The History of Manufacturing in the Rockford Region – The Wheat Reaper

Throughout the year the RAEDC will look at the history of manufacturing in the Rockford Region. Telling the story of how the region came to be known as ‘the screw capital of the world” or integral to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States. 

Agriculture Machinery

If there is one story from the Rockford Region’s history that exemplifies the importance of manufacturing and logistics the story of the Wheat Reaper is it. Inspired by his time with George Esterly of Wisconsin in 1853 making wheat reapers, John Henry Manny and his family developed their own horse-powered combine harvester. In the spring of 1854, Manny started manufacturing wheat reapers in Rockford, IL due to the proximity of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad. Thus, began the region’s rise in agricultural machine manufacturing. Over the next two and a half years J. H. Manny & Co. manufactured approximately 6,000 wheat reapers.

In 1855, after the Paris Exposition, Cyrus McCormick of Chicago, filed a lawsuit against Manny for patent infringement. The trial was originally scheduled to be held in Chicago but was moved to Cincinnati, OH. Prominent lawyers occupied both sides of the aisle, including Edward Stanton, George Harding on Manny’s side with Reverdy Johnson and former U. S. Attorney General Edward Nicholl Dickerson on McCormick’s side. For a limited duration, Abraham Lincoln worked with Manny’s lawyers. He was not well received since he was considered an inexperienced, country lawyer. Following the snub, Lincoln returned to his Springfield home to study the law more thoroughly.

The Ohio Supreme Court Judge John McLean determined there was no patent infringement on the part of Manny in 1856. At the time of his death, John Henry Manny held 29 patents.

When Lincoln was voted in as President of the United States he elected Stanton as Secretary of War.