The Rosenthal Corn Husker Company of
Brian Wayne Wells
with the assistance of
Jim McFarlane of Waunakee, Wisconsin
Gary Jones of Owatonna, Minnesota
John McNamara of Eagle Rock, Missouri
Picture a field bare of all plant-life except for the four-inch corn stubble carpeting the entire field, interrupted only by corn shocks (each shock composed of four or five bundles standing upright leaning against each other to permit the corn to dry in the field), with two or three pumpkins gathered at the feet of the first one or two shocks as one enters the field. This memory conjures up some of the most romantic ideas of 19th century farmlife. It is the time of season when the dry, cool air suggests that there may be “frost on the pumpkin” as the shocks sit through the night of the “harvest moon” (first full moon after the fall equinox). By the time of the “hunter’s moon” (the second full moon after the fall equinox, occurring 28 days after the harvest moon), the pumpkins would have been gathered for fear of a “hard freeze.” However, the corn would still be left in the field to be gathered by the farmer as he needed it throughout the wintertime, at which time he would “process” the corn (shuck and shell and/or grind) for feeding or for selling or, as he found the time in the winter, process the corn for storage.
Many devices (which are now museum pieces) were used in the early 19th century for processing corn, in particular, drying racks which were made of metal and designed to be hung from rafters to protect the corn from mice. Each rack contained six to eight sharp spikes on which were impaled husked ears of corn. The corn would hang from the rafters until needed by the farmer.
Well into the winter, after snow blanketed the ground, the farmer would hitch up a team of horses to his “bundle wagon.” For more convenient use during the winter, the wagon wheels of the bundle wagon would have been removed and replaced with runners. The farmer would then head to the fields after his morning chores were complete to load up the wagon (sleigh) with corn shocks. The shocks were then brought back to the barn where the farmer would remove each ear of corn by hand from its stalk and store the ears on a drying rack. The by-product of this process (the corn stalk) would then be fed whole to the cows. Cows are not finicky eaters, but in this case they would usually eat the leaves and the husks, and not the whole stalk. Thus, the area around the feed bunk and the feed buck itself would become full of old corn stalks. Farmers knew this was a waste of an important by-product. However, at that time, there was little he could do about it; that is, until a new and unique machine came along to help the farmer speed the process of husking corn and to help refine the by-product into a more palatable product for the cows. This new machine would be the corn husker-shredder.
The corn husker-shredder was the brainchild of a young boy, August Rosenthal, who developed the corn husker while living on his parents’ farm south of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, in Sauk County. August Rosenthal’s parents, Carl Ludwig and Dora Rosenthal, were German Lutheran immigrants from the area around Hamburg, Germany. Carl was a carpenter by trade, who, along with many other German immigrants of the time, settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1880, as their family grew in size (seven children–all boys) and grew in maturity, Carl and Dora moved the family to a small farm south of Reedsburg. Reedsburg was located near two great rivers–the Fox River and the Wisconsin River–which area would, in years to come, become the heartland of dairying in Wisconsin and would make Wisconsin the nation’s leading dairy state.
The Rosenthal boys all became enterprising young men as they grew up. John Rosenthal, the oldest son, went into business in the Big Store in Reedsburg. Friedrich, the next oldest, would go into business with the Meyer Harness Company in Reedsburg. August, the middle son, was born in 1867. Three other boys followed in succession: William H., born in 1871; Gustav H., born in 1874; and Carl, born in 1878. August and his three younger brothers would remain on the farm as typical farm boys, so it is not surprising that they were ingeniously inclined toward making farm work more mechanical and less labor-intensive. August, however, showed more than just the usual amount of talent for practical farm mechanics. In 1882, at the tender age of 15 years, August Rosenthal began experimenting with the idea of husking corn by machine. His first machine, however, was crude and unsuccessful, but he continued to experiment.
