This article corresponds to the Jersey County Fair Agriculture Education Center's 200 Years of Jersey County Agriculture Exhibit, highlighting several of the major periods of change and development for the agriculture industry in the county.
Good, old-fashioned country ingenuity was all over Illinois in the 1800s, even in Jersey County, where over half a dozen inventors tinkered with contraptions designed to improve everyday life on and off the farm. In fact, according to James Davis, author of Frontier Illinois, many pioneers applied their experience and technical skills to improving the quality of frontier life, writing:
“Many businessmen were owner-inventors, small-scale entrepreneurs who dabbled in invention as they adapted technology to frontier realities. Some independent inventors, though, fed ideas to companies. During the 1850s, inventing increasingly became a full-time activity, with many inventors working directly for corporations. Personal observation, word-of-mouth testimony, articles, and advertising convinced farmers to try evolving improvements. Agricultural machines and techniques displayed at county and state fairs dazzled and enticed farmers…McCormick and other manufacturers created systems of knowledgeable dealers, advertised, offered credit to purchasers, and during the late 1850s annually sped via trains thousands of reapers and other implements to distant consumers" (Davis, 1998).
Jersey County was the home of several such inventors throughout the 1800s. Among the earliest inventors was J.M. Scribner, whose invention is still used today. In 1846, he invented a tree log scale designed “...to calculate how many board feet of timber could be harvested from a tree based on its diameter and height” (Jersey County Historical Society, n.d.). An example of the invention is on display at the Jersey County Historical Society museum.
Not too long after Scribner, there was Myron Cory of Jerseyville, who, in 1851, patented a corn planter that was capable of plowing the soil and planting and covering the seed, all at the same time, complete with a seed tube to dispense the seed into the ground. To the modern farmer, this invention sounds like a standard, albeit antique, planter. But, at the time, it was revolutionary for its time and labor-saving advantages (Jersey County Historical Society, 2023). A few decades later, another member of the Cory family joined the inventor rank with his take on a domestic contraption. George Cory of Kane adapted an embroidery frame to sit on two vertical posts attached to a horizontal lapboard. He received his patent on January 15, 1889 (Jersey County Historical Society, 2023).
Then, there was Jerseyville businessman Moses Cockrell, born in Mississippi Township in 1854. In August 1884, Cockrell, along with fellow Jerseyville resident Nelson P. Bradish, “…procured a patent on a machine for making a wire fence” (History of Greene and Jersey Counties, 1885).
Next is General James Semple, one of Jersey County’s most prosperous and accomplished residents. Aside from serving as an Illinois Supreme Court Justice, our nation’s Minister to Bogota, and establishing the Village of Elsah, Semple left his mark in the automotive industry before the car was even invented. According to county historian Oscar Hamilton, “He invented the first steam traction engine for road travel, and drove it from Alton to Carlinville, on a trip to Springfield, but on account of bad roads it mired down and had to be abandoned there” (Hamilton, 1919). In fact, Semple is more famous and renowned than what folks realize, as a simple Google search would reveal. His invention was called the Prairie Steam Car, and its history is a pretty interesting read, especially for the gearheads in your life. Though the venture was unsuccessful, it was a momentous technological leap and symbolized the resilience and experimental spirit of the pioneers.
Another prominent inventor of Jersey County’s past was Frederick S. Davenport, who was born in England but grew up in France, where he studied engineering. After moving to America in 1857, he soon arrived in Jerseyville. The 1885 History of Greene and Jersey Counties does an excellent job of laying out the quick impact he made in the following description of him:
“In the year 1864, David Beaty, a prominent farmer of this county, brought to [Davenport], for repairs, a gang plow…Mr. Davenport immediately set to work to make improvements upon the same, and in the autumn of the same year, took out his first patent for a riding gang-plow. The next patent granted him was on a device indicating low water in steam boilers. He has since patented a Diamond mill-stone dresser, and also a wind power, for operating farm pumps, a number of other useful and ingenious contrivances; having been granted…thirteen patents, several of which are upon plows. He has realized some money upon each of his inventions, but his greatest success has been his latest patent, the ‘F.S. Davenport New Model Plow,’ which he sold to the Jerseyville Manufacturing Company, for $8,000…He has for many years, been deeply interested in astronomy and made a study of optical instruments, and has constructed three telescopes, the last of which was completed in 1876.” (History of Greene and Jersey Counties, 1885). Frederick Davenport successfully patented the first seated gang plow, an important development in mechanized agriculture that took place right here in Jersey County. As for the Jerseyville Manufacturing Company, which by the dawn of the twentieth century was the oldest facility of its kind in southern Illinois, proprietor Robert Newton is likewise linked to the development and improvement of inventions, including an improvement upon one of Davenport’s plows (Ardrey, 1894).
And lastly, there was Napoleon B. Lucas, of whom county historian Oscar Hamilton wrote the following:
“The original inventor of the threshing separator lived near Otterville. His name was Napoleon B. Lucas. He was a son of Governor Lucas of Ohio. He spent years of time, and all of his means and all that he could borrow, in securing his patents and perfecting the machine, and, not being able to defend it, other parties pirated his invention, manufactured the machines, and made fortunes, leaving the original inventor a stranded bankrupt. This same man Lucas invented a rat-trap, which he took to New Orleans, and caught bushels of rats, and was offered $10,000.00 cash, for the right to manufacture and sell it in the State of Louisiana, but refused the offers, with the result that he received nothing from it, which is another demonstration of the fact, that inventors seldom reap any substantial financial benefits from their inventions” (History of Jersey County, Illinois, 1919).
Many of the technological advancements made by county residents were agricultural. Some might have been more successful than others, but all were aimed at improving rural life, providing solutions to challenges faced by residents in Illinois and abroad. When we think of early Illinois inventors, folks often think about John Deere and his contemporaries but neglect that inventors could be found all over Illinois, even in Jersey County. These old timers were more energetic and visionary than we give them credit for, as only a few counties can claim the inventing heritage that Jersey County can. Our citizens have made their mark in the logging, agriculture, and automotive industries. Are you the next inventor to join their ranks?
Ardrey, R. L. (1894, January 1). American agricultural implements: A review of invention and development in the agricultural implement industry of the United States. Northern Illinois University Digital Library. https://digital.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-lincoln%3A36185
Davis, J. E. (1998). Frontier Illinois. Indiana University Press.
Hamilton, O. B. (1919). History of Jersey County, Illinois. Munsell Publishing Company.
History of Greene and Jersey counties, Illinois. (1885). . Continental Historical Company.
Jersey County Historical Society. (2023, Autumn). Jersey County Historical Society Genealogy Library. Jerseyville, Illinois.
Jersey County Historical Society. (n.d.). Transportation Room. Jerseyville, Illinois; Jersey County Historical Society Museum. Displayed in the Transportation Room at the Jersey County Historical Society Museum. Exhibit developed by Beth McGlasson.