The New Idea Spreader Company of Coldwater, Ohio:
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the September/October 1998 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
The golden age of American agriculture, from 1865 until 1921, saw a revolution in the development of labor-saving mechanical devices. Part of that revolution was the development of the manure spreader, a great improvement over spreading manure by fork from the rear of a wagon. Yet, manure spreaders of the 1890s were heavy, cumbersome farm implements. Tim Littleton, of Grayson, Kentucky, has restored an old John Deere manure spreader which was typical of the early design of manure spreaders and has exhibited it at the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton, West Virginia.
Early model manure spreaders, like the Littleton manure spreader, contained a single beater which was attached directly to the axle of the rear wheels. Therefore, the manure tended to be forked out into a swath directly behind the manure spreader with very little spreading to the sides. As a result, the manure was spread in the fields in narrow bands which tended to be too thick for good incorporation into the soil. If left in these thick bands, the manure would causing burning of the grass or crop. Consequently, following the spreading of manure, farmers would head into fields with peg-tooth drags or similar implements to smear the swaths of manure across the field. This was an extra, time consuming step to be undertaken by the farmer who was already over-worked.
In the 1890s, Joseph Oppenheim, a schoolmaster in a one-room country school in the small town of Maria Stein, Ohio, through circumstances not currently know to us today, pondered this problem, and one day during recess at the school, he was struck by an idea. Every day during recess the students would form teams and play a variation of baseball, called “tom ball.” For a bat, the students used a flat paddle with a handle. The ball would be pitched to the batter who could use the paddle to hit the ball in any direction by simply striking the ball with the paddle held at the desired angle. This well-known effect of paddle and ball struck Joseph as the solution to the problem of manure spreading. He felt that a series of paddles could be attached to the rear of a manure spreader to spread manure in a wide pattern several times the width of the spreader.
To test his theory, Joseph, with the help of his son B.C. Oppenheim, knocked the end out of a cigar box and built a small rotary paddle distributor into the open end of the cigar box. Each of the paddles on the rotary distributor were set at different angles. Then, Joseph and his son filled the cigar box with chaff and operated the small distributor with power from the drive wheel of a sewing machine. The test was successful. The chaff was thrown in a wide pattern.
After several other tests, Joseph Oppenheim became convinced that he had an idea that could be designed into manure spreaders. Thus the “widespread” for the modern manure spreader was born.
Joseph quit his teaching job, and on October 18, 1899, he broke ground for a small shop in Marie Stein, Ohio, where he could mass produce his new manure spreader, incorporating his new “widespread” in addition to two beaters.
Among the first employees Joseph hired at his new plant were Fred Heckman and Henry Synck from the Oppenheim’s neighborhood in Marie Stein, Ohio. Later, August Rutschilling was hired. Neighbors around the town of Marie Stein started referring to the new improved manure spreaders as “Oppenheim’s new idea” and Joseph adopted this as the new name for the business he had formed. Thus was founded the New Idea Spreader Works with Joseph Oppenheim as president.
The first New Idea spreader had two beaters rather than just one. The top beater was situated immediately above the lower beater and was smaller because pulverizing of the top part of the load was easier than the bottom. Immediately behind the beaters was the famous New Idea widespread which had a steel axle with many wooden paddles attached to it.
Hardly had the new company started mass producing the new improved manure spreader than Joseph Oppenheim was stricken by typhoid fever and died suddenly in 1901. However, Joseph’s wife and family vowed to carry on operations of the New Idea Spreader Works in Joseph’s absence. Joseph’s widow used the money obtained from Joseph’s insurance policy, and their oldest son, B.C. Oppenheim, became the new president in place of this father. Not only did the business carry on–it thrived based on brisk sales of the New Idea spreader.
However, to maintain its position as an innovator of manure spreaders, the Oppenheims were continually seeking ways to improve its original design. Therefore, much effort was aimed at solving two problems which plagued all older manure spreaders, including the first New Idea design. One problem was the heavy “draft” of older manure spreaders. Draft refers to the amount of energy required to pull any implement. Horses have only so much energy that they can use in any given day of work. An exhausted horse was called a “blown horse.” Too heavy a draft would “blow a horse” in a hurry. (Heavy draft of a plow with two 12″ bottoms being easily pulled by a Farmall F-12 is referred to in the 1934 movie, Farmall Farming Marches On, available on Tape #1 of the International Harvester Promotional Movies collection, in terms of “there are no shoulders here to become raw or to blow,” once again alluding to a exhausted horse. Today with horses long gone as a source of power on farms, these terms are becoming part of a lost vocabulary.) A farmer could not very well begin a work day with blown horses which had merely been used to take the morning load of manure to the fields. Consequently, light draft in all implements including manure spreaders was a desired goal of all farmers and thus a concern of the New Idea Works.
