alan skeoch
nov. 29, 2020


“Andy bought some chicks for us from the Fabers…mixed  breeds…plymouth rocks, new hampshires, leghorns…
”Any Silver Laced Wyandottes?
“No, weren’t they beautiful when we raised them years ago…regal looking…rare breeds “
“Neighbours loved seeing them…”

“Not all the neighbours…someone reported us to the By Law Inspector, Remember?”

The by law inspector dropped by.  Reacting to 
a complaint about our chickens.  Marjorie gathered  a bunch of supporting neighbours
when he arrived.  I met him of the front lawn and asked, “Are you sure you want
to go in there? MY wife has and army of supporters on the verge  of  war.”
 We were cleared as a non conforming property having chickens before
the by  law was written.”  HE ESCAPED.


Points to remember about keeping urban  chickens

1) Free range chickens lay wonderful eggs.  A thrill to reach
in the nest and gather fresh eggs.  I am not sure the chickens
liked that.  Must have damaged the psyche of those hens.

2)  Backyards chickens attract kids.  If you do not want children
around  then do  not keep chickens.

3) Backyard chickens attract practical jokers like Kaye Donovan
who sneaked into the coop one Easter and painted  all our eggs.

4) Backyard chickens need lots of  care.  Chicken  dung can
smell bad if allowed to pile up and get wet.  Believe it or not there
are people who do not like the smell of  chicken manure.  I know
that is hard to believe.  Chicken manure…with age…makes things grow.

5) Backyard chickens get  lice.  Nasty little devils that can
get out of control.  Control?  Yes, they have to be dusted with
louse powder.  How?  Pick the chicken up by back legs and 
dust its bare bum with the delousing stuff.  Not a nice job but
necessary.   The key was a piece of string.

6) Predators soon arrive to assess the availability of backyard
chickens…foxes, coyotes, raccoons.   We  designed an ourdoor
run with a cement floor and s heavy chain link fence that hung like
a drawbridge door..   When loose in the backyard  the chickens were
vulnerable.  One day a huge Osprey swooped down a picked up
a one eyed hen.   How did the Osprey know that?  The odd skunk
slipped around looking for the eggs.  Nice animals as long as they did
not baptist you with fluid.

7) Backyard chickens attract rats and mice since the chickens  like
to throw their food around so traps small and  large are necessary.
Enough  said  about that.
8) Backyard  chickens  are beautiful to watch as  they wander around
the yard cleaning up unwanted insects.   Friendly birds is well treated.

9)  Backyard chickens to be avoided are the so called  ‘meat birds’/
We accepted  10 or 12 of these from Vic Laing and  For Root and the
Parkdale C. I. science department.  Dreadfull creatures bred  for fast
growth in weeks rather than months or years.   They grow immense
and ours had lots of genetic  defects…crooked  beaks  and feet…some  staggered.
They ate fast.  They ate lots.  And they dropped turds lots.  When  I got rid
of them to a farm friend they managed to make our van unlovable.  Chicken
shit everywhere.

10) Backyard  chickens are perfect right now as we are in a Covid 19
Pandemic and urged  to stay home.  IN normal times, however, backyard
chickens travelled with us in the truck..  We could not leave them alone.
Farmers must stay close to their farm animals.

11)  Backyard  chickens and backyard gardens are not harmonious.  Choose
one or the other.  Or build extra fences.

12)  Backyard chicken farmers  are credited  with saving some of the 
breeds on the verge of extinction…such as those Silver Laced Wyandottes that’
we grew to love.  We were never able to find a rooster of that breed  sadly.

13)  If you do  not mind  me making a suggestion. Try backyard ducks after
you tire of the chickens or after the predators have emptied your coop.  Get a couple
of ducks.  Get them young.   They IMPRINT a couple of weeks after birth.  Imprint?
They look around and  consider whoever they see on that particular day as their
mother or father.  Our backyard pair of  ducks imprinted us as their parents.
We just had to call them.  They would waddle over and up the ramp into the van
or into the duck cage.   They got so familiar with human beings that occasionally
they would go for a  walk around the neighbourhood gabbing away to each other.
One day I caught them a block away…called them and they came chattering
in a language  i did not completely understand.  I put one under each arm and
hot footed home with them.  My camel hair suit coat was never quite the same.
I went to school with duck shit streaks under each arm.   But we loved  them.
They would  go  to the farm with us…swim all day in the swamps and ponds…then come
when called.  What happened to them?  We were never sure but suspected a fox
or coyote got them.   It was  easier to think they fell in love with wild ducks and
flew away.  Easier, yes, but the problem was  they were to fat to fly.