In 1888, Carl Ludwig died, leaving Dora and her sons to fend for themselves on the farm. It was a discouraging time, but August refused to give up on his idea despite the increased responsibilities he and his brothers now faced running the farm. In 1889, after seven years of work, August was able to test a new, large machine that was operated by a horse walking in a circle around the machine pulling a sweep. By this time, the entire Rosenthal family was actively involved in August’s new invention–particularly, his younger brothers Gustav H., William H. and Carl. Using “Prince,” one of the family’s work horses, the family hitched Prince to the pole on the sweep and said “giddap.” Prince then began moving in a circular path around the machine, pulling the pole which turned the gears of the drive mechanism located above the machine, thus powering the machine via a chain that connected the drive mechanism with the new husking machine. With the machine running, August began feeding corn stalks into the machine. Before long, a steady stream of ears of corn began sliding down the hopper of the machine into a waiting bushel basket. Meanwhile, the corn stalk was discarded intact on the ground behind the machine. The machine was a success. Next, August set to work designing and building a second husking machine which incorporated chopping or shredding of the corn stalk into little pieces. This new machine, however, turned to the internal combustion engine for its power, rather than the horse, and the shredded stalk material (called “stover”) was elevated to a nearby wagon where it could be taken to storage. Over the next few years, several more improvements were made to the husking machine, and, in 1894, the Cyclone Model No. 1 corn husker shredder was introduced which incorporated all of these improvements. The Cyclone Model No. 1 was constructed with a combination of two snapping and husking rollers which removed the ears from the stalk. They also removed a great deal of the husks from the ears before dropping the ears into a bushel basket. In addition, the Cyclone Model No. 1 was outfitted with a blower which would gather the shredded stalks and blow them through a large pipe into a nearby barn or shed. Thus, the modern corn husker-shredder was born. On March 5, 1895, the Cyclone Model No. 1 was patented by the Rosenthal family.
At this point, the brothers began to make plans to incorporate as a business and to start the mass production of their Cyclone corn husker/shredder. They knew, however, that in addition to their own savings, they would need outside capital. Thus, Gustav was relegated to the task of raising money for the new company. Part of the meager sum raised by Gustav for the new company was a $400.00 loan by the boys’ mother. In 1896, the new company was incorporated as the Rosenthal Corn Husking Machine Company. That same year, the boys moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they purchased a small building and began to mass produce the Cyclone corn husker/shredder. It was a fortunate time to start a new business.
By the early 1890s, farming had changed. The farming public had felt strong dissatisfaction over the fact that although the nation was growing wealthier, 3/4 of that wealth was located in the big cities of the United States despite the fact that the United States remained an overwhelming agricultural nation. (Harold U. Faulkner, Politics, Reform and Expansion: 1890-1900 [Harper & Bros: New York, 1959], p. 55.) By 1890, farm families consumed little of what they raised in crops and animals. Subsistence farming was a thing of the past. Farmers now sold their products for cash and used the money to buy their needs in the small towns of the nation. (Ibid., p. 48.) Farmers were now part of the cash economy, and suddenly they became aware of the products they produced, the path and means by which the products made their way to market, and the amount of return they would receive from those products.
What the farmers saw in 1890 they did not like. They saw monopoly railroads charging high prices for transporting their crops and animals to market. (Ibid. p. 57.) Along with the low prices farmers received for their crops, they also saw they had no relief from their high mortgage payments. (R. Hal Williams, Years of Decision [Joe Wiley & Sons Publishers: New York, 1978], p. 47.) This discontent in the rural areas of the United States found its organized expression in the Populist movement. Farmers and their families gathered at picnics and social events all summer long in 1890, where they ate, sang songs, and listened to speakers from the National Farmers’ Alliance and the Industrial Union, the Kansas Alliance, and the Peoples’ Party, all of whom denounced railroads and the strict gold-based economy which kept farm families from achieving the financial rewards to which they were entitled.
Out of this organized effort came a general program of proposals for the regulation of railroads and for the introduction of more currency into the economy than the gold reserves would allow. This was the time when “free coinage” of silver was proposed. In the alternative, coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 to 1 with gold was also proposed. The Populist Movement took over effective control of the Democratic Party and, as a result, the Democratic Party swept into control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the congressional election on November 4, 1890, by a huge majority of 235 to 88. (Ibid., p. 50.)
