A closer look at an unassuming machine in The Henry Ford’s collection reveals personal stories and reminds us of the far-reaching impacts of what we eat and where we live.
After the Civil War, urban populations swelled. Until this time, farm families had kept flocks of chickens and gathered eggs for their own consumption, but with increased demand for eggs in growing cities, egg farming grew into a specialized industry. Some families expanded egg production at existing farms, and other entrepreneurs established large-scale egg farms near cities and on railroad lines. Networks developed for shipping eggs from farms to buyers – whether wholesalers, retailers, or individuals operating eating establishments.
While farmers who sold eggs directly to customers carried their products to market in different ways, sellers who shipped eggs to buyers standardized their containers to ensure a consistent product. The standard egg case became an essential and enduring part of the egg industry.
Egg producers initially used different sizes and types of containers to pack eggs for market. As the egg industry developed, standardized cases that held thirty dozen (360) eggs – like this version first patented by J.L. and G.W. Stevens in 1867 – became the norm.THF277733
Egg distributors settled on a lightweight wooden box to hold 30 dozen (360) eggs. The standard case had two compartments that held a total of twelve “flats” – pressed paper trays that held 30 eggs each and provided padding between layers. Retailers who purchased wholesale cases of eggs typically repackaged them for sale by the dozen (though customers interested in larger quantities could – and still can – buy flats of 30 eggs).
The standard egg case held 12 of these pressed paper trays, or “flats,” which held 30 eggs each. THF169534
Some egg shippers purchased premade egg cases from dedicated manufacturers. Others made their own. Enter James K. Ashley, who invented a machine to help people build egg cases to standard specifications. Ashley, a Civil War veteran, first patented his egg case maker in 1896 and received additional patents for improvements to the machine in 1902 and 1925.
Ashley’s machine, which he marketed as the Champion Egg Case Maker, featured three vises, which held two of the sides and the interior divider of the egg case steady. Using a treadle, the operator could rotate them, making it easy to nail together the remaining sides, bottom, and top to complete a standard egg case, ready to be stenciled with the seller’s name and filled with flats of eggs for shipment.
Ashley’s first customer was William Frederick Priebe, who, along with his brother-in-law Fred Simater, operated one of the country’s largest poultry and egg shipping businesses. As James Ashley continued to manufacture his egg case machines (first in Illinois, then in Kentucky) in the early twentieth century, William Priebe found rising success as the big business of egg shipping grew ever bigger.
One of James K. Ashley’s Champion Egg Case Makers, now in the collections of The Henry Ford.THF169525
James Ashley received some acclaim for his invention. Ashley’s Champion Egg Case Maker earned a medal (and, reputedly, the high praise of judges) at the St. Louis World's Exposition in 1904. And in 1908, The Egg Reporter – an egg trade publication that Ashley advertised in for more than a decade – described him as “the pioneer in the egg case machine business” (“Pioneer in His Line,” The Egg Reporter, Vol. 14, No. 6, p 77).
While the machine in the The Henry Ford’s collection no longer manufactures egg cases, it still has purpose – as a keeper of personal stories and a reminder of the complex ways agricultural systems respond to changes in where we live and what we eat.
Saige Jedele is Associate Curator, Digital Content, and Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. For more information about James K. Ashley and his Champion Egg Case Maker, see Reid’s related article in Midwest Open Air Museums Magazine, Spring 2018.
Combines loom large on the museum floor—but they loom even larger on the physical and historical landscape of America’s agricultural heartland. Standing high on the horizon, combines both symbolize and represent the reality of the mechanization of modern agriculture. The 1938 Massey-Harris Model 20 self-propelled combine, a designated landmark of American agricultural engineering, was the first commercially successful, self-propelled combine to make its way through an American harvest.
The harvest was, and still is, the defining event of a farm community. It was the most complicated, time-critical, labor-intensive activity of the farmer’s year, and everyone—men and women, young and old, rich and poor—participated. Through much of history, the success of the harvest could make or break a farming community.
Throughout most of our nation’s history, the amount of acreage that could be successfully harvested before the crop was damaged by weather, insects, or rot determined how much land would be planted. Not surprisingly, over the last several hundred years, tremendous time and effort has been put toward improving the speed and efficiency of the harvest.
The act of farming draws nutrients from the soil. If the nutrients are not returned, the soil will become depleted and lose productivity. One of the best ways to restore the soil is to recycle what was removed from it by spreading manure on it. This International Harvester Manure Spreader made a dirty job not-so-dirty.
Caring for the Land: Forgotten – Then Re-discovered
To the Europeans who settled colonial America, the availability of land seemed limitless. Farmers paid little attention to caring for the soil, quickly abandoning the fertilizing activities they had practiced in Europe. These farmers felt it more cost effective to simply move on to new land when the soil lost productivity, rather than put in the effort to restore its fertility.
Before the Age of Steam, American farmers hand-threshed wheat or oats with a flail. Threshing machines powered by horses or portable steam engines increased daily production of threshing by a hundred times.
In the 1800s, the large number of horses required for farming consumed a lot of grain. Starting in the 1860s, farmers began threshing grain to feed those horses with a cousin of the "iron horse" - a steam traction engine like the Port Huron Thresher shown above.
As a Michigan farm boy, Henry Ford recorded his first sight of a traction engine: "I remember that engine as though I had seen it only yesterday, for it was the first vehicle other than horse drawn that I had ever seen. It was intended to drive threshing machines and power sawmills and was simply a portable engine and a boiler mounted on wheels." The steam traction engine inspired Ford to design and manufacture automobiles. To other rural people it represented a grand transition in American agriculture, and a new community activity.