In 1902, a new model spreader was introduced by the Oppenheims which had a greatly reduced draft. This new spreader incorporated the second major improvement or second great “new idea” in spreader design that originated with the New Idea Works. The upper beater on the new manure spreader was moved slightly forward. Research by New Idea revealed that this design change would have the effect of shearing off the upper portion of the load before the bottom was pulverized by the lower beater. This would ease the operation of the lower beater and lighten the draft of the manure spreader. This small change was soon copied by most other manure spreader manufacturing companies. The familiar design of nearly all modern manure spreaders was now taking form.
The second major problem with the initial New Idea spreader, and most other designs, was the overall height of the sides of the manure spreader. The top of the sides of manure spreaders could be as high as 50 inches from the floor. This required the farmer to lift every forkful of manure almost chest high when loading his manure spreader. Originally, all manure spreaders had high wooden-spoke wheels. Therefore, one of the very first improvements made to the New Idea spreader in 1899, was to change from creaking wooden-spoke wheels to lower and wider-rimmed all-steel wheels. The new steel-spoke wheels on the front of the New Idea manure spreader were 26-1/2″ tall with a 4-1/2″ wide face on the rim. The rear wheels were 40″ tall with a 6″ face. These newer, lower and wider wheels had the effect of lowering the height of the sides of the manure spreader to a degree. However, because wheels were still mounted on the side of the manure spreader and fifth-wheel type steering was still being employed, the success in lowering the manure spreader was limited. The axles for the wheels would still have to pass under the floor of the bed and the front wheels would have to be allowed room to slip at least part of the way under the bed in sharp turns. To solve this problem and to allow for the spreader height to be lowered more, New Idea copied a design which was becoming popular with other manure spreader manufacturers. This was a modified “goose neck” design which moved the front wheels out from under the manure spreader bed entirely. The front wheels were mounted to a “truck” attached to a gooseneck frame in front of the manure spreader. John Deere manure spreaders of this era were of this design, and indeed, the Littleton John Deere manure spreader mentioned above was of this design.
In 1903, the Company began manufacturing their famous “widespread” entirely out of metal, with the old wooden paddle widspread retained as an option. By 1914, the older widespread was entirely phased out in favor of the newer all-steel widespread.
During the fall of 1913, when New Idea introduced their 1750 lbs. 50-bushel Model 15, their 1850 lbs. 75-bushel Model 16, and their 2000 lbs. 90-bushel Model 17, NISCO (standing for New Idea Spreader Company to which the name of the business had been changed in 1904) manure spreaders, the combination of these design improvements had lowered the sides of the manure spreader to only about 43″ from the floor to the top of the sides of the manure spreader. (One of these NISCO spreaders can be seen at the Pioneer Village Museum in Minden, Nebraska.)
Demand for New Idea manure spreaders grew steadily during this whole period. Soon New Idea had outgrown the little shop at Marie Stein, Ohio. In 1910, the New Idea Spreader Company moved to nearby Coldwater, Ohio, and set up shop at a larger factory site covering some 20 acres. The move to Coldwater, Ohio, offered a number of advantages to the young company, including rail service on the New York, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad which was part of the Vanderbuilt-owned New York Central Railroad system.
In 1912, New Idea Spreader Company became a real “short line” farm equipment company rather than exclusively a manure spreader manufacturer when they introduced the New Idea one-row transplanter. Later, a two-row version of the transplanter was also introduced. Accordingly, the plant facilities at Coldwater were expanded to meet the new requirements. Eventually, all 20 acres of the site were filled, and by 1924, the factory had the capacity to turn out 125 new manure spreaders in an 8-hour day. To meet the changing business environment, the company was incorporated in 1920 as the New Idea Company and the company began to take on outside investors. Although stock in the company was not publicly traded and the company remained a closely-held corporation, the day of New Idea being a family-owned business were over.
