Joseph Eck and his Steam Thresher

Privacy Level: Open (White)
Date: 1880 [unknown]
Location: Lancaster, New Yorkmap
Surnames/tags: Eck Roll
Profile manager: Michael Nuwer private message [send private message]
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Who was Joseph Eck?

by Michael Nuwer
September 25, 2019

Joseph Eck (1840-1919) first appeared in the historical records of Lancaster in the 1855 Census when he was 15 years old. He was working on his father's farm on Peppermint Road in north-east Lancaster. George Eck (1795-1866) and his wife Elizabeth (Yost) Eck (1804-1874) were Alsace emigrants, they came to the US in 1852 and were members of St. Mary’s Church in Lancaster. In 1860 the Eck’s farm had two milk cows and three hogs. It produced 72 bushels of oats, 100 bushels of potatoes, 300 pounds of butter and 40 pounds of cheese.[1]

In 1865 Joseph married Barbara Swing and they lived on the Peppermint Road farm. Their first child was born in 1866 and over the next 45 years they had a total of fifteen children – in 1900 fourteen of those children were still living. [2]

When the 1880 Census was taken, Joseph and Barbara Eck had nine children. They were still living on Peppermint Road and working their 43-acre farm. The farm had four horses, three milk cows, and six hogs. Joseph still produced potatoes and hay, but he planted only seven acres of grain. For the entire year of 1879 Joseph’s farm generated only $341 in revenue. As a comparison, Frank Nichter’s farm generated $1,354 in revenue; George Roll, Sr.’s farm generated $863. If Joseph Eck was dependent only on the income from his farm, he would not have been doing well as a provider for his family. What makes Joseph Eck an interesting figure is that he owned and operated a threshing machine.

Threshing grain is the process of separating the seed from the stalks and husks of the plant. Before machine threshing, this was done by beating or stomping the gain by hand and then clean the seed from the other parts of the plant. Hand threshing was a slow and labor-intensive task. Mechanical threshing was first developed around 1800. The early machines would thresh the grain from the head, then the grain, straw, and chaff would all fall in a mass behind the device. The seeds would then be cleaned by hand. In 1837, John and Hiram Pitts, twin brothers, developed and patented a device which threshed and cleaned the grain in one operation. John Pitts came to Buffalo in 1851 and established a manufacturing firm that built these threshing machines. The factory and offices were at the corner of Fourth and Carolina streets.

At the farm these machines performed their work at a stationary location. They were pulled to a farm by a team of horses and bundled grain was brought from the field to the machine. An early issue for these machines was how to power the device. The most common method was to employ a tread-mill on which horses walked and turned a flywheel. This wheel was belted to the thresher and thereby produced the motive power that operated the machine. There were alternative means to generate the motive power for these machines. Image III suggests the choice was among horses, a water wheel, or a stationary steam-engine.

In October 1881 The Lancaster Times informs its readers that Joseph Eck had acquired a new steam thresher for the 1881 season. The excitement of this new machine suggests that it was the first steam powered thresher in Lancaster. The steam engine provided more horse-power and thereby greatly increased the efficiency of processing grain. A thresher powered by two horses could separate about one hundred bushels of grain per day. When adapted for steam power, a machine could thresh and clean 1,000 or more bushels per day. The Lancaster Times tells us that Joseph was “cleaning out everything here in the shape of grain.” And everybody wanted to use his steamer next year.[3]

Threshing machines were very expensive, and therefore farmers seldom owned their own unit. Instead, they hired the services of a threshing business. This is what Joseph Eck provided. Moving his machine from farm to farm spending a day or more separating that farm’s grain and then moving to the next job.

Consider the gain production of a few local farms in 1880. Balser and Frank Nichter each ran farms on Pavement Road. In 1880 Balser produced 230 bushels of wheat while Frank produced 283 bushels. The farm of George Roll, Sr. was on Ransom Road and he produced 105 bushels of wheat in 1880. His two sons John Roll and George Roll, Jr. both had farms on Westwood Road in Alden and in 1880 they produced 200 and 300 bushels of wheat, respectively. All these harvests would have required more than a full day to thresh using a two horse tread-mill, and three or four days would have been needed for the larger yields. On the other hand, the steam power thresher could have finished any of these jobs in less than a day.

Wheat was not the only grain processed by a thresher. They were also used for barley, rye, and oats. In Lancaster farmers produced more oats than wheat. In 1880 Balser and Frank Nichter produced 173 and 360 bushels of oats respectively, while George Roll, Sr. produced 242 bushels and his son John produced 240 bushels. Again, two or more days at each farm was required to thresh this crop with a horse powered machine, but a steamer could do the work in a single day.

In addition, we need to remember there was a set-up cost associated with moving the machine and readying it for work. It is possible that the new steamer could be set-up in the morning and the threshing could be finished by sunset. This would have been a tremendous reduction in cost. We don’t know which brand of machine Joseph Eck used. The Buffalo Pitts machine was manufactured in Buffalo, but there were many other manufactures across the Great Lakes region. In 1879 The Lancaster Times ran an advertisement in multiple editions for a machine manufactured in Battle Creek, Michigan. The advertisement featured both the threshing unit and the steam engine. That ad is reproduced in the exhibits below as Image VII. According to a journal entitled The Bureau: Devoted to the Commerce, Manufactures and General Industries of the United States “The principle of threshing in all machines is so nearly alike and effective as to preclude the necessity of any further remark.” [4]

In 1889 Joseph Eck's thresher was badly damaged in an accident near Millgrove.

Last Friday afternoon as Mr. Joseph Eck of this town was passing over the bridge across the Eleven Mile Creek [also known as Ellicott Creek] on the first road west of Millgrove, in the town of Alden, with his threshing engine, the bridge gaveway, letting the engine fall into the water twelve feet below. Mr. Eck, who was on the engine at the time, was quite badly injured, his foot being crushed and his shoulder frightfully scalded by escaping steam. He was removed to his home and at the present writing to rapidly improving. The engine is badly broken. The bridge was rebuilt last summer, but it appears that the old rotten stringers were allowed to remain. We understand that Mr. Eck will sue the town of Alden for damages. [5]

Joseph and Barbara Eck had a large family, with six boys and nine girls. I’ve not found evidence that any of Joseph’s sons took up his threshing business. In fact, all the boys left farming for work in other industries. By the early twentieth century John G. Nuwer and his sons, Edward and Albert, were providing threshing services to farmers in Lancaster and Alden.

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