The Binder Wars

The 1880s were known for the “Binder Wars” where farm machinery manufacturers Massey Harris Binder Image for Binder Warsslugged it out for supremacy in grain binder sales. Inventors had been working on developing the self-tying harvester or grain binder for some time. The reaper, while cutting grain, left the grain be tied by hand into bundles or sheaves. In other climates where grain could be left standing until dry and there were no worries about snow arriving, combines or stripper type headers could be used. The varieties of grain in use in Canada at the time possessed relatively long times to maturity resulting in combines and stripper headers being unsuitable in Canada. Grain had to be cut and bundled into sheaves to dry. If frost or an early winter came before the sheaves were dry enough to thresh, harm was minimized. However the limit a farmer by himself could cut and then tie into sheaves by hand was approximately 25 acres.  With a grain binder, an individual farmer could cut 75 acres or more, a significant increase in productivity. The grain binder made grain farming on the Prairies practical.

The key to a successful binder was the knotter mechanism. Wire tie knitters were developed first however wire was expensive and had to be cut and collected when the sheaves were fed into a threshing machine. Any wire missed would cause problems in milling the grain or feeding the straw and grain to cattle. Wire tie binders were not popular as a result. A better solution was found when John Appleby patented a twine knotter in 1878 and by 1879 had incorporated it into a harvester. Manufacturers saw the success of this knotter, obtained the manufacturing rights and incorporated it into their harvester designs. In 1882, Appleby sold the knotter patent to the Champion Company and their subsidiary, the Toronto Mower and Reaper Company (TMR). TMR at the time was providing stiff competition to the Massey Company and the Harris Company. The introduction of the grain binder was a heavy blow to these companies. However the success of Champion and TMR was the company’s undoing as it encountered financial difficulties, most likely due to the practise of having to finance farmers in their purchases, a common practise of the times. Massey was able to purchase TMR and the Canadian patents for the Appleby knotter and Champion binder.

However Massey still faced competition in the form of the A. Harris and Son Company which had just obtained the Canadian manufacturing rights to the US designed Marsh binder which also incorporated the Appleby knotter. At this time grain binders were the flagship of a company’s machinery lineup. If a farmer had purchased a company’s binder, then he probably would buy other machinery from the company.  Massey used some aggressive binder sales techniques which the Harris Company soon countered. The “Binder Wars” rapidly broke out and accelerated with beautifully illustrated color brochures and customer magazines being printed by both sides, hoards of salesmen combing rural areas for prospective sales, field challenges, binder tournaments at fall fairs, sales prospects being taken out to dinner in carriages, parades arranged for binder delivery and handbills announcing successful sales being distributed in rural areas. When a sale was made, opposing salesmen would descend on the farmer in an effort to entice him to change his mind. Fistfights reported broke out at times between competing salesmen. Towards the end of the “wars”, binders began to be decorated in blue, white and gold trim and finally some binders appeared with the customer’s home farm scene being custom painted on the metal cover over the binding mechanism. For the inhabitants of the often staid rural areas, the binder wars provided great entertainment.

The battle for binder supremacy came to an end when Massey realized Harris had an “open-end” binder in development which could cut any length of straw, something not possible with any previous binder designs and a significant advance in harvest technology. Hart Massey investigated, determined the Harris machine was the real McCoy and decided it would be best to amalgamate with Harris rather than continue on with the sales war. Hart began negotiations with the owners of Harris and in 1891 a merger was announced resulting in the formation of the Massey Harris Company.

The Expo at the 2013 Threshermen’s Reunion features both Horsepower and the Massey family of companies. The Massey Expo is sponsored by the Massey Ferguson Dealers of Manitoba If you have horse drawn equipment in your collection or equipment built by Massey Harris, Sawyer Massey, Massey Harris Ferguson, Massey Ferguson or any of the firms purchased by the Massey family such as Wallis or Wisner, you should consider bringing it to the 2013 Expo. You can contact the Museum office at 204-637-2354 to make arrangements. The Museum is open year round and operates a website at which can provide visitors with information on Museum events and location.



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