The Wood Bros. Company (Part I)
Brian Wayne Wells
with the assistance of
Gary Oechsner of Fond-du-Lac, Wisconsin
Clarence L. Goodburn of Madelia, Minnesota
Alan C. King of Radnor, Ohio
Hugh Hash of Sparta, North Carolina
As published in the January/February 2001 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
In 1831, when Hiram and John Pitts developed the first threshing machine, bundles of grain had to be fed by hand into the thresher. Until the process of harvesting grain was mechanized in the late nineteenth century, hand-feeding of bundles into a thresher created a real bottleneck. Hand-feeding required a worker to stand at the front of the thresher to receive each bundle from another worker on the bundle wagon or stack. Then he had to cut the twine on the bundle and feed the bundle into the thresher. The threshing process could go no faster than the worker feeding the bundles into the thresher. Furthermore, hand-feeding of bundles was a dangerous job: once the bundle was fed, the rapidly spinning cylinder tended to “snatch” the bundle out of the hands of the person feeding the bundle. The person’s hands were only a short distance away from the cylinder and in danger of serious injury. There was also the danger of foreign materials getting into the cylinder and being thrown back up into the face of the person feeding the bundles. Consequently, there was a real need to develop some device that would eliminate the need for a person in this dangerous position and that would considerably speed up the threshing process. In the middle 1880s, just such a device was under experimentation on a South Dakota farm owned by the Wood family.
South Dakota was, in the 1880s, in the middle of a boom period, as the effects of the Panic of 1873 had subsided by 1878. They were showing signs of becoming a great wheat producing state, and settlers were moving in from Minnesota and other points to the east. (Herbert S. Schell, History of South Dakota, [University of Neb. Press: Lincoln, 1975] pp. 158-174.) There were growing pains, of course, and emotional debates would break out over a great number of issues. One such instance was the six-year “Spink County War” which broke out in 1878 over the issue of whether the county seat should be located in the town of Ashton or the town of Redfield.
This dispute eventually led in an armed mob of 300 citizens of Ashton in 1884 marching on Redfield to demand the return of county records which had been forcibly removed from Ashton by Redfield citizens. As a consequence, two companies of territorial militia had to be dispatched from Fargo to Spink County to dispell the conflict. However, by the time the militia arrived, the tense situation had eased. (Ibid. p. 204.) Nonetheless, boundless optimism was in the air in South Dakota. Anything seemed possible, and this feeling attracted young men from all over the United States. Among the young farm families immigrating into South Dakota in the spring of 1885 was the Wood family.
Originally from Marlboro, Massachusetts, the Wood family consisted of the parents and two daughters–Susan (born in 1855) and Clara (born in 1858). Sometime in the late 1850s or early 1860s, the family moved from Massachusetts and settled in Freemont Township in what would become Winona County in the southeastern corner of Minnesota. While living in Freemont Township, two sons were born–Robert L. (on August 31, 1861) and Franz John (on March 7, 1864)–thereby completing the family. In the spring of 1885, the Wood family learned of free land available for settling in South Dakota. Thus, they moved there and settled on a piece of land in the extreme southeastern corner on the state in Spink County on the border with Hand County. Later that same year, Franz Wood took “pre-emption” on a plot of land for himself a short distance away and Robert also took a claim on yet another plot of land. (Later, Robert would use his land as collateral when he went to Huron to get a loan in order to buy two identical mules–Jack and Jinnie.)
The summer of 1886 was a busy one for the Wood family, but they also made time to socialize with their neighbors. They helped organize the Turtle Creek baseball team, with Robert chosen as captain. Also, in 1886, Robert and Franz Wood purchased a straw-burning, 12-horsepower Case traction steam engine and a hand-feeding Case 36″ x 58″ thresher and began a custom threshing business operating from their parents’ farm. Moving from farm to farm in the neighborhood, they supplemented their farm income with this business.
Over the next couple of years, the brothers became intimately aware of the problems inherent with hand-fed threshers. Thus, they set about developing a self-feeding mechanism. In the optimistic enthusiasm that was part of the atmosphere of South Dakota during this time, the young men believed that they could invent a feeding mechanism that would speed the process of threshing and make it safer. At the end of the harvesting season in 1889, Franz purchased a blacksmith’s forge, hammer and tongs, as well as an old claim shanty to house his new shop. All during the fall and winter of 1889-1890, he worked on the new self-feeder. When it was completed, the new self-feeder was tested on their own Case 36″ thresher in the summer of 1890. Unfortunately, it proved to be a disappointment and broke under the stress after just 10 minutes of operation.
