Western Development Museum - Artifact Articles: Hovland Reaper
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Farmer Invention Led to Combine

By Noelle Grosse

Colour image of a Hovland reaper
Hovland reaper and thresher at the WDM's former
storage building- WDM Photo

August and Ole Hovland's threshing machines may have revolutionized farming, but when it came to getting credit for their inventions, they missed the harvest. Today's descendant of the Hovland brothers' "central delivery reaper" is the swather. The Hovland's other creation, the "travelling thresher", evolved into today's combine.

The Western Development Museum has the original Hovland inventions in its collection. Although August and Ole Hovland planted the seed for a technological revolution in agriculture, they never made a profit from their ideas.

"My father was an extremely gifted person, and extremely modest," says Warren Hovland, 80, Ole Hovland's only surviving son. August and Ole Hovland took out homesteads near Ortley, South Dakota in the early 1900s. Money was scarce and so was farm labor, and the brothers searched for a more efficient way to harvest because traditional threshing crews relied on teams of horses and a gang of people to gather sheaves and pitch them into the threshing machine. The Hovland brothers came up with a simple idea that ushered in modern farming. They noticed that cut grain seemed to dry better when lying loose rather than bundled into sheaves.

On Feb. 25, 1907, August Hovland took out a patent for the "central delivery reaper" that would leave grain in long rows to dry. He also secured a patent for a "travelling thresher" that when pulled behind a tractor, would pick up the rows and thresh them on the spot. But a farming practice that is taken for granted today was strongly resisted 90 years ago. The Hovland brothers started a company in 1909, but they were unable to convince many other farmers about the merits of swath-threshing, as it was called. The established farm equipment companies of the day ignored the Hovland brothers but paid close attention to the machines they created.

"The story came down that McCormick was resisting the idea, but when they saw the possibilities, they got patents that would prevent my father and brother from developing a commercial success," says Warren Hovland, from his home in Oregon.

Hovland, a retired professor, says his father moved off the farm and spent most of his life as a telephone engineer in Chicago. Twenty years after helping develop the predecessors of the combine, he was able to see them become a reality on North American farms.

"I guess if my father had a better business sense about patents, maybe we'd be McCormicks instead of Hovlands," he jokes. The evolution of the swather and combine has a significant Saskatchewan connection. The Hovlands' inventions inspired another pair of brothers who farmed near Lajord, Sask. Helmer and Ellert Hanson were nephews of the Hovlands and who pioneered improvements to swathing and threshing in the 1920s. When the Hansons harvested 60,000 bushels of wheat using the new swath-thresh method, several companies expressed interest in the machines. The International Harvester Company sent an engineer from Chicago in 1927 to study their machine. The Hovland brother's machines sat deteriorating in a field in South Dakota until it was acquired by the Western Development Museum in 1963.

Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection

This article was originally published as part of a newspaper articles written by Noelle Grosse in celebration of the Western Development Museum's 50th anniversary in 1999. The articles appeared as regular features over the course of late 1998 and 1999 in the Saskatoon Sun,Yorkton This Week and Enterprise, and as intermittent features in the Regina Sun. In 2001, all 65 articles were gathered into a publication - Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection.

Museum Gold is available in WDM Gift Shops.

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