14)  The same applies to a crippled  Canada  Goose we adopted  when it
was  a gosling.  Imprinted.  Thought it was human.  Then one day it was gone.
We think it could fly.  Happy ending.

Baby Canada Geese are hatched and  raised every year on our big pond.  Once
mobile the parents take them away because  your Big Snapping Turtle is a threat.
Nature ‘red in tooth and claw’.

alan  skeoch
Nov. 29,2020

Post Script

One day I gave Marjorie a nicely  carved  wooden pig.

“Does this mean we are going to try to raise a baby pig?”
“Not a chance.”


EPISODE 179         

alan skeoch
Nov. 2020



This final  Episode on the history of  reapers is special to me.  In  1932, the Fergus  News Record published a picture of  my grandfather
James Skeoch reaping his grain field with an old but still operational reaping machine which owed its existence to the Cyrus MCCormick
invention a century earlier in 1831.  The copy of the Fergus  News Record is dated  November 10, 1932, and  had  been mailed to his eldest son,
John Skeoch, who was farming near Keeler, Saskatchewan.  Eventually this  farm covered  3,200 acres.


Can you read the stencilled name on this aged IHC W6  tractor.?” McCormick” !   The International Harvester Company made a large  assortment of machines for
farming.   That began with the McCormick Reaper but did not stop there.  They eventually made tractors…good tractors… short turning featured for small fields.

 This International Harvester Tractor , IHC W6, was built in 1953.   Cost $400 at Mr. Smith’s auction
near Guelph and drove it cross country to our Erin township farm.  I will never forget that trip
on cold November day.   exhilarating.   Proud owner of one of the great machines of agriculture. A McCormick W6 tractor.
The road trip was  long  and detour laden.  I thought I was absolutely alone.  Then,  En route, I met our horse,
Spartacus, running towards me hell ben for election…saddled but no rider.  He was heading to his first home
and away from ours.   He had a length of rusty barbed wire attached to his tail.  Terrified.  What should I do?  I kept 
driving  and eventually met Marjorie who had been thrown. She corralled  Spartacus eventually.   Why tell you this? Because we
had continuous rural adventures.  (Spartacus was the son of an estrogen mare whose story will eventually
become an Episode.)

That’s Kevin on my shoulders.  Marjorie made us duplicate clothes.  Behind the tractor is a
seed drill which is there jus for show.  Like most of my farm machines, it was no longer functional.


Let me start by apologizing to Cryus McCormick and  his corporation.  Remember that lawsuit where Cyrus
felt he was overcharged  $8.75 for his wife’s baggage on the New York Railroad.   The lawsuit lasted 20
years.   Made Cyrus look cheap and bull headed.  Perhaps wrongly so.  I did not mention the value
of $8.75 in today’s cash.  Turns out to be over $300.  Is the collection of that amount worth a  20 year lawsuit?

IN my presentation of Cyrus McCormick I may  have miscast him.  For 20 years he fought a court battle
charging the New York Railroad had overcharged his wife by $8.75.  Today,  November 1920, that amount
of  money will get you a hamburger, chips and a soft drink.  In short it will get very little.  Hardly worth 
a 20 year court battle.  Right?   Maybe.   But $8.75 in 1850 had over $300 in purchasing power.  ($10 in 1850
was  worth $333.83 in today’s purchasing power).   I would  still argue the court battle was not worth
the cost and the energy.

So this is  a good time to put all these events together.  The result makes the Skeoch connection seem larger 
than is  warranted.  Way larger.  Keep that in mind.

