Navigation Menu+

mowing machine

Horse-drawn device used to cut grass and standing grain or hay, consisting of multiple unobstructed cutting blades which pass through the hay, dropping it in a parallel mass. — Webster, 1882

Charles Keith. Dealer in Peerless and Champion mowers. Self binding Osborne Harvesters, Pitts Threshers Steam and Horse Power, Oats, corn and feed. Volga, Brookings County, Dakota. – Kingsbury County News, February 24, 1881

A mowing machine was an agricultural implement pulled by horses, used for cutting hay. The cutting apparatus – consisting of sharp, triangular teeth of the cutting bar and a reciprocating scythe – was chain-driven and powered by the rotation of a driving wheel on the ground.

Haying was once the hardest work on the farm. Prior to the invention of the mowing machine, grain was cut with hand tools such as a sickle, cradle, or scythe. In the 1830s, Cyrus McCormick invented the first reaping and mowing machine, allowing one man to cut as much grain in one day as five men could using hand tools. — McCormick Reaper Centennial (Chicago: International Harvester Company, 1931).

“The mowing machine does in 1 hour what the scythe will hardly do in 7 hours.” – The Encyclopedia Americana: A Library of Useful Knowledge, 1919, page 34.

Mowing is, at best, one of the severest of the labors of the farm, notwithstanding the efforts of poets and other writers to make us believe it is all fun. It calls into play nearly every voluntary muscle in the body, requiring not only the more frequent and regular movements of these muscles, but, on account of the twisting motion of the body, an unusually great exertion of muscular power. Nor does it require any small amount of skill to become a good mower, since it is proverbial that, unless the boy becomes accustomed to the scythe, and learns young, he can never become a skillful mower. It is not at all surprising, therefore, that mechanical ingenuity should have been directed to shorten and lighten this severe operation. – Charles Louis Flint, et. al. One Hundred Years Progress of the United States.

LEFT: Advertisement for McCormick mowers and reapers from a Bismarck, Dakota Territory, newspaper from the 1880s. RIGHT: Closeup of the cutter bar of a mowing machine at Ingalls Homestead, De Smet. One of the triangular teeth is circled. Laura and Carrie were sent to town to purchase a piece similar to this one.

In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder meet for the first time, thanks to a broken mowing machine part. Pa is cutting hay from the Big Slough and one of the sharp, triangular “teeth” of his mowing machine breaks. He sends Laura (accompanied by Carrie) to purchase a replacement (they are sent to buy two replacement teeth in the Hard Winter manuscript, not one) at Fuller Brothers Hardware Store in town, and the girls lose their way as they cut across the slough to find Pa after completing their purchase. Mistaking hay piled high in a wagon for a haycock, they stumble upon the Wilder brothers. Royal is pitching hay to Almanzo high in the wagon, much as Pa did when Laura was helping him do the same work earlier in the day. Almanzo can see Charles Ingalls nearby from his high perch and points the way to Laura, but not before his eyes twinkle at her, making her feel like she’s “known him for a long time.” The story doesn’t appear in the handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript, and as the land that made up the Big Slough was filed on as a homestead at the time, it’s unlikely that Pa or the Wilder brothers would be taking “free hay” from another man’s homestead.

In a March 1937 letter from Almanzo Wilder to daughter Rose, he wrote that he didn’t own a mowing machine (which meant he had to hire his mowing done), even though he spent $300 for a wagon and machinery to work his homestead. Royal must have owned one, as he later advertised in the local paper that he had a Charles A. Wood & Company mowing machine for sale.


mowing machine / mowing-machine (BPC 24; TLW 1-2; LTP 9; PG), see also cradle scythe
     lever on mowing machine (TLW 1)