To me, part of the fun of traveling is learning history that changed the way we live. There is no doubt we all have heard of John Deere and the steel plow, but you may not have heard of Harvey Henry (H.H.) May and his part.
May, like many other farmers with big ideas turned into an inventor. In the 1800’s, many inventors came on the scene to make farming easier in the heavy Midwest prairie. One of the inventors was H.H. May. Author Earnest Elmo Calkins who wrote They Broke the Prairie pointed out an important point about settlers moving west from the East coast. “Plowing virgin prairie was a new experience for New York farmers. The slight plows brought from the East crumpled like matchwood before the thick prairie turf, with its accumulation of grass roots, the growth of centuries. The land had to be “broken”…”
Before the steel self scouring plow, the only one known was made of cast iron. The downside to the cast iron plow was that every few yards, the farmer had to stop and clean the plow making it a time waster. This is when May comes on the scene. I learned about May while walking through the tombstones of Hope Cemetery, with local historian Rex Cherrington who pointed out the grave of Harvey Henry (H.H.) May. Cherrington said about May, “H.H. May had a steel plow from Galesburg. Then later he went on to make windmills and pumps.”
Born in 1804 in Washington County New York May came to Galesburg in 1837. History varies whether he came that year just to scout the land in Knox County or settle. It is interesting how he traveled from New York, in The History of Knox County by Albert J. Perry (published in 1912) it states, “May brought his family and household goods to Knox county, traveling by raft from the state of New York by way of Lake Erie and the Ohio river and bringing with him the lumber from which he built the first pine building in Log City. This he placed on skids and hauled it to Galesburg with ten yoke of cattle. He possessed marked mechanical skill and ingenuity and was proprietor of the first factory in Galesburg.”
May arrived in either 1837 or 1838 with wife Delia Duwayne May. Calkins wrote in his chapter about the Self-Scouring Plow, “…May was already an inventor. In the East he had perfected a reaper for grain eight years before Cyrus McCormick, but inexperience, lack of money, various obstacles, delayed his securing patent…”
Like many inventors before him, he lost out on the glory of his creation. In his book, Calkins indicates that May created a steel plow and fought with the Deeres and Moline Plow Company about the infringement on the invention.
Perry explained that H.H. built his steel plow from two old mill saws, “Molding them to the shape desired. He applied for a patent for the use of steel in manufacturing plows so that they would scour, in 1842 but it was not granted at that time. He had considerable difficulty in getting a plow that would scour bright but after much discouragement and any trials he finally succeeded in securing material that could be highly polished and would remain that way. Through political reasons, he was never able to obtain a good patent but between the years of 1867 and 1871 the case was decided by Judge Sidney N. Breese.”
Calkin wrote in 1871, that Judge Sidney Breese established that May did invent the steel self-scouring plow. While May was recognized for his creation, he was never awarded the patent so the credit goes to John Deere. Harvey May manufactured plows from 1842 to 1859.
May bought thousands of acres of land, but lost most of it because of speculation and financial panic. Business was turned over to his son Samuel W. May. H.H. May passed away in 1886 at the age of 84. Samuel May bought ground and farmed raising livestock, but as Cherrington said before, he continued in the manufacturing efforts and was an inventor like his father. He invented and manufactured the May Windmill. Perry wrote, “The first two hundred mills were manufactured on his farm in Rio township but afterward, in order to meet the increasing demands, he made arrangements for their construction with Candee & Company, at Onedia, with Nelson Laturatt & Company at Bushnell, and with H.L. May, at Galesburg, there operating under the firm name of May Brothers, the business proving very profitable.”
Photo archives from the Galesburg library show a picture of the May Brothers with a sign that says Wind-Mills & Pumps, Tanks & Cisterns. There is a windmill on the roof of the building that has printed on it New May. There is a list of Illinois Windmill companies and they list the company as the May Bros Windmill Co and have two windmills listed, the New May and Little Giant.H.H. May may go down in history for his agricultural contributions. This small town of Galesburg, brought many agricultural accomplishments and traveling through the cemetery on a historical tour brought his name to light.