On a recent trip to Galesburg, Rex Cherrington a local historian took my husband Keith and I on a tour of some of the agricultural historic sites and history that occurred in this Knox County town over the years. Agricultural pioneer, George Brown is credited with patenting the first corn planter although his company made other items as well. The factory he built to manufacture the corn planters still has remains in downtown Galesburg.
George Brown was born on October 29, 1815 near Clifton Park in Saratoga County in eastern New York and lived there on a farm until he was 14 when moved in with his brother and learned the carpentry trade. On September 1, 1835, he married Maria Terpening. In 1836, he left New York and headed for Illinois, settling west of Galesburg in Warren County where he would make his mark on the future of farming.
The online Knox County Historical Sites website states, “George W. Brown was a farmer and carpenter by trade. In 1848 he conceived the idea of turning a cultivator into a corn-planter.”
Hon. Clark E. Carr wrote about how Brown first started with his idea. This is from a letter he wrote in September 22, 1875. “His first idea was to drop three rows at once, placing the shovels of the cultivator as wide apart as he wished to have the corn rows, and boxes of corn on the beam’s back of the shovel, so fixed that the center of each box would be over the middle of the furrows made by the shovels. A slide was so adjusted that by moving it there would be an aperture at the center of the bottom of each box large enough for from three to five kernels of corn to slip through, which would of course fall into the middle of each furrow behind the shovels. This slide was to be operated by a man walking behind the machine. He attached heavy wheels to the cultivator back of the boxes, which were made of sections sawed off from logs, and which would roll the ground after the corn was dropped in, filling and leveling the furrow”
After several years of experimenting with different designs, he used his invention in 1852 to plant 16 acres of corn for himself and 8 acres for a neighbor. Brown sold everything he had to secure patents for his invention and started building planters by hand. In 1853, he completed 12 machines, one that planted 300 acres of corn that season. His business grew rapidly, with 100 machines made in 1854 and 300 made in 1855.
Around 1855 Brown built his factory in Galesburg he was flourishing by 1878, with the company manufacturing 8,000 corn planters a year. When others tried to infringe on his idea, he filed suit and in May of 1874 the Supreme Court declared Brown the inventor of the corn planter. After the ruling went his way, the innovative inventor finally began to receive royalties from manufactured equipment and in 1878 he won a lawsuit against the Keystone Manufacturing Company of Rock Island and received $200,000.
George Brown’s plant became one of the major employers in Galesburg. The factory reportedly was over 100,000 square feet with machine shops, blacksmith shops, paint shops, and warehouses. While many of the buildings are gone, a plaque and a few of the original building still exist. Downtown the store that is currently the Brighter Life Bookshop, which is located on East Simmons Street, used to be part of the George Brown factory.
Galesburg is where many of the major events in Brown’s life occurred. “He lived on the corner and the factory was almost in his backyard,” Cherrington said.
George W. Brown even served one year as the mayor of Galesburg in 1878 the same year that another famous Galesburgite Carl Sandburg was born.
Although gone now, also nearby his home and factory was the Methodist church he attended as well. Besides the corn planter, Brown is credited with making corn shellers, rakes, cultivators, and discs as well. During his later years, after his wife died in 1891 George Brown spent much of their time in California. When his health deteriorated in 1895, he returned to Galesburg. While home, he took a team of horses and a buggy and traveled west from Galesburg to Tylerville and it stormed. He caught cold that turned into pneumonia and he passed away on June 2, 1895 at the home of a daughter. George and Maria Brown are both buried in Galesburg at Hope cemetery. Cherrington continued his tour at the cemetery and pointed out their Brown plots.
A corn planter and cultivator are on display in the Galesburg County Historical Society Museum. The museum is on the 3rd floor of the Galesburg Antique Mall located at 190 E. Michigan Avenue.