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A strong thread composed of two or three smaller threads or strands twisted together, and used for various purposes, as for binding small parcels, sewing sails to their bolt ropes, making nets, and the like; a small cord or string. — Webster, 1882

Judging from the amount of twine going out, the amount of grain this year is simply immense. – De Smet Leader, August 1, 1885

The only twine mentioned in the Little House books is that used to tie the fleeces that Royal rolls after the Wilders’ merino sheep have been sheared (see Farmer Boy, Chapter 14, “Sheep-Shearing”). In the Farmer Boy manuscript, red peppers from the garden were strung on twine for storage, but this was changed to string in the published version. This twine was perhaps a piece of baker’s or butcher’s twine, used to tie boxes or items wrapped in paper.

String and twine are similar, although twine is typically stronger and heavier. Twine is made up of two or more strands twisted together, and can be made of many things: jute, hemp, cotton, sisal, etc. Although historically, twine was made of natural fibers, today it may also be made of man-made materials, such as polyester. When Almanzo Wilder was a boy, rolled fleece was typically tied with twine made of flax or hemp, or possibly of cotton, if the twine was twisted so that it was smooth and hard, often glazed. If a soft material was used for tying, there was a great risk of particles of the tying material getting incorporated in the wool so that it had to be picked out by hand when the fleece was unrolled. After the turn of the 19th century, paper twine was widely used, as it wouldn’t get caught in the fibers and would dissolve when wet. Paper twine is made of long, narrow strips of paper that are rolled individually, and then two of these are twisted together for strength. It is not known what type of twine the Wilders used to tie fleece. Photo at left is from William Youatt’s Sheep: Their Breeds, Management, and Diseases (New York: C.M. Saxton, Publishers, 1863), 188.

Twine Binder. In the Little House books, oats and wheat are bound (tied together in bundles) using handfuls of the same long stalks to tie them. In the original eight books, Pa is still using the “old method” in These Happy Golden Years. Laura Ingalls Wilder mentions that there is machinery available for such tasks, but Pa won’t go into debt to purchase them; here, she is referring to the twine binder, which was in use in De Smet in the 1880s.

In the 1840s, a twine knotter was invented by John Appleby (1840-1917). Appleby, South Dakota, was named for the inventer in 1884; it is north of De Smet in Codington County. As a young man in Iowa, Appleby had worked binding grain and realized that a machine could do the work. He invented a wire binder and later a twine knotter, patented in the late 1870s and manufactured by Deering in 1878. It loosely tied bundles of grain as they were collected, tossing them to one side and allowing for speedy collection of the bundles. By 1885, hardware stores and farm implement dealers in De Smet were selling twine and twine binders; see Edward Couse’s advertisement in the Kingsbury County Independent at right. Click HERE to see a twine binder’s grain knotter in action.

In her 1938 novel, Free Land, Rose Wilder Lane wrote that her main character, David Beaton, used a twine binder on his Dakota Territory homestead in the early 1880s. A reader wrote to Lane, arguing that she included the use of machinery that wasn’t in use at the time. Lane wrote to her mother, who assured her that twine binders were in use in the 1880s, saying: …There were self binders using wire, for binding, before Manly went west in 1879. It was found that the threshing broke the wire into bits which were in the straw and the grain and injured stock that ate of it. So, as soon as that was learned, twine was used instead of wire. It would not likely be more than a couple of years later. We don’t know the exact date of the twine self-binder. But the fall we were married 1885, Pa bought a twine binder at a sale. It was an old wreck so it must have been used for some years before that. Pa bought it for Manly and the two of them fixed it up so Manly used it to cut his grain for two or three years.

Laura Ingalls Wilder included Manly’s purchase of a McCormick twine binder in The First Four Years, published after her death. As Almanzo had relayed to Rose in a 1938 letter, he purchased a $200 binder and in the letter he wrote that twine for it cost $30 for what he used in his own fields in a season. The McCormick twine binder was first in use in 1881, with improvements made in subsequent years. An early advertisement for a McCormick harvester and twine binder is shown below.


twine (FB 14)