Not to be deterred, Franz began again to build another feeder made from stronger steel. In order to have important castings properly made, Franz traveled back to Freemont, Minnesota, where he had been born, to have his cousin’s husband, Arthur Craine, a local blacksmith, work on the self-feeder with him. While in eastern Minnesota working on the self-feeder, Franz traveled to another blacksmith shop in Rushford, where he worked on the self-feeder most of the winter.
On approximately March 1, 1891, Franz shipped the completed self-feeding mechanism back to South Dakota. That year there was a good and abundant crop and all through the long season of custom threshing the Wood brothers’ new self-feeder worked fine. As news of the improvement in thresher design passed quickly throughout the countryside, many South Dakota thresher owners began requesting information of the self-feeding device. Soon, six orders were placed for copies of the self-feeder. Hearing about the new invention, the local South Dakota agent for the J.I. Case Company came to the Wood family home with a proposal which would allow Case to build the six self-feeders in their factory in Racine, Wisconsin.
Thus, in May of 1892, Franz Wood journeyed to Racine to meet with the Case designers to help them make the six self-feeders. When he arrived, however, Case executives were surprised to find that young Franz had no notes or drawings of his new device whatsoever–he carried all the necessary information about the self-feeder in his head. Thus, it was necessary for Franz to make a drawing of the self-feeder which was then fleshed out in full blueprint form by the Case patternmaker. However, difficulties and disagreements soon arose between Franz Wood and Case Company officials which led Franz to break off their agreement and journey back to Winona, Minnesota. There, Franz engaged three small machine shops to build the six self-feeders according to his specifications. These six feeders all performed well and satisfied their customers.
By the fall of 1892, Robert and Franz Wood began to make plans for the mass production of their self-feeder. To initiate their plans, they once again contacted their cousin’s husband, Arthur Craine, in Fremont Corners. Besides Craine’s Blacksmith and Machine Shop, Fremont Corners was composed of Kelly Bros. grocery store, a post office, a church, a school house, a dance hall, and several other dwellings. Like so many small towns, Fremont Corners (1890 pop. 798) did not have rail service through town, and the lack of a railroad connection caused the town to decline. Still, unlike some towns which usually became totally unincorporated villages when railroads passed them by, Fremont Corners held on. Part of the reason they hung on was the fact that they were on a stage coach route that connected with the railroad towns of Chatfield (1890 pop. 1,335) to the southwest and Lewiston (1890 pop. 324) to the northeast. The stage coach that passed through Fremont Corners was a small remnant of the stage coach service which covered great portions of northern Iowa and southern Minnesota. This was the same stage coach service that once served Mantorville, Minnesota (1890 pop. 460). (Today people know Mantorville as the home of the famous restaurant, the Hubbell House, which continues to advertise its historic connections with the stage coach line that ran through Mantorville.)
By 1892, stage coach lines had diminished to only a few which remained profitable as “connectors” between non-railroad towns and towns which were served by railroads. In this way, small towns which were not fortunate enough to have rail service could still have a close approximation to local and regular rail service.
In the Spring of 1893, the Wood brothers and Arthur Craine rented the James Foundry and a connected old machine shop in Rushford, Minnesota (1890 pop. 968), located in northeastern Fillmore County. Despite the fact that Rushford too had only a stage coach connection to the railroads, the Wood brothers, Arthur Craine, Arthur’s son Charley, and George Jackson moved to Rushford and began operating the foundry and machine shop. Both the foundry and the machine shop were powered by a waterwheel operating from the waters of the middle branch of the Root River which flowed through Rushford.
It was a stressful time to open a business, as on February 23, 1893, the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad went bankrupt, followed on May 5, 1893, by the National Cordage Company. (See “Mail Order Machinery: The History of the David Bradley Co. [Part 1 of three parts] in the September/October 1999 issue of Belt Pulley, p. 15.) These spectacular failures set in motion the worst depression that the country had seen up to that time–the Panic of 1893. The stock market failed, banks called in their loans, and businesses failed daily. All totalled, 500 banks and 16,000 businesses failed. (Harold U. Faulkner, Politics, Reform and Expansion [Harper Bros.: New York, 1959], p. 141.) Furthermore, there were bad harvests in 1893 and 1895 which caused even more financial trouble for the farming community of the United States. Franz Wood mentions this in his autobiography written in 1953, noting at one point that the bad crops in South Dakota in 1893 had a depressing effect on sales of the self-feeder in that state. At another point, Franz relates that the second year of bad crops in South Dakota had reduced sales of the self-feeder again in 1894. At this point, in the fall of 1894, Arthur Craine quit the partnership, leaving only the two Wood brothers in the business. (Franz Wood, Wood Brothers in Action, [Iron-Men Album Publishers: Port Royal, Penn., 1953], p. 57.)
