The farmer first refused to take it seriously. "It's a great invention," he would say, "but I'm running a farm, not a circus." About 1847 McCormick decided that the Western prairies offered the finest field for its activities, and established his factory at Chicago, then an ugly little town on the borders of a swamp. This selection proved to be a stroke of genius, for it placed the harvesting factory right at the door of its largest market.
The price of the harvester, however, seemed an insurmountable obstacle to its extensive use. The early settlers of the Western plains had little more than their brawny hands as capital, and the homestead law furnished them their land practically free. In the eyes of a large-seeing pioneer like McCormick this was capital enough. He determined that his reaper should develop this extensive domain, and that the crops themselves should pay the cost. Selling expensive articles on the installment plan now seems a commonplace of business, but in those days it was practically unknown. McCormick was the first to see its possibilities. He established an agent, usually the general storekeeper, in every agricultural center. Any farmer who had a modicum of cash and who bore a reputation for thrift and honesty could purchase a reaper. In payment he gave a series of notes, so timed that they fell due at the end of harvesting seasons. Thus, as the money came in from successive harvests, the pioneer paid off the notes, taking two, three, or four years in the process. In the sixties and seventies immigrants from the Eastern States and from Europe poured into the Mississippi Valley by the hundreds of thousands. Almost the first person who greeted the astonished Dane, German, or Swede was an agent of the harvester company, offering to let him have one of these strange machines on these terms. Thus the harvester, under McCormick's comprehensive selling plans, did as much as the homestead act in opening up this great farming region.
McCormick covered the whole agricultural United States with these agents. In this his numerous competitors followed suit, and the liveliest times ensued. From that day to this the agents of harvesting implements have lent much animation and color to rural life in this country. Half a dozen men were usually tugging away at one farmer at the same time. The mere fact that the farmer had closed a contract did not end his troubles, for "busting up competitors' sales" was part of the agent's business. The situation frequently reached a point where there was only one way to settle rival claims and that was by a field contest. At a stated time two or three or four rival harvesters would suddenly appear on the farmer's soil, each prepared to show, by actual test, its superiority over the enemy. Farmers and idlers for miles around would gather to witness the Homeric struggle. At a given signal the small army of machines would spring savagely at a field of wheat. The one that could cut the allotted area in the shortest time was regarded as the winner. The harvester would rush on all kinds of fields, flat and hilly, dry and wet, and would cut all kinds of crops, and even stubble. All manner of tests were devised to prove one machine stronger than its rival; a favorite idea was to chain two back to back, and have them pulled apart by frantic careering horses; the one that suffered the fewest breakdowns would be generally acclaimed from town to town. Sometimes these field tests were the most exciting and spectacular events at country fairs.
Thus the harvesting machine "pushed the frontier westward at the rate of thirty miles a year," according to William H. Seward. It made American and Canadian agriculture the most efficient in the world. The German brags that his agriculture is superior to American, quoting as proof the more bushels of wheat or potatoes he grows to an acre. But the comparison is fallacious. The real test of efficiency is, not the crops that are grown per acre, but the crops that are grown per man employed.