1)  The ‘goddamn’ rock ruined  Uncle Norman’s Massey Harris combine harvester.  Combine Harvesters remain the
pinnacle of  grain harvesting technology.  
2) I researched and wrote a 300 page manuscript on machine designs in agriculture, particularly from 1850 to 1891.  M.A., U. of T., 1975
3) phone  call from Mellon Bank of New York asking us to restore a (replica)  1832  McCormick Reaper
4) Many trips to the Ford  Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where Peter Cousins  was collections curator
5) Began to research  Patrick Bell, Scottish  inventor of an earlier grain  reaper that was  never patented
and remained on the Bell farm until purchased by the Science Museum in London, England.  (In storage
at present but may  be on display in the future)…visit to London, England, to see the Bell Reaper when  it
was a feature display.
6) Restoration of the replica  model of the McCormick Reaper with was crated  and  sent air freight
to the Ulster Folk Museum in Northern Ireland where McCormick was born.
7) Along the way, I discovered that Patrick  Bell travelled to Fergus, Upper Canada, in 1851 where
the two Skeoch boys, James and John, (migrated in 1846) were farm boys. I speculated that they may have seen
each other in Fergus…but never knew each other.  Patrick Bell, by then, was a Christian minister
and  also a  teacher of children of Adam Ferguson, founder of Fergus.
8) The Patrick  Bell diaries and notes exist in Scotland but have not been published to my knowledge.
9) Copy of Fergus  News Record, Nov. 10,1932, features  James Skeoch (my grandfather) using a reaper
to cut grain.  The machine was considered obsolete by then which made a  news story.

 Through the years Marjorie and I have purchased and  stored dozens of machines relevant to
the history of  agriculture.   We developed a  particular interest in fanning mills because those
machines could easily fit inside our Ford  Van.   Fascinating history of these machines to come in later episode.
Fascinating to whom?  Good questio.
 Around 1990 the North American movie industry became very active in the Toronto
and region.  Our collection of 19th and 20th century artifacts  began to be demanded which
led to the incorporation of Skeoch Enterprises Limited.


But let us not get silly  The connection  between the great inventors of the 19th 
century like Patrick  Bell and Cyrus McCormick and the Skeoch  farmers is not even
tenuous.  The connections is as thin as one strand of a spiders web.  
 We were the users of  machines  like the reaper and the combine harvester.
We were not the makers.   And  there is one hell  of a difference between inventing and 
making a machine as opposed to buying and using a machine.  Keep that in mind, Alan.

 JUST imagine if  your student turned in a 300 page essay for you to mark?   A  copy of my thesis in hand…as bound via Jim Hunter.




At a farm sale outside Milton I was able to buy this “SAIL” reaper.  It worked. But is now a pile of scrap iron.

It looked better with Kevin sitting on the drivers seat.   Adding a seat to the replica reaper was one improvement.
This was called a ‘sail reaper’ because the reel was removed and a sweeping toothed sail of four wooden rakes added.

When Cyus McClintick lost his patent monopoly a great man reaper began to appear.  All of them improved as above

This will give you some  idea of the variety of reaper manufacturers that appeared in Ontario after the McCormick patent ended.

alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

Fwd: Canada Letter: Ontario announces more measures to keep schools open during lockdown


alan skeoch
Nov.  28, 2020

As a former teacher of  history I have wondered how teaching has adjusted to the pandemic.  For a
while schools were closed across the province.  It took time to adjust to the new reality.  What is  this
new reality?   Journalist Catherine Porter has written an  excellent ‘Canada  Letter’ published in 
the New York Times.  She mentions that Toronto and New York City have approached  the Covid  19
threat differently.  Toronto keeps  schools open while closing bars and restaurants.  New York closes
schools  while keeping bars  and restaurants  open.   The argument presented by Toronto is the
kids are safer in schools than roaming the streets  and playgrounds.  Masked  students  in school
are less likely to spread the virus.  

That seems to make sense to me.

What makes me wonder is how teaching can  happen.  Some school boards have students  
attend three hour classes where the curriculum is compressed  no doubt..   I cannot imagine
high school students enjoying three hour classes.  Nor can I  imagine teachers enjoying trying
to prepare three our classes.  At some point the students  will have to read.  That might work.

