Family Stories

Ethan Keith – Inventor – Part 2


Keith, Ethan 2

Ethan Keith – 1851 – 1934

Keith, Ethan - In Workshop

Ethan in his later years in his workshop

Ever since I was a little girl, when the family would get together, talk would soon turn to family members who were no longer with us. One of the stories that always fascinated me was the story of how Uncle Ethan was the real inventor of McCormick’s Reaper but McCormick had stolen his idea and now, of course, everyone knows about McCormick’s reaper and how it revolutionized farming.

Many years ago, Tom and I took a fall vacation up to Door County, Wisconsin. At the restaurant where we ate lunch there was a prominently displayed picture and short story about how one of the old locals had invented a reaper and McCormick stole the idea from him.

Hmm, I thought, very interesting! And I filed it away in the back of my brain.

While transcribing old family letters and diaries, I kept running across entries in both the diaries of Ethan and his father, Charles Luke Keith Jr. (known simply as Luke), regarding patents and models, going to the foundry, and Ethan’s progress on various inventions, one of which they called the Binder. Plus there were several letters from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company expressing an interest in Ethan’s binder. Following are the letters sent to Ethan from the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company:





So now the research had begun! Here’s a small crash course on McCormick’s Reaper taken from (

  • Obed Hussey in Ohio patented a reaper in 1833, the Hussey Reaper. Made in Baltimore, Maryland, Hussey’s design was a major improvement in reaping efficiency.
  • The McCormick Reaper was designed by Robert McCormick in Walnut GroveVirginia. However, Robert became frustrated when he was unable to perfect his new device. His son Cyrus asked for permission to try to complete his father’s project. With permission granted, the McCormick Reaper was patented by his son Cyrus McCormick in 1837 as a horse-drawn farm implement to cut small grain crops.
  • Over the next few decades the Hussey and McCormick reapers would compete with each other in the marketplace, despite being quite similar.
  • In 1861, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued a ruling on the invention of the polarizing reaper design. It was determined that the money made from reapers was in large part due to Obed Hussey, and it was declared that Hussey’s improvements were the foundation of their success. It was ruled that the heirs of Obed Hussey would be monetarily compensated for his hard work and innovation by those who had made money from the reaper. It was also ruled that McCormick’s reaper patent would be renewed for another 7 years.
  • Even though McCormick has sometimes been simplistically credited as the [sole] “inventor” of the mechanical reaper, a more accurate statement is that he independently reinvented aspects of it, created a crucial original integration of enough aspects to make a successful whole, and benefited from the influence of more than two decades of work by his father, as well as the aid of Jo Anderson, a slave held by his family.
  • Generally, reapers developed into the 1872 invented reaper-binder, which reaped the crop and bound it into sheaves. By 1896, 400,000 reaper-binders were estimated to be harvesting grain. This was in turn replaced by the swather and eventually the combine harvester, which reaps and threshes in one operation.

This is a picture of McCormick’s Reaper taken at a presentation in Virginia (date unknown).

McCormick's Reaper

Ethan applied for a patent for what he called his Hay Cocker and the patent was issued July 31, 1894. In Luke’s 1879 diary, he wrote on July 13 that it was “A fine day for harvesting. Davis Stafford came down. Put Binder in opperation. Bound the first bundle of wheat quarter to one P.M. Put six bands around one bundle.” There is no indication that anything further came out of any company’s interest in the Hay Cocker.

Here are some pictures of Ethan’s Hay Cocker.

Keith, Ethan - Hay Cocker A

Keith, Ethan - Hay Cocker B

Keith, Ethan - Hay Cocker C

Keith, Ethan - Hay Cocker D

It’s easy to see that Ethan’s Hay Cocker was much more than a reaper. Actually, a reaper was a machine used to cut standing grain. According to the patent application, Ethan described that: “My invention relates to hay cocking machines which employ rakes for gathering the hay, an elevator for elevating and delivering the hay into the forming receptacle beneath the upper end of the elevator; packers for packing the hay in the receptacle; side carriers for narrowing the swath of hay at the delivery end of the elevator, and a device for arresting the supply of hay while depositing the cock of hay on the ground.”

As it so very often happens with family stories, only a small part of them are true. Ethan was an inventor; Ethan did have a patent for his Hay Cocker and the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company was interested in that machine. But Cyrus McCormick had patented his Reaper back in 1837; Ethan wasn’t even born until 1851, so if anything, Ethan perhaps was trying to improve on McCormick’s Reaper by inventing the Hay Cocker. He filed for his patent in 1894; Cyrus McCormick died ten years earlier on May 13, 1884 in Chicago.

Funny how dreams of riches play into family stories!

Another interesting side note that I found while researching this story: McCormick tested his harvesters in the City of Plano, Illinois (where my daughter and her family reside) and also had a small manufacturing plant there. Plano regards itself as the “Birthplace of the Harvester” and the mascot for Plano High School is The Reapers and uses an image of the McCormick Harvester Reaper as its logo.



[i] To read Part 1 go to

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