Still, life went on. In 1895, Robert L. Wood married and the couple was blessed with the birth of a son, Franz W. Wood, named for his uncle and Robert L.’s brother Franz J. Wood. Franz W. Wood would eventually grow up and go to work in the family business. Meanwhile, Franz J. Wood met his distant cousin Elizabeth during a family social gathering at St. Charles, Minnesota, and they were married on December 25, 1898.
As the depression eased toward the end of 1897, sales of the self-feeder began to grow again. In 1897, the brothers, needing larger facilities, moved west, across southern Minnesota, to purchase a blacksmith shop in Pipestone (1890 pop. 1232), located in the southwestern corner of Minnesota. Their first year in Pipestone, the brothers sold over 300 self-feeders, all the while continuing to make improvements on the self-feeder. They obtained patents for the band-cutter on the self-feeder on May 17, 1898, and for a governor mechanism for the self-feeder on August 3, 1899. The governor automatically stopped the self-feeder if the cylinder speed slowed to a level that was below a satisfactory operating speed. Accordingly, the governor prevented the thresher from becoming clogged. This governor would soon become universal on all threshers, as other thresher companies purchased the rights from the Wood Bros Threshing Co. to include the governor on their threshers also.
After two more successful years in Pipestone, sales of the self-feeder had grown to the degree that the brothers were required to move to even larger manufacturing facilities. Consequently, they relocated to the corner of East 20th Street and Washington Avenue in Des Moines, Iowa, a site which was large enough to allow for future growth. There, they incorporated their company as the Wood Brothers Self-Feeder Company.
Des Moines was a major rail center for the upper midwest, and the new factory site offered plenty of room for expansion. By 1902, Wood Bros. was building 1,200 self-feeders, and this figure continued to grow each year. On September 30, 1902, the Wood Bros. Company received a patent for and began production of the “Perfection Tender” for hauling wood or coal behind any steam traction engine. Other patents were also obtained as improvements were made to the self-feeder.
With the success of the self-feeder, Wood Bros. Company opened a branch house at 1209A Union Avenue in Kansas City. Another branch house was opened at 126 Third Avenue North in Minneapolis, Minnesota. By 1911, Wood Bros. Company had additional branch houses in Fargo, North Dakota, and Spokane, Washington. Furthermore, acting as jobbers for the Wood Bros. Company were the John Brant Company of Bushnell, Illinois; the Banting Machine Company of Toledo, Ohio; the Birdsall Engine Company of Auburn, New York; B.D. Reed and Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Shannahan & Wrightson Hardware Co. of Easton, Maryland; Geo. H Ackley of Caldwell, Idaho; the Keck Gonnerman Company of Mount Vernon, Indiana; and Geo. Seiller & Company of Spokane, Washington. All export business of the Wood Bros. Company was handled by Agar, Cross & Company located at 11 Broadway in New York, N.Y.
In 1904, Wood Bros. built its first prototype of the “Hummingbird” thresher. The following year, in 1905, the full line of “Hummingbird” wooden threshers went into production. (The name “Hummingbird” was arrived at almost by accident. However, Franz later determined that it was just the right name “for the smallest and fastest machine built.” [Franz Wood, Wood Brothers in Action, (Iron-Men Album Publishers: Port Royal, Penn., 1953), p. 70.])
From the very first, the Hummingbird thresher contained the unique design element of a tailings/grain return elevator that was wrapped completely around the thresher. Starting at the bottom rear of the separator of the thresher, the paddles and chain of the elevator picked up the tailings left un-threshed by the thresher and moved the tailings in the elevator tube up toward the front of the thresher. Passing over the top of the cylinder, the tube elevator deposited the tailings in front of the cylinder to allow the tailings another pass through the threshing process. The tube elevator then continued on its course, descending back down the other side of the thresher to pick up more tailings. This “wrap around” continuous-loop style of tailings elevator was to remain a unique identifying part of Wood Bros. threshers for the entire time the threshers were in production. A patent for the thresher was obtained on April 17, 1906.
Besides the unique “wrap-around” tailings elevator, the all-wood construction Hummingbird threshers were offered to the farming public complete with a “Farmer’s Friend” wind stacker and the Hart grain weigher in addition to the Wood Bros. Company’s own self-feeding mechanism. The Hummingbird threshers were also offered to the farming public in five different cylinder/separator sizes–24″ x 46″, 28″ x 50″, 32″ x 54″, 36″ x 58″, and 40′ x 62″.