A  lot of  parents, 33% or more, have opted for at home teaching.  That is even harder
for me to understand..   Seems  like boredom will erode any joy in education.  But I  could be
wrong.  Just a  gut reaction.  When I taught history I tried to make my 40 or 80 minute
lessons interesting…sometimes funny, sometimes serious, sometimes irrelevant, sometimes
current.  I cannot imagine doing this for three hours.   Years ago I also did short five to ten
minute radio stories  on CBC.  After my third  or fourth story, my producer called  me aside 
and said  “Alan, those stories are great….”  When someone prefaces a remark by flattery
what do you think the next word would be?   Right the next word is always  ‘BUT’ . I remember
his comment so well.

“Alan, those stories  are great BUT remember the radio audience attention span
is one minute.  If you don’t get them in  the first minute, then they are gone.”
That comment by  Doug Koupar years  ago  changed my whole approach to teaching.
I began to cut the lead  in guff and tried to find the urgent question…the reason for the lesson.

Personally, I cannot imagine doing that in a three hour lesson.
If  adult attention span is one minute…then how can we expect the poor kids
to have an 180 minute  or three hour attention span?

Covid 19 has not made schooling better.  Or,  if I might use a baseball comment…”there is no joy in mudville” classoomsl.
No doubt I will be  criticized by some educators.  Creative teachers will find  a way.  Of that I have no 
doubt.  Maybe I should try to prepare a three hour lesson for a class of  15 students.  Talk is  cheap.

alan skeoch

Begin forwarded message:

From: The New York Times <nytdirect@nytimes.com>
Subject: Canada Letter: Ontario announces more measures to keep schools open during lockdown
Date: November 28, 2020 at 6:00:02 AM EST

TORONTO — On Monday, as I was writing a news article about Canada’s enthusiasm for keeping schools open during the second wave of the coronavirus, an email arrived from my daughter’s high school alerting me that a student had tested positive and a grade-12 class had been asked to self-isolate.

It was the first time this happened since Toronto public schools finally reopened in mid-September.

A school in Scarborough, an inner suburb of Toronto, in September. Despite Toronto’s new coronavirus restrictions, classes have remained open.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

I had expected such news much earlier. Like many parents, I had feared schools would be petri dishes of the coronavirus. I predicted they would stay open no later than Canadian Thanksgiving and that my two children would be trapped once again at home with me and my husband — all of us driving one another nuts.

That, most happily, has not been the case.

There have been outbreaks in 83 Toronto schools, each with an average of five cases, according to Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health for Toronto. That is out of some 1,200 schools in the city — so about 7 percent.

But, unlike New York City, which responded to rising rates of community transmission by shutting down schools while keeping bars and restaurants open, the Ontario government has made the opposite decision: It shut down bars and restaurants in Toronto and two of its sprawling suburbs, but kept schools open.


“Ontario schools remain safe,” said Stephen Lecce, the education minister for the province, at a news conference on Thursday. “They remain safe even while we face increasing rates of community-based transmission.”

He vowed to “make sure we do whatever it takes to keep schools safe and to keep them open, which I think is an overwhelming societal imperative in this province and in this country.”

To that end, he announced more funding for school boards in hot spots and a program of testing asymptomatic students and staff in schools in four of the province’s hardest-hit areas — something his government first promised in the summer, and critics have been demanding for months.

“That’s great news but we heard the same thing in August,” said Ryan Imgrund, a high school science teacher and biostatistician in Newmarket, just north of Toronto. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”


Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and, in fact, its schools have among the strictest coronavirus safety rules in the country. All children are required to wear masks in school, including the young ones — which is not the case in most Canadian school boards. And class size for high school kids is capped around 15 — which in the case of my daughter means she takes most of her classes online and is in the physical school only a quarter of the time.

Preparations for students at a school in Scarborough, part of the Toronto District School Board. Toronto’s schools have among the strictest coronavirus safety rules in the country.Pool photo by Nathan Danette

Each morning that my daughter and my son, who is in Grade 7, do physically go to school, they complete an online Covid-19 screening, verifying that they don’t have any coronavirus symptoms before arriving. If they do have symptoms, they are expected to stay home and, in most cases, get tested. Whenever a student tests positive, the public health unit swoops into the school to both contain the virus and investigate its spread, through testing and contact tracing, according to Dr. Dubey.

