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Ardrey, Robert L. American Agricultural Implements: A Review of Invention and Development in the Agricultural Implement Industry of the United States . Chicago: R. L. Ardrey, 1894. [format: book], [genre: report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
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Canton, Ill.


ILLINOIS stands first among the States of the Union in the manufacture of agricultural implements. It was on the fertile prairies of Illinois that the most important of our modern implements were invented and developed, and it is in this State that the largest factories for their production have been built up. One of the most interesting fields of work for the historian of the future will be found in the development of agriculture in this and other western States during the past half century and the subsequent development of industries that are based upon agriculture. In the lives of our inventors and pioneer manufacturers, for example, may be found much that is interesting to the general reader and of inestimable value to those who seek the source of the enormous gains the west has made in wealth and in the ability to produce the means of subsistence. Volumes might be written for each of a score or more houses that were established forty to fifty years ago, that have sent out in ever increasing streams the implements needed by the farmer to lighten his labor and increase his earnings.

In Canton, Illinois, is located the oldest permanent steel plow factory in the United States, and, so far as the writer knows, the oldest permanent agricultural implement factory in the west. It was established in 1842 by the late Wm. Parlin, who was a thorough blacksmith, having served a regular apprenticeship in the east, and had the requisite energy and ability to rise in his calling and become a leader in the west in the manufacture of a general line of agricultural implements.

Mr. Parlin came to Canton in 1840 from Massachusetts, after having worked at his trade one year in St. Louis, Mo., arriving at Canton with only 25 cents working capital and his tools, but with a determination to earn his way to success. He had reached Canton by way of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, walking ten miles from the nearest landing to the village, July 4. He immediately established a blacksmith shop and began doing the local work incident to his "trade." The first article that he made was a "froe" for splitting lath from oak timber for building purposes. From this beginning his patronage grew, and during his leisure time he began to make plows. The first that he turned out had wooden mouldboards, with steel shares cut from old saws; but "boiler plate" was also used for the mouldboards of some of his plows, and in 1842 several were made with steel mouldboards and landsides. These proved so welcome to the farmers that he found it necessary to employ extra help in turning out plows, and the original shop, a small, rude building, was enlarged again and again, until in 1846 a small foundry was added.

The Canton Clipper Steel Beam Plow.

The Canton Clipper Tricycle Plow.

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In the winter of 1847-48, however, his entire plant was swept away by fire, and he found it necessary to begin again in a small way. His first brick building was erected on the site of the present works in 1849, a 20x60 structure, one story high, and Mr. Parlin's facilities for manufacturing were thus considerably increased.

The business was conducted by Mr. Parlin alone until 1852, when Wm. J. Orendorff joined resources with him under the firm name of Wm. Parlin & Co., and preparations were made for still further enlarging the business. The horse-power that had been used for running their grindstones and other machinery was discarded and steam-power employed. About this time the Clipper style of plows was designed and introduced, bringing before the farmers of the west an implement that still stands at the head after the lapse of over 40 years. But as their output increased the new firm found it up-hill work extending their business beyond the limits they had hitherto worked. Transportation facilities were poor, as it was necessary to get material from and finished goods to the Illinois river, ten miles away.

"Selling goods at that time was quite a different process from what it is to-day," said Mr. Orendorff a few years ago to a newspaper man who was interviewing him. "I used to load up a platform wagon built for that purpose and drive out to the principal towns seeking customers, until my plows were either sold or consigned to country merchants, when I would return to Canton, catch up with my books and office work, and do the same thing over again. As our facilities were increased, we had to go farther away to sell our plows. We then took them to pieces and loaded into wagons and drove into far-off territory. Upon one trip with three wagon loads I remember driving for some days without much success. Stopping one evening at a ‘tavern,’ I noticed a stranger with his feet resting against a jamb of the fire-place; and after learning with what we were loaded, he opened up the conversation by asking me what I was going to do with those plows. Upon telling him my purpose, he said, ‘Better take them over to my place and I will sell them for you; my place is at Knoxville, Iowa.’ A few days later it began raining, and the roads, never good, were abominable. We drove into Knoxville, found Mr. Cunningham to be all right, left three loads, or nearly 100 plows, with him and returned home. The next spring he sold them all and paid the cash. We also found markets for our product by shipping them up and down the Illinois, Mississippi and Missouri rivers by boat, I frequently going along selling or consigning a few of them at the different towns as the boats discharged and loaded other freight, until all were disposed of. In the spring of 1855 I went with a cargo down the Illinois river to St. Louis, and up the Missouri as far as Kansas City, then little more than a landing, and there established a trade in that country that has had a satisfactory and continuous growth, extending all over the great southwest and west to the Pacific coast."

The Canton Lister.

The Canton Stalk Cutter.

This energetic work in the introduction of their plows naturally led to further enlargements of the shops, and they began the manufacture of other agricultural implements than plows, beginning with walking-cultivators and shovel-plows in 1856, stalk-cutters in 1857, and other implements as the necessity arose or favorable opportunities presented. In 1865 their first

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riding-cultivator was put on the market. The following year their foundry was enlarged and additions were made to other parts of the works. The first lister ever manufactured for the trade was built by Parlin & Orendorff at Canton. It was the invention of a Missouri blacksmith, who succeeded in interesting this firm in the new method of planting corn in the west. So great was its popularity that during the first year the listers were sent out as soon as finished, some by express, and many of them before the paint had dried.

In 1862 the first railroad was built to Canton, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. This made them independent of water transportation, and their shipping facilities were made still more complete by the building of the Toledo, Peoria & Western road in 1868. And as the years rolled on the demand for the celebrated Canton goods has increased and the factory enlarged, until they employ from six to eight hundred men, which, together with their improved machinery, give them almost unlimited capacity in this particular line. The old firm was merged into a corporation in 1880, taking in younger members of the two families under style of Parlin & Orendorff Co., a close corporation. They have this year, for 1894, added many new features to older style of implements, and some new machines, prominent among them the new Canton steel corn-planter and check-rower.

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Ardrey, Robert L. American Agricultural Implements: A Review of Invention and Development in the Agricultural Implement Industry of the United States . Chicago: R. L. Ardrey, 1894. [format: book], [genre: report]. Permission: Northern Illinois University
Persistent link to this document:
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