In order to further expand their business, the Wood Brothers purchased, in 1905, six DJune steam traction engines from the DJune Company in Fremont, Ohio. They also purchased the patterns and manufacturing rights for the DJune engines. By 1907, the company began manufacturing its own line of steam traction engines. These steam engines were offered to the public in six different horsepower sizes–16 hp., 18 hp., 20 hp., 22 hp., 25 hp., and 30 hp. models. The 30 hp. steam engine was truly a monster of its day, with each rear driving wheels being 30″ wide. With 30 hp. delivered to the drawbar, the steam engine was designed for plowing as well as for powering the largest of threshers. Traditionally, large steam engines used for plowing would break driving gears, because the design of these steam engines allowed for only a single gear to drive the rear wheels. Thus, Franz J. Wood built and patented the first double-geared steam engine, and on December 20, 1910, he received a patent for this invention. Franz regarded the design and building of this engine as his masterpiece.
As part of an advertising campaign for the new steam traction engines, the Wood Bros. Company opened an exhibit at the 1909 Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, Minnesota. To demonstrate the agility of the new Wood Bros. Company steam traction engines in backing up a steep incline, Franz Wood himself drove one of the steam engines up and down the steep hill on the east side of the race track on the Minnesota State Fair grounds–driving up the incline almost to the fence surrounding the racetrack and then slowly backing down again.
The engine was also taken to the South Dakota State Fair, where a plot of land ½ mile in length and perfectly level awaited as the ideal testing ground for this plowing engine. We can only imagine what a thrill it must have been for F.J. Wood to return to Huron, South Dakota, to test his newest creation before his home state crowd. Pulling 14 plows in tough gumbo soil, the large Wood Bros. 30 hp. engine beat all the other competitors across the field the first time, with F.J. Wood himself at the controls. On the return trip across the field, the steam engine “drew water over” and caused the fire to go down a little, but the engine soon got its steam back up to 125 pounds of operating pressure and the engine finished the plowing round ahead of all competitors. (Franz Wood writes of this day at the South Dakota State Fair as one of the proudest events of his life.) (Ibid. p. 73)
Recognizing the fact that it was much more than just a manufacturer of self-feeders, the Company re-organized in 1911 under the new name of Wood Brothers Threshing Company. Patents continued to be obtained for improvements in the self-feeder, the thresher and the steam engine which the company produced. On March 7, 1911, the company received patents for improvements to both the governor and the band-cutter for the self-feeder.
Meanwhile, changes were occurring within the private lives of the Wood brothers. In 1903, Franz and Elizabeth celebrated the birth of their first child–a daughter Harriet. On September 15, 1905, a son was born. They named him Robert Edward, after his uncle and Franz’s brother–Robert L. Wood. Franz and Elizabeth would also have a third child, a daughter, whom they named Elizabeth after her mother. Despite the fact that both Robert and Franz were now owners and operators of a worldwide corporation, they remained plain in their living style. Franz relates a rather telling story in his autobiography of when he would come home from his work at the factory in Des Moines, in the period of time prior to the United States entry into the war in Europe in 1917, he faced the task of shelling corn for the chickens he and his wife Elizabeth raised on their farm just north of the factory in Des Moines. (This is not the usual picture one envisions of a corporate executive returning home after a hard day’s work.) Awaiting his arrival at his house would be his two-year-old daughter, Elizabeth. Little Elizabeth would help her father shell the corn for the chickens, and when they were finished, she would head into the house to get her father’s slippers. (Ibid. p. 74.) Then Franz would go into the house and settle into his favorite chair and sing little Elizabeth her favorite song. Sadly, Elizabeth would live for only two and a half years. It was a tragedy for the whole Wood family. This loss is mentioned in Franz’s autobiography compiled some 50 years later. (Ibid. p. 74)
Meanwhile, Robert L.’s family continued to grow with the birth of another daughter. Sadly, however, tragedy would later strike this household also, as Robert Wood’s wife would die unexpectedly in 1920.
The Wood Bros. Threshing Company continued production of the all-wood frame Hummingbird threshers until 1915, when they introduced their steel threshers made in the same five sizes as before. However, just when things were moving along nicely for them, disaster struck. In 1917, the three-story office building at the Wood Bros. Company was destroyed by fire. All engine and thresher records, blueprints, patterns and dimensions records were lost. Needless to say, this was a huge loss. The records, patterns and blueprints all had to be reconstructed merely from the catalogues and repair parts books which were located in the branch houses or in the suitcases of their traveling salesmen. The threshers, however, had to be designed all over again, largely from scratch.