So far, she said, her office’s data shows that most children are infected at home, not at school.

“Schools are actually still a safer place for children to be,” Dr. Dubey said, noting that the positivity rate among Toronto’s teenagers is 7.5 percent — higher than the rate seen in schools.


She added: “If kids are not in school, they are going to be in the community more — at play dates, or the like, where Covid spreads. That’s part of the balance. At least in a school setting, they are socializing and getting an education, and it’s ‘controlled.’”

Many parents are not convinced. In Toronto, the percentage of children opting for online learning jumped to 33 percent in late October from 26 percent at the beginning of the school year, according to figures from the Toronto District School Board. In the suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton, the shift was even more pronounced, with nearly half of public elementary school students now attending classes virtually, according to the Canadian Press wire service.

“Many, many, many families don’t have confidence in the plan put in place by this government,” said Kelly Iggers, a mother and teacher at an elementary school in Toronto who amassed more than 270,000 signatures on a petitiondemanding that the government reduce class sizes, which did not happen. “At this point, only a very small proportion of children are getting tested. We just don’t know how many cases are out there.”

She added, “The provincial government is claiming success based on an absence of data.”

Studies show about 30 percent of children with coronavirus are asymptomatic, said Dr. Dubey. So, the new testing in schools where there are no outbreaks should be revealing. It could confirm what public health officials and politicians have been saying — that schools are relatively safe, compared with Covid-19 spread in the community. But it could also confirm parents’ fears — that the virus is circulating more widely in schools than has been reported.

Staff at the Ministry of Education said that the information from the new testing would be publicly shared.

“It’s a promising development, and I am really looking forward to seeing some clearer data to show us what is happening in our schools,” Ms. Iggers said. “But the success of this measure will really depend on whether it is rolled out effectively, results are shared transparently and the government is willing to implement appropriate actions in response to the findings.”

Meanwhile, I have not heard anything more from my daughter’s school, which I’m assuming is good news. So she left for school again this morning — which made both of us really happy.

Trans Canada

A moose licking a visitor’s car last month in Jasper National Park, in Alberta, Canada.Elizabeth Wishart
  • Digital signs set up in Alberta’s Jasper National Park set the internet on fire this week. They instructed drivers, “Do not let moose lick your car.” Yes, that is a thing.
  • The Times’s art critic Jason Farago gives readers an incredible, intimate tour of an iconic painting that hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Anyone who has studied the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, in Quebec City, will recognize “The Death of General Wolfe,” by Benjamin West. Jason calls the work the “origin story” of “Canadian history and American painting.”

Catherine Porter is the Canada bureau chief, based in Toronto. Before she joined The Times in 2017, she was a columnist and feature writer for The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. @porterthereport

How are we doing?

We’re eager to have your thoughts about this newsletter and events in Canada in general. Please send them to nytcanada@nytimes.com.

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alan  skeoch
Nov. 2020

Cyrus McCormick…reserved, determined, inventor, industrialist, 

Replica  of the first McCormick Reaper (restored  by Alan Skeoch) dated 1931 copy of original 1831 machine.  Shipped to Ulster Folk
Museum, Northern Ireland, original home of the MCCormick family.

McCormick reaper
Artist engraving of early MCCormick Reaper which appears  a  little more sophisitcated
than the replica model.   The Bull Gear is visible inside the drive wheel if you look hard  enough.


Cyrus McCormck was a tough nut to crack.   In other words I do not think I would enjoy
having a draft of  beer with him whereas Patrick Bell would be good  company. Both
men, along with Obed Hussey, are credited  with inventing the horse driven reaping machine.

I doubt that McCormick or Bell actually drank beer.  Both were Presbyterians and may
well have taken the pledge as is said about non drinkers.   Bell seems to have had
less starch in his britches.

McCormick on the other hand had lots of starch in his britches.  The best example of this
has nothing to do with his reaping machine.  Cyrus McCormick, at the mid points of
his business life initiated a lawsuit against New York Central Railroad.   He sued the railroad
for $20,000.  Big time money.  What was the issue?  McCormick claimed the railroad overcharged
his wife $8.75 for her baggage.  He took the lawsuit right to the Supreme Court. Not once, but three
times over a 20 year period.  Eventually he won.  That case I present as  evidence that Cyrus
McCormick was a tough nut to crack.