By late February of 1893, discontent spread to the cities too, when the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad unexpectedly went bankrupt, thus triggering the Panic of 1893–the worst depression the United States had suffered up to that time. (Harold U. Faulkner, American Economic History [Harper and Row Publisher: New York, 1924], p. 519.) On May 5, 1893, the National Cortage failed. Suddenly, banks all across the nation called in their debts, and businesses began to fail on a daily basis. Most spectacular, however, was the fall of the railroads, with the Erie Railroad going down in July, the Northern Pacific in August, the Union Pacific in October, and the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe in December. (Harold U. Faulkner Politics, Reform and Expansion, p. 141.)
The farming community might have felt like this was a case of the “chickens coming home to roost” for the monopoly railroads. However, farmers were too busy just trying to survive from day to day to feel any delight over the misery of the railroads. Again, there were calls for the government to expand the pool of currency in the national economy by introducing silver into the flow of currency. However, despite the calls in Congress for silver, Democratic President Grover Cleveland continued to resist and held to the “gold standard.” The depression and the tight money situations were only relieved by the new discoveries of gold in South Africa (J.D. Fage, A History of Africa [Alfred A. Knopf Publishing: New York, 1978], p. 378) and in Alaska and the Klondike (Claus-M. Naske & Herman E. Slotnick, Alaska: a History of the 49th State, [University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 1987], p. 77).
When the newly discovered gold was introduced into the national and world economies, those economies were expanded and money started flowing a little more freely. Indeed, the increase in the gold supply not only relieved the “tight money” situation that had been throttling the economy in the United States, but there was so much new gold that a period of prosperity was commenced which continued substantially unabated until 1921, with only a momentary Panic in 1907 which was confined substantially to Wall Street and did not widen its effects to reach the rural areas of the nation.
It was into this newly awakening period of economic prosperity in 1896 that the Rosenthal Corn Husking Machine Company first ventured. Boundless optimism was in the air in 1896, and the Rosenthal brothers shared in this spirit of optimism for the future. The Rosenthal brothers concluded that the market for their machine would be unlimited, as the country moved out of the 19th century and into the 20th century.
They assumed that every farm would need a corn husker. They viewed a corn husker as being similar to a small corn sheller or feed grinder–a stationary machine that could be used on an intermittent basis throughout the winter by farmers on their own farms for processing animal feed. Under this concept, farmers would allow their corn to dry in the fields in shocks, and they would go to the fields during the winter only periodically to pick up enough shocks to fill a bundle wagon. They would then process the dried corn in the yard in order to have ear corn for the crib and enough stover to feed to the cattle for a few days or so. In other words, the process of shredding corn would be ongoing and would last all winter. This vision of corn shredding led the Rosenthal brothers to introduce the new larger production model Cyclone corn husker as a stationary machine, with no wheels.
Farmers were aware of the new advances that had been made in the French method of storing green corn as silage. They knew that in 1880, Dr. H.S. Weeks, of Ononomowoc, Wisconsin, in Waukeshaw County (just 60 or 70 miles to the southeast of the Rosenthal farm), had introduced the French silo and silage system of green corn storage to the United States. (See “Algoma is OK: The Story of the Algoma Foundry and Machine Company” in the March/April 1995 issue of Belt Pulley, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 18.) They also knew that the small size of the individual pieces of ensilage made green corn stalks more palatable as feed for cattle. Consequently, there was less waste at the feed bunks as the cows tended to clean up all the green corn ensilage.
The same was true of the stalks of ripe corn. The Rosenthals found that cows finished more of the dried fodder, or stover, which came out of the Cyclone husker shredder because it was fed to them in a chopped form rather that as whole stalks. Thus, the Cyclone Model No. 1 husker shredder showed promise of not only faster husking of an ear of corn, but also showed promise of reducing feeding expense in the wintertime by chopping the remaining corn fodder into a form which was more acceptable to cattle. However, the actual way in which corn husking was done was undergoing a change.
To be sure, the Rosenthal Cyclone corn husker made such an improvement in agricultural production that it would have been a popular sales item even in the worst of times. However, the introduction of the mass produced Big Cyclone proved to be especially well-timed because of the return of prosperity to rural America.
The Rosenthals had correctly seen that their small Cyclone Model No. 1 was much too small in capacity for use on even the average farm. Thus, they went into production with the Big Cyclone. Sales of the new, larger Cyclone were good, but Rosenthal Company did not dominate the market as one might have expected for a company which invented the new improvement in harvesting ripe corn. Indeed, the Rosenthal Company continued to lose market share to competitors who had a different vision as to how corn husking would be done in the future.