In reference work you never know where your search might lead you. Simply looking for information on Fordson tractors for a patron one day, I came across some amazing photos of women riding, repairing, and learning about tractors and I wondered what the story was behind these photos. So, armed with subject information gathered from our collection database EMu, I dug into our archival holdings of publications, articles of association, and corporate papers to see what I could find out about these Land Girls of Boreham.
In 1930, Henry Ford was traversing the English countryside by train, when one morning, as he, Clara, and Lord Perry stopped to breakfast, he noticed an old estate near Chelmsford, Essex. Taking a keen interest in the land and buildings, he bought Boreham House and the 2,000 acres of land surrounding it. Things being in a dilapidated condition, he immediately set about to fix the place up in characteristic Ford fashion, bringing it into usable condition, fixing houses, and making the land profitable once again.
This story originally ran in the June-May 2013 edition of The Henry Ford Magazine.
Greenhouses on rooftops in city centers, next to supermarkets, on hospital campuses, in Antarctic research centers, on golf resorts and on space stations.
I continue to see new applications and extensions of hydroponic growing popping up in nontraditional spaces around the world, especially as populations increase and arable land declines. For me, I consider it my privilege that I have been able to help design cropping systems in some of these spaces — from the British West Indies and downtown Montreal to a suburb of Detroit — that are maximizing production while using less energy and natural resources.
Hydroponics, or growing plants without soil, isn’t a new science, but it is a versatile one.
Almost all commercial greenhouse vegetable production is grown hydroponically. Some of the largest growers in the U.S. and Canada, such as Village Farms, Windset Farms, Eurofresh Farms and Houweling’s Tomatoes, have hydroponic greenhouse operations equaling 200 or more acres in size, with tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce and various herbs growing.
One of my most recent challenges was designing a small greenhouse for Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in a suburb outside Detroit. The objective was to produce vegetables hydroponically to increase production in the limited area of the greenhouse. At the same time, they wanted to grow an assortment of vegetables.
To do this, we designed a number of different hydroponic systems to meet the specific needs of each crop. Plant towers increased production of various herbs, as greenhouses have vertical space that must be optimized in its production systems. A water culture system called nutrient film technique (NFT) was the choice for lettuce and basil. Tomatoes, peppers and other vine crops are grown in buckets of perlite with a drip irrigation system feeding the plants with a nutrient solution.
The versatility of hydroponics applied at its simplest best.
Better by design, hydroponic operations, whether they are large and commercial or smaller scale like the hospital’s greenhouse, require less space, less energy to run and consume less water. And, without the presence of soil, they don’t have to rely on artificial pesticides. Instead, they can use Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a biological procedure powered by natural predators and bioagents (pesticides made from natural sources), to control pests.
For the end consumer, that equates to crops free of disease, improved food safety and even increased nutritional value.
Howard Resh is the manager of the hydroponic farm at CuisinArt Golf Resort & Spa in Anguilla, British West Indies, where fresh salad crops are grown for the guests of the resort. Dr. Resh is also an international consultant on the development of hydroponic operations. He has written five books, with Hydroponic Food Production in its seventh edition, and also has a website.
The Firestone Farm corn field is making some terrific progress, even though a flooded field in May forced us to replant. (The weather is something farmers struggle with, regardless of the year— whether it's 1885 or 2011!) In fact, it looks like most of our corn plants will still be "knee-high by the Fourth of July," despite all of our spring flooding - huzzah!
Last week, we cultivated our corn for the second time this year. Cultivating is when we loosen the soil and remove the weeds around each corn plant.
Because the Firestones did not use herbicides to kill weeds in their fields, they planted their corn three feet apart in each direction so that they had room to cultivate. And like the Firestones, we use a horse-drawn cultivator remove weeds in our cornfield.
We take our cultivator down each row from north to south, east to west, and then diagonally. This takes a great amount of patience and skill on the part of horse, driver and operator.
We used one of our newest horses, Henry, to cultivate. Although he is very young and new to this job, he handled the tight turns well and only stepped on a few corn plants. It looks like Henry and his partner Tom are turning out to be great additions to Greenfield Village!
Ryan Spencer is manager of Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village. Working at The Henry Ford was a childhood dream of his – although he did not realize then that it would involve so much manure.
Over the last couple of weeks, our Firestone Farm team began plowing, harrowing and planting in our cornfield, which is adjacent to William Ford Barn.
At Firestone Farm, we use a spring-tooth and spike-tooth harrow after plowing. Plowing is the first step in the process and turns over the dirt, bringing new soil to the ground’s surface; however, it also leaves the ground very uneven, almost like waves on a choppy lake. Harrowing breaks up clods of dirt, knocks down high ridges and fills in troughs (called furrows) until the ground is smooth enough to start planting.
Next came the planting. We planted a very old variety of corn, called Reid’s Yellow Dent, which was used by farmers all over the United States in the late 1800s. The corn is planted by hand using a tool called a corn jabber.
A piece of twine with knots every three feet is stretched across the field. Two farmers work their way towards the middle of the field, planting corn wherever there is a knot in the twine.
When they meet in the middle, Firestone farmers give each other a friendly handshake—a Greenfield Village tradition and a sign of camaraderie in hopes of a good crop yield.
Spacing the corn three feet apart will allow Firestone farmers to take a horse with a special tool called a cultivator in between each row to remove weeds. Later, farmers will plant pumpkins alongside their corn; the pumpkin vines will spread all over the ground and help keep weeds under control.
Be sure to stop by and watch the corn’s progress each week!