Imagine sitting with him for  a  quiet conversation.  Perhaps I am  exaggerating but he seems to have had
the crazy tenacity of Donal Trump.  

Cyrus Hall McCormick was  born on Ferry 15, 1809 in Rockbrdge county, Virginia where his father was  a farmer and a dabbler in agricultural inventions.  Cyrus died on May 13, 1884.   He was ten years  younger
than Patrick  Bell.   They were both children and adults  of the 19th century, a century of invention.


Like father – like son.  Cyrus  McCormick’s father also invented labour saving farm machines as was  the rage in the early 19th century but no one built a successful reaping machine except for
Patrick Bell (1828) whose machine was large and expensive … never put into production anyway.   The McCormick reaper was built in 1831 when Cyrus was only 22 years old.  It was  primitive like
the replica I restored.   It had  three features of all reapers  though..1)  a  vibrating cutting blade, 2) a reel that swathed  he standing green to the cutter blade and 4) a platform  on which the
gran could fall and be hand raked  for binding into sheaves.   All subsequent reapers, of which there would be many, shared these features and improvements.

A  PUZZLE:  Why does the reaper I restored look so primitive when compared to he sleek looking McCormick reaper pictured  above?

AN ANSWER: The McCormick reapers underwent constant improvements.  The original was built by young 22 year old
Mccormick in his fathers blacksmith shop.  The later models got better and  better.

ANOTHER ANSWER:  The reaper pictured above may never have  existed.  It is an advertising image.  Mine is closer
to being  accurate.

ANOTHER ANSWER:  IF you look closely both machines are almost identical.  The engraving just made the machine look
a little more artistic.


The first McCormick Reaper had problems with the cutter bar which did not work too well.  And the machine made so much clattering 

noise that men had to walk alongside the frightened horses to keep them from bolting.  The reaper was patented in 1834 but no models
were sold until it was improved iii 1841 when 2 were sold…then 7 sold in 1842…then 29 in 1843 and 50 sold in 1844. 

By 1844 the western prairies were open for farming  as both the First Nations people and the buffalo had been violently suppressed.  Strictnine 
poison planted in  buffalo carcasses  killed most of the 40,000 wolves who had also feasted  on the buffalo herds.  Prairie soil was being plowed and McCormick realized his
reaper had a great future.   In 1847 he opened a factory in a small lakeside town called Chicago turning out 800 machines in the first year.

His  main competitive came fro Obed Hussey who also invented an American  reaper.  But it was better as  a mower for hay fields
than  a reaper for grain fields.   Hussey and McCormick got into a legal tangle when Hussey blocked  the renewal of McCormick’s
1848 patent.  If he could not beat his opponents by exclusive patent rights then McCormick decided to beat him  in sales.  And
to do much personal selling.  He went out to the west with his pockets full of order blanks.   In Chicago his factory
was ready for mass  production.   The Advertising budget was pumped up.  The McCormick  Reaper was demonstrated wherever
the public gathered.  Credit was advanced.  By  1850 the Mccormick reaper was familiar to most Americans.  When he Crystal
Palace Exhibition was opened the McCormick Reaper was boosted before European farmers.   Prizes followed  until the reaper
became familiar to people around the world.   In 1856 sales figures were over 4,000.    McCormick became one of the great
capitalist captains of industry.  He was also an active Democrat and a devout Presbyterian (established McCormick Theological
Seminary in Chicago).    When his  factory was gutted in the Great Chicago fire of  1971, he rebuilt it better than ever.

His company grew and grew long after he died.  In 1902  McCormick Harvesting Machine Company joined other companies to 
formed International harvester Company.


Well, the bank executive that hired  me around  1980 to rebuild that reaper was connected in some way
with the International Harvester Company and therefore  connected  to Cyrus McCormick.

