was not unusual for sales prospects to be taken out to dinner in carriages or parades arranged for binder delivery.

A farmer who announced his intention to buy a binder might find opposing salesmen in his yard, with fist fights a not uncommon result. Towards the end of the “wars,” buyers could have their home farm scene custom painted on the metal cover over the binding mechanism.

Unlike real war, this one provided onlookers with great entertainment.

In the end, superior technology won the day. Harris was developing an ‘open-end’ binder that could cut any length of straw, something not possible with any previous binder designs. Hart Massey investigated, determined the Harris machine was the real McCoy and decided if he couldn’t beat them, he’d better join them. Hart approached the owners of Harris, and in 1891 a merger was announced and the Massey Harris Company was born.

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