In celebration of the twenty-fifth (silver) anniversary of the New Idea Company in 1924, the company introduced two new products–the New Idea Model 8 manure spreader and the New Idea 6-roll corn husker-shredder. The new Model 8 manure spreader incorporated a number of new innovations over the previous model of manure spreader, including automobile-like steering rather than the old fifth-wheel type of steering of previous NISCO models. Consequently, the Model 8 manure spreader had a considerably lighter draft than previous New Idea manures spreaders. Introduction of the Model 8 manure spreader signaled the beginning of a design of four-wheel manure spreaders which would remain the universal design for nearly all companies until well after World War II. The Model 8 was a hugely successful product for the
New Idea Company, selling in numbers in excess of 10,000 in the year from November of 1925 until November of 1926. From November of 1926 until November of 1927, New Idea sold more manure spreaders in a one-year period than at any time prior or since by selling 17,000 Model 8s. From November 1927 until November 1928, 12,000 Model 8s were sold.
As we have noted elsewhere (See “The Frank Brown Construction Company” July/August 1996 Belt Pulley Vol. 9, No. 4, p. 19), the Great Depression may have begun in 1929 for the industrial sector of the United States economy. However, for the agricultural sector, the depression began in 1921. Depression for farmers also meant depression for manufacturers of farm equipment. Thus, it is surprising that the New Idea Company would experience its best manure spreader sales in the late 1920s. It is perhaps a symbol that the manure spreader was looked upon by farmers as such a tremendous labor-saving device that it became more of a necessity rather than a luxury, and perhaps when farmers were not really buying other machines for their farms, they were buying manure spreaders. It is also perhaps an indication of the recognition by farmers that the New Idea Model 8 was a very good machine available at a reasonable price which would very quickly pay for itself on any livestock farm. Whatever the reason, the magnificent sales of the Model 8 did much to save the New Idea Company from the same economic stagnation which other agricultural manufacturers were experiencing in the 1920s. Consequently, when the depression severely deepened in the 1930s, and other farm equipment companies were facing really desperate straits, the New Idea Company was somewhat of an exception. New Idea came through the 1920s in better shape that most other farm equipment companies based on the sales of the Model 8.6
Just when sales of the Model 8 peaked and started to decline, New Idea introduced another farm product which was to revolutionize the company. In January 1927, New Idea began testing the first prototype of what was eventually to become its next hugely successful farm implement–the two-row corn picker. The New Idea corn picker was the first two-row pull-type corn picker made exclusively for tractor operation. The corn picker was powered by a tractor power-take-off shaft, efficiently picked, husked and elevated the ears into a wagon or truck through a side-mounted elevator. The New Idea corn picker was covered almost entirely with galvanized sheet metal which would become the trademark of New Idea corn pickers. The smooth, sleek galvanized look of the Model 2 would remain characteristic of all New Idea corn pickers until 1982, when New Idea Company ceased production of all corn pickers. When put into mass production in early September of 1928, the New Idea Model 2 corn picker immediately became a hot selling product.
Soon other farm equipment companies were scrambling to introduce their two-row pull-type corn pickers to compete with the innovative Model 2 corn picker.
Cornpickers of all brands were tremendous labor savers on the average North American farm. (Just how much saved time is pointed out in the 1938 movie “Party Line” available on Tape #4 of the International Harvester Promotional Movie Collection. The movie indicates that a farmer who hand picks his corn spends nearly nine times as many man/hours picking the crop than he spent plowing, preparing seed bed, planting and cultivating that same corn crop.) No wonder, then, that corn pickers enjoyed a tremendous growth right from their very introduction. Over the next three years, the New Idea Company made improvements to the Model 2, and by 1930, the Model 6 replaced the Model 2. The Model 6 would remain in production with only minor changes until 1949 when it would be replaced by the even more popular Model 6A corn picker.