In the latter part of the 19th century many companies made reapers copying the McCormick models.  Some of
them in Canada such  as  Massey Manufacturing of Newcastle and later West Toronto.  Every farmer wanted
a reaper .   The engraving below claims to portray the arrival of reapers and  mowers for sake in Dresden, Ontario
in 1879.  The machines  were constantly improved looking less and less like the 1831 prototype.


alan skeoch
Nov. 2020






alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

 McCormick Reaper…scale model of the 1831 invention of Cyrus MCCormick as restored in our back yard and  chicken coop around  
1981…half a  century after 100 scale models were built to celebrated the century of  The McCormick Reaper.


This McCormick Reaper may look primitive to readers when placed beside a picture of a modern
Combine Harvester.  When the picture is placed beside the original model reaper built by Cyrus
McCormick in 1831 this picture looks  quite sophisticated.   Technology changes.  And change continues
to happen.   


“Alan, aren’t you getting yourself into this project a little too deeply?  What do  you know about repairing…rebuilding….historic
“True.  But I just could  not let the opportunity slip by.”
“But you are dealing with big shots…an executive with the Mellon Bank of New  York.  Why didn’t you
tell him you were a  high school teacher…a teacher of history?”
“I guess  I found it easier to say  yes than to say no.”
“Could be a deep hole you are stepping into.”
“I know…makes me a bit nervous.”
“How did  they get your name?”
“I think Peter Cousins at the Dearborn Museum … near Detroit …must
have passed my name along.  I had been doing all that research on machine
technology much of which was centred on the collection of  Henry Ford.”

“What are  you going to do now?”
“Well, first thing is to get the machine and bring it here.”
“Where will you put it”  Sounds  like a big machine.”
“I’m emptying the garage….the McCormick Reaper is about 
the size of  a car.”
“You have already  converted part of the garage and the attached
old mink house into a chicken coop.  Where will the chickens go?”
“Nowhere.  They will keep the Reaper company…lots  of room.”
“Alan,  our home is not a farm.”
“Lucky we have this huge lot…lucky we live on the old Mississauga
reserve with non conforming property lines…lots of room.”
“is this legal?”
“Perish  the thought.”

“Next step?”
“To get the reaper and bring it here.”
“Gary Duncan has  offered to help. His  brother runs  a truck rental agency
and has offered a  five ton truck for Saturday.   Gary and i will drive down
to Merlin.”

“Small farm outside Merlin where the current owner of the reaper keeps his
collection of things.”
  (Note: Forgot his  name at the moment but remember him so well)
“How will you load the reaper?”
“Easy…the five ton has an  hydraulic  ramp…piece of cake.”

WHEN the rental truck failed on Highway 401 , we tuned to our Ford Van and a  little trailer as  an alternative.  Here is a picture with
a  different load  and  one of ours sons, Kevin, tightening up  the straps.   The McCormick Reaper was loaded successfully 

Unfortunately the ‘Piece of cake” was not that easy.  The five ton truck
broke down on the 401 before we really got out of Toronto.
My van would have to be the back as  Gary and I
headed for Merlin, a small town south west of Chatham.  East of
Windsor…east of Detroit.  

The cutter blades were designed  differently from the BellReaper…more like a saw than garden shears.

“How can you carry the reaper in your truck?”
“We’ll put it in the trailer.”
“I thought the  trailer was broken.  Didn’t it come loose and
end up in a swamp near Fergus”
“That was months ago.  Got it fixed.”
“Will the reaper fit onto a two wheeled homemade trailer?”
“Hope so.”

Gary  and I managed to get to Merlin without trouble.  The retired 
farmer (whose name I must find again) met us at his small two
storey drive shed where he kept the reaper.  

“Let me help get the reaper onto the trailer…two long planks should do it.”
“Really only need  one plank…the McCormick Reaper has only one bull wheel.”
“Between the three of  us we can get her on…winch attached  to the truck
and one of us on each side  so it does not tip. “
“Moving up  a foot at a time.  There.  Done. Now we’ll lash
it down…”

I remember clearly speaking with the owner of the reaper but cannot
be sure  how he got the machine. I think he said that the reaper had
been on display for  a time and then put into some kind of  storage shed
where it sat for decades.  

One  thought kept bothering me.  “How could such a delicate machine
have survived for such a long time?   No apparent invasion from powder
post beetle.   Almost intact.”