The Milwaukee Hay Tool Company, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came out with its small corn husker in 1893, which they claimed would even “husk the nubbins.” However, it was not until 1895 that they included a shredding feature on their husking machine and not until 1904 that they switched from an elevator to a pneumatic blower for the stover. (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques [Krause Publications: Iola, Iowa, 1997], p. 53.) The Keystone Manufacturing Company, of Sterling, Illinois, began manufacturing its husker shredder in the early 1890s, and by 1895 was offering three different sized models of corn husker to the farming public. (Ibid. p 51.) Plano Manufacturing Company, of Plano, Illinois, brought out its husker shredder in the 1890s which, unlike the Keystone and Milwaukee machines, had a pneumatic blower for the stover. (C.H.Wendel, 150 Years of International Harvester [Crestline Publishing: Sarasota, Florida, 1981], p. 191.) The McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, of Chicago, Illinois, introduced its own corn husking machine in the mid 1890s, and, by 1898, advertising literature of the McCormick Company boasted that its company was already selling more corn husking machines than the “other four makers (of corn husker shredders) combined.” (Ibid.) Obviously, the other four makers of corn huskers in 1898 were the Rosenthal Company, the Milwaukee Company, the Keystone Company, and the Plano Company. (It should be noted that the Crown Point Manufacturing Company, of Crown Point, Indiana, was also in the business of making corn husker shredders as early as 1897. However, the McCormick advertising department may have dismissed this company as being a mere regionally oriented company and not a nationwide manufacturer.)
In that same year–1898–dozens of new companies sprang up to break into the exploding demand market for corn husker shredders. Four of the companies were the St. Albans Foundry Company of St. Albans, Vermont; the DeSoto Agricultural Implement Manufacturing Company of DeSoto, Missouri; the Janney Manufacturing Company of Ottumwa, Iowa; and the Appleton Manufacturing Company of Batavia, Illinois. However, all of these competitors identified their corn huskers as being like a thresher which could be owned by a “ring” of farmers or by a single farmer who would then do “custom” corn husking/shredding throughout the neighborhood. Thus, unlike the Rosenthal Big Cyclone stationary corn husker/shredder, these machines tended to be mounted on wheels for easy transport around the neighborhood. Despite the fact that the Rosenthal Company was losing market share to its competitors in the corn husking market, the Rosenthal brothers adhered to the idea of a stationary corn husker/shredder.
In 1900, the Rosenthal Company bought a five-acre site at 8229 West Greenfield Avenue outside the city limits of Milwaukee. This property was extremely advantageous. For one thing, in 1891, the Wisconsin Legislature had loaned $150,000 to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society for the purpose of purchasing permanent grounds for the Wisconsin State Fair. The site of the new fairgrounds chosen by the Agricultural Society was the 160-acre “Stevens Farm” on Greenfield Avenue near the town of Wauwatosa. The site the Rosenthal Company now selected for its new factory was right across the street from the State Fairgrounds and adjacent to the same spur of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad that served the fairgrounds. Later, when the Allis-Chalmers Company purchased a 100-acre site in the same area, the city founding fathers were spurred into naming the newly incorporated city West Allis, Wisconsin.
In 1901, the Rosenthal Company built a factory complex on the land at Greenfield Avenue and the company moved out of its small manufacturing building in Milwaukee to take up larger quarters on the new factory site. Although the brothers established their factory in what would become West Allis, they maintained a Post Office address for the company in Milwaukee, such that farmers could send letters simply addressed to the Rosenthal Corn Husking Machine Company, Milwaukee 14, Wisconsin, and could rely upon the letters reaching their destination.
Not wanting to be left behind in the rush to get into the corn husker market, the Deering Harvester Company of Chicago, Illinois, contracted with the Rosenthals to manufacture and sell some of the Big Cyclone corn husker shredders under the Deering Company name. Indeed, when the Rosenthal Company moved to its new facility, they sold their old manufacturing building in Milwaukee to the Deering Harvester Company. (One of these Deering Big Cyclones can be seen at work in a picture at the bottom of page 191 in C.H. Wendel’s book, 150 Years of International Harvester.)