Along with the Model 2 two-row corn picker, New Idea introduced their innovative steel-wheeled farm wagon gear. Unlike many other farm equipment companies, New Idea did not turn to an outside company, like Electric Wheel Company, to actually make the wagon gear. Instead, the New Idea Company designed and manufactured its own wagon gear. Characteristically, the company spent time and resources to produce a wagon which contained innovative features and was ahead of its time. The steel-wheeled wagon had carbon-steel spoke wheels with a 4″ face and a 3/16″ deep center groove in the rim. The front wheels were 28″ in diameter and the rear wheels were 34″ in diameter. The New Idea wagon gear had modern automobile-style steering while many other wagon companies were still producing wagon gear with old fashioned fifth-wheel type steering. Although the New Idea wagon gear was not as big a seller for the company as was the Model 8 manure spreader or the Model 2/Model 6 corn pickers, farmers did recognize the innovative features of the wagon gear and kept it a popular, if not outstanding, sales product.
Despite the addition of the transplanter, the husker/shredder, the corn picker and the wagon gear to the New Idea product line, President B.C. Oppenheim and the management team at New Idea recognized in 1929 that the time had come for a radical expansion of the farm implement line. New Idea should either expand its line of equipment, or the company as a whole would fail as the depression deepened. Despite the above-average sales of the individual New Idea products, the entire line of farm products offered by the company was not large enough to assure the future existence of the company. Either they should go big or go out of business!
Accordingly, in 1929, the company began merger negotiations with the Sandwich Manufacturing Company of Sandwich, Illinois. (For a more detailed history of the Sandwich Company, see the article in the July/August 1998 Belt Pulley magazine, Vol. XI, No. 4.) By 1930, the sale was completed. Right in the heart of the economic depression, New Idea had been able to pull off the purchase of another large company. This was a sign of how economically strong New Idea was in relation to other companies in the field of farm implement manufacture.
Purchase of the Sandwich Company instantly provided New Idea with a much larger line of farm equipment, including Sandwich’s very fine corn sheller, a portable grain elevator, a mower, a side-delivery hay rake, and its innovative hay loader, all of which were made at the Sandwich Company facilities. Most significant of all the implements added was the hay loader. Sandwich had purchased the rights to the hay loader from the Iowa farmer who was its original inventor and started mass producing it for the agricultural market. The hay loader design obtained by New Idea through the purchase of the Sandwich Company was thus the direct descendent of that first hay loader. New Idea continued production of the Sandwich “Easyway” hay loader under the name New Idea Easyway until 1952.
One of these New Idea Easyway hay loaders was bought in southern Minnesota and used on a farm near LeSueur, Minnesota. In the early 1980s, the Easyway was donated to the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association and was used in a field demonstration at one of the annual Pioneer Power threshing shows held in the early or mid 1980s. First, the slough grass in a low area on the new Pioneer Power Showgrounds was cut and dried for the show. Then the hay was raked. Finally, Donny Pfarr brought a team of horses out to the slough, pulling an empty hayrack with the donated New Idea Easyway hay loader hitched to the rear. There, the Easyway was put to use loading the hayrack. It was truly an old-fashioned scene.
One of the workers that day was Bobby Kahle, who remembered working with a similar New Idea Easyway hay loader on his parents’ farm near Belle Plaine, Minnesota when he was a young boy. Bobby’s parents, Merrill and Irene (Schmidt) Kahle, operated the 120-acre diversified farm until 1969 when Bobby took over the farming operation. They milked about 20 head of cows on their farm and thus needed winter cattle feed. Like so many of their neighbors, they had to put up hay for the winter. In 1952, they found that their old hay loader was not operating efficiently. Accordingly, Merrill purchased a used New Idea Easyway which was put to use immediately on the hay crop that year. The Easyway continued to be used on the Kahle farm until the family switched to baling hay. Thus, the field demonstration with the Easyway on the Pioneer Power Show grounds brought back memories to Bobby of his childhood as it did for so many other people watching the demonstration. After that particular show, the donated New Idea Easyway hay loader was not used again, but has become part of the permanent collection of farm machinery located on the Pioneer Power Showgrounds. As such, this particular Easyway hay loader remains a “representative” model of the Kahle hay loader and of other particular Easyway hay loaders which now exist only in the memories of Pioneer Power Show attendees.
Spurred by these memories, the Easyway on the Pioneer Power grounds has become the object of some recent attention by a few of the Association members who are intent on restoring the hay loader. Since the hay loader is still in operating condition, it would need only a new covering of paint and the proper decals to be like new. Then it could be paraded each year at the show behind an appropriate hayrack.
