How Russia saved Oliver, and vice versa

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A couple of weeks ago I told you the story of how Russia may have saved the Oliver Corporation, and possibly vice versa, as well, back in 1930.

However, U.S. farm equipment makers had been selling implements to Russia for many years prior to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Herbert Casson, in his 1908 book The Romance of the Reaper, writes the following in a chapter titled, The American Harvester Abroad.

From the book

“In Russia, the Czar and the grand dukes at first bought reapers partly as toys and partly as strike-breakers.

If the labourers on their estates demanded more pay than fifty cents a week, the manager would drive them in a body to his barn, then throw open the doors and show them five or six red harvesters.

“‘Do you see these American machines?’ he would say. ‘Unless you go back to work at the same wages, I will reap the grain with these machines, and you will have no work at all, and no money.’

A look at these machine-devils has usually sent the cowed serfs back to their sickles. But here and there it has set them to wondering whether or not a fifty-cent-a-week job was worth having, and so has given them an A B C lesson in American doctrines.

“Many of the Russian nobility, too, have begun to learn a trifle about democracy from the American harvester agents. There is a certain young baron, for example, whose estate is not far from Riga.
Last year, to be in fashion, he bought a Chicago self-binder. When it arrived, there came with it, as usual, an expert mechanic to set it up and start it in the field.

In this case, the mechanic was a big German-American named Lutfring, born in Wisconsin, of “Forty Eighter” stock.

“The baron was evidently impressed by the manly and dignified bearing of Lutfring, who stood erect while the native workmen were bowing and cringing in obeisance. And when Lutfring said to him, ‘Now, Baron Hahn, we are all barons in my country, but you’ll pardon me if I do this work in my shirt-sleeves,’ the baron was so taken by surprise that he offered to hold Lutfring’s coat.

Half an hour later he was at work himself, doing physical labour for the first time in his life. And when the harvester had been well launched upon its sea of yellow grain, he took Lutfring-the baron from Wisconsin-to dinner with him in the castle, and spent the greater part of the afternoon showing him the family portraits.

“From such beginnings the harvester has advanced, to make in Russia the greatest conquests it has achieved anywhere. More business is now being done in the land of the Czar than was done with the whole world in 1885. One recent shipment, so large as to break all records, was carried from Chicago to New York on 3,000 freight-cars, and transferred to a chartered fleet of nine steam-ships, $5,000,000 worth of hunger-insurance.

“During the Russo-Japanese War, a striking incident occurred that showed the respect of the government for American harvesters. Several troop-trains that were on their way to the front were suddenly side-tracked, to make way for a long freight train, loaded with heavy boxes.

The war generals and grand dukes in charge of the troops were furious. Why should their trains be pushed to one side and delayed, to expedite a mere consignment of freight?

They telegraphed their indignation to St. Petersburg, and received a reply from Count Witte. ‘The freight train must pass,’ he said. ‘It is loaded with American harvesters. It means bread.’

“As a result of this attitude, there are now some provinces in southern Russia where not even Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson would find much fault with the farming.

I have secured the figures for the Province of Kuban, in the Caucasus. Here there are 3,500 thrashing-machines, 5,000 grain-drills, 37,000 harvesters, 50,000 harrows, 70,000 grain-cleaners, and 65,000 cultivators.

This is a region where, one generation ago, were only the wooden plough, the sickle, and the flail.

“There is, to be sure, still a dense mass of Russians whose yearly habit it is to wait until their wheat is dead ripe, then in a few days of frantic labour to cut down half of it with sickles, leaving the rest to rot in the fields. And in one Caucasian province, richer in its soil than Iowa, it is the custom of the wandering natives to move every three years to a new tract of land, in order to avoid the trouble of fertilising the soil.

“‘I have seen farmers ploughing in Russia with a piece of board,’ said one agent. ‘And I have seen their thrashing done by the feet of oxen.’ But the new idea has been planted and is growing. ‘Russia is the land of to-morrow,’ said another expert.

‘We have been educating the farmers there for seventeen years, yet we have only scratched the surface. We who have lived among the Russian peasants expect great things from them.'”

American machinery

So Russia was for many years a large buyer of American-made farm machinery. Then, in the 1930s, the Soviet government began to establish tractor factories, most of which produced close copies of the Farmall and the McCormick-Deering 15-30, as well as knock-offs of Caterpillar crawlers.

In an ironic twist, for the last several decades Russia has been returning the favor-just look around, there are lots of Belarus tractors on American farms.

These tractors are made in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, since the breakup of the USSR an independent country, but a Soviet entity when the plant was established in 1946.

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

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