The company struggled to recover from the destruction caused by the fire just as the United States was becoming involved in the war in Europe. While the inventory of parts which Wood Bros. had on hand would allow the company to assemble the five models of threshers for a while, it looked as though Wood Bros. might miss the expected boom in farm machinery sales. Obviously, the company would have to reduce the number of different models of threshers that they offered to the farming public, at least for the short term; nevertheless, the real question was, which models? In the end, it was determined that the company would introduce three new models–a 20″ x 46″ model, a 24″ x 40″ model, and a 24″ x 46″ model, thus discontinuing the larger sizes of threshers. Wood Bros. Company recognized that the trend in thresher production was away from the large threshers owned and used by custom threshermen and neighborhood “rings” and toward ownership of threshers by individual farmers who would use them to thresh only their own small grain crops. Thus, Wood Bros. called their new line of smaller threshers “individual threshers.” Consequently, the disastrous fire had the beneficial effect of forcing the company to focus on the future and to make changes at just the right time.
One of the most startling changes in mechanized farming had occurred in 1916, with the introduction by Henry Ford of his small, inexpensive Fordson tractor. Although the Fordson would not capture the tractor market until 1919 or later, Wood Bros., by ceasing manufacture of its large threshers and by introducing the small 20″ x 46″ thresher, had positioned itself perfectly for the small tractor revolution which was to occur in the 1920s. Because the 20″ x 46″ model Wood Bros. thresher was one of the very first small threshers on the market, it naturally became teamed with the small Fordson tractor. Owners of Fordson tractors tended to become purchasers of Wood Bros. threshers, too. Furthermore, advertising by the Wood Bros. Company tended to stress this connection between the Fordson tractor and its own small threshers. In the eyes of the farming public, then, there appeared to be a connection between Wood Bros. and the Ford Company long before there was any true corporate connection between the two companies.
In 1921, Wood Bros. reintroduced its line of improved individual threshers with only a few changes. They continued to have just three models–the 21″ x 36″ model, the 26″ x 46″ model, and the 30″ x 50″ model. The new improved 21″ thresher still required only 20 horsepower to operate at peak efficiency (Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Threshers [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc., 1992] p. 122), ideally matching the horsepower range of the small Fordson tractor which delivered 20.19 hp to the belt and 12.325 horsepower to the drawbar. (C.H. Wendel, Nebraska Tractor Tests [Crestline Publishers: Osceola, Wisc., 1985] p. 53.)
In 1926, the Wood Bros. factory was again attacked by fire. This time, though, the losses were not as dramatic as in 1917, since only the woodworking shop was burned. Still, the company decided to take advantage of this misfortune and move to a factory site at 1700 E. Aurora Ave., just outside the city limits on the northeast edge of Des Moines, Iowa. There, the Wood Bros. Company built a new factory building which covered seven acres, all under one roof. To purchase and develop the new location, the Company floated $300,000 in corporate bonds. By the spring of 1927, they were in full operation at the new location. Because of this change of factory sites, Wood Bros. temporarily fell behind in its orders, and by June 1, 1927, they were 360 orders behind. However, the productivity of the new factory immediately became apparent as the company soon made up the difference by turning out 27 to 28 completed threshers in a single nine-hour working day.
By 1928, the new company was running at full speed. Indeed, at one point in 1928, Wood Bros. shipped 200 threshers on a single train from the new plant in Des Moines to the block house in Fargo, North Dakota. This was the largest shipment ever made by Wood Bros. To attract as much attention as possible to the event, the advertising department at Wood Bros. coaxed Franz Wood, as President of the Company, to ride the Great Western train with the 200 threshers. Beginning in Des Moines, the train moved north to the Minnesota-Iowa state line and on to St. Paul, Minnesota, where the railroad cars containing the 200 threshers were transferred to the Great Northern Railway for transport to Fargo. The Assistant Superintendent of the Great Northern Railway had offered the use of his own private coach car (complete with master chef) for Franz to use. Before leaving Des Moines, Franz had asked B.B. Clark, Editor of the American Thresherman Magazine, to accompany him in the Great Northern private coach on the trip from St. Paul to Fargo. When the train arrived in Fargo, it was met by a marching band. That evening, there was a great banquet for Franz and the other dignitaries which had been arranged by Mr. Bain, manager of the Fargo branch house.
Operating from its new factory at 1700 E. Aurora Avenue, the Wood Bros. Company was now the largest single industrial project between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. It seemed to Franz L. Wood that the whole world was open to him and his company and there were no limits as to what they could accomplish.