A Seedy Idea

It was a seedy idea, a dirty idea, an idea born out of necessity and frustration of the inefficient way of planting corn. It came not from an engineering lab or a ''think tank'' but from the mind of a farmer. His name was George W. Brown. His idea spawned success after years of trials and tribulations and after court cases to protect his idea. George was another of Galesburg's success stories -- another who helped Galesburg to grow and prosper.

George W. Brown was not born in Galesburg, rather he was one of the early recruits to Illinois and to Galesburg on the promise of cheap land. He was born in Saratoga County, N. Y. which seemed to be a source of many of Warren County's early residents. He was born on October 29, 1815 and lived there on a farm until he was 14. At that time, he learned to be a carpenter. 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. He and his bride traveled west for weeks by covered wagon. In time, the rains came, and the wagon became repeatedly bogged down in wet clay and mud. He looked around and saw nothing but land. No houses -- just land waiting to be farmed. Just land, waiting for homes to be built. This was his place to be. He traded his team, upon arrival, for a parcel of land. He built a log cabin and he began farming and constructing homes for his new neighbors. In time, homes were to be found in Galesburg, Knoxville, and Henderson Grove, as well as around Tylerville, which were the product of his labor and skill. Farm work came in between carpentry. Farming was slow and the planting of corn seemed to be crying out for a better way. He studied it and came up with a better idea. The better idea was to compound the process, to make multiple steps one -- saving time and labor. He invented the corn planter through the modification of a cultivator.

He planted corn with the new system in 1851 and he refined the process and planted 16 acres of corn for himself and another eight acres for Alfred Brown. The community around little Tylerville was seeing history made before its eyes, but it went unnoticed. He believed in his invention and sold all he had for obtaining the patent and to begin manufacturing. Manufacturing began in Shanghai City in 1853, a place that even history appears to have forgotten. He produced a total of 12 machines. However, they proved their worth, with one machine reported to have been used to plant 300 acres. The idea took root and flourished. In 1854, he built 100 machines and in 1855, he tripled that number. The manufacturing process moved to Galesburg.

In Galesburg, the number doubled to 600 machines in 1856 and then to a 1,000 the next year. They found use through America and even in faraway places. As his business expanded, his capital outlay increased to meet the demand. Sales spiraled but his profits did not. Others began to manufacture corn planters based on his design, infringing upon his idea, his market, and his potential profits. He was forced to go to court.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor, recognizing George W. Brown as the inventor and patent holder for the corn planter. With this ruling, and subsequent court action, Brown finally began to reap the benefit of the seeds he could sow. He was able 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 W. Brown became a wealthy man, a major employer in Galesburg, a mover of the Galesburg economy. He employed over 200 men and paid out wages of over $100,000 per year. His factory consumed coal, iron, steel, lumber, paint, and the transportation to get it to the factory. His factory with its large chimneys towered over Galesburg, a sign of prosperity, of growth, of success. In all, his factory was reported to represent over 100,000 square feet, having machine shops, blacksmith shops, paint shops, and warehouses. As his factory was not adjacent to the CB&Q railroad, he built a railroad spur 2000 feet long to his factory so that the planters could be directly loaded onto the rail without an intermediate haul by horses, saving time and money. An example of Brown's corn planter can be seen in the Knox County museum in Knoxville.

Mr. Brown saw that a Methodist Church was built next to his factory. He saw that a large chair, some said it was like a throne, was built near the pulpit. It was located so that he sat facing the congregation who could watch him watch them.

George W. Brown became the mayor of Galesburg. He was Mayor in 1878 when Carl Sandburg was born. This unassuming, jack-of-all-trades lad would not have attracted much of Mr. Brown's attention. Even Brown could not foresee Sandburg becoming Galesburg's most significant son. On the other hand, Carl Sandburg writes of seeing Mr. Brown drive by in a bright shining buggy, pulled by a pair of glossy black horses. Brown only served one term as Mayor but it was during his term that Galesburg first faced the daunting task of establishing ''hard roads''.

Over the years, the factory was further expanded and produced other implements in addition to the famous corn planter. Corn shellers, rakes, cultivators, and discs were also produced and distributed to the far reaches from Galesburg.

Brown must have been fond of the water. He built two lakes east of Galesburg. The first was the smaller, and was named Lake Washington. The second was named Lake George and it became the site for recreation. Rowboats could be rented by the hour, and rides on the small lake steamer, Lady Washington, could be purchased. In time, Brown offered to sell the lake to Galesburg, for it to become a park. City officials let the opportunity slip by. After his death, the lake was sold to the CB&Q Railroad which used it as a water supply and renamed it Lake Rice.

In 1891, Mr. Brown's wife died. Mr. Brown began to spend a substantial amount of time living in California. His health began to fail. In 1895, he returned to Galesburg and wanted to revisit his roots; his starting point, near Tylerville, in Warren County. He took a team of horses and a buggy and traveled west from Galesburg to Tylerville. Although the weather was fair when he started, it deteriorated badly by evening and it was blamed for his subsequent cold that developed into pneumonia. He died at the home of a daughter, in Galesburg, on June 2, 1895.

A young lad, later to become the President of Knox College, recalled meeting George W. Brown once. He recorded ''I was vastly impressed by the ornate watch chain draped across his ample front. I had been identified as the son of Ed Britt, and the great man made curt acknowledgment: 'I don't know Ed Britt and I don't know his son.' It was my first contact with economic royalty and I was not pleased.''

George had a good idea, at the right time, at the right place, and had the nerve to see it through. Neither OSHA, nor EPA, nor ''minimum wage'' were there to deter him from the successful completion of his dream and the bounty it provided to a young, dynamic Galesburg, trying to become the Flower of the Prairie.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online June 21, 2000

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