In 1902, the famous J.P. Morgan-inspired merger brought together under the same corporate umbrella the Deering Harvester Company, the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company, the Milwaukee Company, the Keystone Company, the Plano Harvester Company, and many other smaller companies to form the International Harvester Company. In one fell swoop, Rosenthal lost the Deering contract, as four of its largest competitors were combined into one company. Although International Harvester continued to market corn huskers under the individual names of the companies following the merger, e.g., Deering, Milwaukee, etc., the resultant machines came to lose all their distinctiveness in design and became as alike as peas from the same pod, despite their different “brand names.” The models manufactured by International Harvester immediately after the merger adopted the best features of each separate company, but the new models incorporated more of the Plano corn husker than any other design.
Coincidentally, with the time of the merger was another flurry of companies entering the corn husker market. In 1901, the Advance-Rumley Thresher Company introduced its husker-shredder. (C.H. Wendel, The Allis-Chalmers Story, [Crestline Publishing: Sarasota, Fla., 1988], p 43.) In 1903, Port Huron Engine and Thresher Company of Port Huron, Michigan, came out with its very fine corn husker–the first all-steel corn husker and the first entirely self-feeding corn husker, complete with a band-cutter. That same year, the American Shredder Company of Madison, Wisconsin, came out with its corn shredder with a self-feeder but no band-cutter–meaning that a worker was still needed to cut the twine strings. Also, in 1903, the venerable old establishment of A.W. Stevens Company of Marinette, Wisconsin (formerly of Auburn, New York), introduced its corn husker which also shelled and cleaned the corn. (C.H. Wendel, Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements and Antiques [Krause Publications: Iola, Wisc., 1997], pp. 54 and 55.) Two years later, in 1905, J.I. Case Company joined the fray with the introduction of its husker/shredder. (C.H. Wendel, 150 Years of J.I. Case, [Crestline Publishing: Sarasota, Fla., 1991], p. 125.)
In 1903, the Rosenthal Company finally became aware that they would have to substantially improve and redesign their corn husker in order to stay competitive. Consequently, they introduced the Model Big 4 corn husker that year. The basic design of the Big 4 would be followed by all Rosenthal corn huskers from that point on. The Rosenthal Company finally abandoned the concept that every farmer was going to have a stationary corn husker on their farm. Whereas, the Big Cyclone corn husker had been a stationary machine, now the Big 4 was mounted on wheels and was intended as a neighborhood machine which could be moved from farm to farm. The Rosenthal Company had lost ground and market share because of its failure to make this change before 1903. However, the Rosenthal name was still magic in the corn husker market and the Big 4 was a large capacity machine. Weighing 5,800 pounds with four snapping/husking rolls, each with 52″ of snapping capacity, the Rosenthal Company advertised that the Big 4 could handle 600 to 1000 bushels of corn a day. Now, in 1903, with the change to the mobile Big 4, the company began to really thrive for the first time. The Big 4 was spectacularly popular from the very beginning.
During these years, changes were also happening in the private lives of the Rosenthal Brothers. Their mother, Dora, had moved to West Allis to live with August, and it was there that she died on May 28, 1904, just short of her 69th birthday. Her body was transported back to Reedsburg where it was interred in the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church cemetery in the family plot next to her husband, Carl Ludwig. The boys may have been a part of the relatively big city life provided by West Allis and Milwaukee, but when they chose to marry, they sought out girls from their old hometown of Reedsburg, Wisconsin. August married Emma Hartwig of Reedsburg, bringing her to West Allis and settling in the nearby community of Wauwatosa. August and Emma’s family eventually included two sons, Henry and Phillip, and two daughters, Norma and Estella. On November 23, 1910, Gustav married Hilda Dargel, also of Reedsburg. Gustav and Hilda lived in the City of West Allis proper and eventually had two sons, Lawrence and Martin. William and his wife, Laura, from Reedsburg, also settled in the city of West Allis and eventually had two daughters, Clara and Erma, and two sons, Paul and Herbert.
In the years that followed 1903, as the Rosenthal Brothers began to reap the fruits of their labor, they looked into the future and once again felt the same optimism as when they started their company in 1896. They felt that things could only improve for their company and themselves.