Even after the purchase of the Sandwich Company, New Idea continued to expand its line of farm machinery. In 1935, New Idea introduced a smaller, new four-roll model corn husker/shredder to capture the market of farmers looking for a smaller, more economical way of harvesting and processing ripe ear corn.
Also in 1935, B.C. Oppenheim stepped down as president of New Idea and was replaced by the same Henry Synck who had been one of the first employees hired by Joseph Oppenheim back at the turn of the century. The company continued to be a success and continued to grow under Henry Synck’s leadership. Expansion of the company created the need for newer forms of corporate financing. Consequently, the New Idea Company “went public” and began selling common stock to the public in April of 1937 over the “Curb Exchange” which was the forerunner of what is today called the NASDAQ, or the over-the-counter stock exchange.
Following the trend toward rubber tires on tractors, New Idea began selling more and more of its farm implements on rubber tires. Indeed, New Idea led the way by making rubber tires available on all of its farm equipment. However, with the coming of the Second World War, rubber tires once again became scarce as all resources were turned toward the war effort.
Although some threshing machine manufacturers were unable to obtain permission from the government to continue making threshing machines out of galvanized sheet metal (Case Corporation is the prime example. Case threshers made during the war are distinguished from identical pre-war models only in that the war-time models were made of Flambeau Red painted sheet metal rather than galvanized sheet metal), and some farm implement factories suspended production of farm products entirely in favor of wartime production, the New Idea Company was not forced to cease farm implement production during the war. Indeed, although production of the Model 6 corn picker was curtailed to some extent due to the war, New Idea continued to sheath the corn picker in galvanized steel during the war just as they had before the war.
Over the years, New Idea continued to make improvements to the individual products in their line of farm equipment. In 1939, New Idea introduced the Model 7 one-row, pull-type tractor-powered corn picker. That same year, the company introduced the new Model 10 manure spreader. The Model 10 incorporated a number of improvements over the company’s classic Model 8 manure spreader. One of the most visible design changes was the flared tops on the sides of the manure spreader. A New Idea advertisement from 1940 indicates that the Model 10 manure spreader had a boosted load capacity, up to 65-70 bushels, because of these flared extensions on the side of the manure spreader. To prevent buildup and choking of the manure load at the back of the spreader as the manure was being spread, New Idea designed the Model 10 with flared sides extending all the way to the rear of the spreader. This meant that the top beater on the Model 10 had to be wider than the bottom beater. This was another variation from the design of the Model 8 spreader.
In 1942, a brand new Model 10 spreader found its way to a farm in LeSueur County, Minnesota. After years of service there, the Model 10 was still in very good shape. The identification tag on the left front side still revealed the Lot Number and Serial No. of the spreader. With these two numbers, it was possible to call Wallace (Wally) McDougall, formerly employed by New Idea and now with W. McDougall & Associates at P.O. Box 229, Coldwater, OH 45822-0229, Telephone: (419) 586-4839, FAX: (304) 586-4840, to ascertain information on the age of the Model 10 manure spreader. Wally McDougall is a very good source of information on the New Idea Company and any of its products.
In 1997, the 1942 New Idea Model 10 manure spreader was donated to the LeSueur Pioneer Power Association. Members recognized the steel-wheeled Model 10 as a significant and classic product from a classic short line company. Accordingly, the Model 10 was stored indoors on the showgrounds and the wooden floor of the old manure spreader was brushed with waste crankcase oil as a preservative. This manure spreader also became the target of attention of some of the members of the Pioneer Power Association with intentions of restoring the Model 10 with new paint and decals.
As with nearly all New Idea implements, the Model 10 manure spreader bears the distinctive orange and green color combination with black lettering. The orange paint is replicated for the restorer of New Idea equipment by obtaining Martin-Senour No. 4977 which can be mixed up at the restorer’s nearby NAPA auto parts store. The orange paint also correlates to the Navistar paint No. NAR 3750. (Incidentally, the shade used for New Idea orange is the same as the famous “poppy orange” used on 1965 Ford Mustangs.) The dark green on New Idea equipment is replicated by Ditzler 3255 or Sherwin Williams 6780.
Although short line companies generally do not have associations to promote and foster the preservation of its equipment, New Idea certainly should have one. Maybe someday this void will be filled. Until then, it will be the province of individual collectors to restore the farm equipment products of this fine old short line company–one of the most innovative companies in North American agriculture.