I found  out later that the reaper we strapped down on my trailer was not the
reaper everyone thought it was.  It had  not been built in 1831 by
Cyrus McCormick.   This  machine had  been built a hundred years later in 1931 to celebrate
the McCormick invention.  A replica.  One hundred scale models had been built
by the International harvester Corporation to celebrate the original inventor.

That knowledge was a bit of a relief.  I would  not be fooling around with
a machine that was  really historic.  There might be a few others around
somewhere  even though there was  no evidence of such.  If this had  been
the original McCormick machine it should have gone directly  to the Smithsonain
in Washington.    One McCormick replica did exist in the Dearborn collection.   
But perhaps the Dearborn Museum McCormick reaper was ancient.   Now
safely on display.  Protected.  In no danger.

In  short, I was more relieved that mine was a replica.  More pleased than disappointed.  I would not be restoring
the Mona Lisa.

“So what are you going to do with the money?”, I asked gently
“It will pay for my funeral.”
“I beg your pardon,”  I really was not sure I heard him correctly.
“When I die, this money will bury me…cover any funeral expenses.
I won’t be a burden on my family that way.”

There was not much more  we could say.  
With that touching comment, Gary and I revved up my Ford van  and
began our careful return to Mississauga.   It was a long day but we got
the reaper home and rolled  it into the garage (chicken coop) for the 
restoration to begin.

All the immediately visible parts  were evident but in the back of may mind
I wondered why we could roll it so easily.   Must be an  idling pulley or some arrangement
that kept it out of gear for moving around.  

The next discovery really knocked  me  for a  loop.

In this picture you can see the big but gear clearly…bevelled, sprocketed.

“Where is the bull gear?”
“Bull gear?”
“The main gear…the sprocketed bevelled  gear that converts the forward motion of the horse 
into power that drives the cutter bar.  “

That discovery was  made when we got the reaper to Mississauga.  There was ‘no joy in mudville’ that day.
Sure  enough the large cast iron bull gear was missing.  Any other missing part might  be replaced.  The
absent bull gear was a devastating discovery.  If I was  a real mechanic I would have noticed.  What could
i do?   How could  I get another bull gear.  Even if I toured every scrap yard in North America it
was unlikely I would find another bull gear.

In shock, I sat on a stool beside the machine.  Afraid to tell anyone.  Fully aware that such a gear could
not be found.  Nor could a  bull gear be made.  The pattern…the sand mould…had been dumped into
garbage back  in 1931.   Here i was half a century later telling a banker I could restore the reaper.  Telling
him a big lie.  I should have qualified my answer…should have said I would take a look at the job.
Instead i had agreed with him on a telephone call.  Thankfully there was no formal contract.  Maybe I could
weasel my way around the situation.  That would make me look like a fool of course…which was nothing new.

“Alan, where could you find another bull gear?”
“The only place possible is the McCormick reaper on display at the Dearborn Museum.”
“Well, I could  hardly go into the museum and remove the bull gear from a prize exhibit.  That
would be like taking Mona Lisa’s smile.   No one would let me do that.  I am in trouble.”
“You could ask Mr. Cousins.  Nothing  ventured nothing gained.”
“OK…I’ll give it a try.”

A interior view of trains in Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn Michigan Circa 1950

Ring, Ring , Ring
“Peter, this is Alan Skeoch from Canada, I have a big favour to ask.”
“Would the Ford  Museum let me take the bull gear off the McCormick Reaper.  
I am in a real box here as that bull gear is missing and the only way I can
see around the problem is to get your display model’s bull gear and then
get it duplicated somehow.”
Pause…long pause…”Yes, I suppose that could be done.   Be careful, give  me a
few  days to get the clearance  then come down here a take the gear away for a month or so.”
“Great,  Peter, I will fly down on the week end.”
“Bring your own tools…I will get you a pass.”

So I was on my way.  One step at a time. I really did not know what i would do  with
the  bull gear if I did manage to get it off the reaper.   I would have to use it to make
a sand mould and then find some factory that would be able to pour molten iron
into the mould.   But that would be the next step.  First, I had  to get the bull gear.
One step at a time, Alan.   

“Marjorie, book me on a  flight to Detroit … need one night in a hotel
near Dearborn.   You were right.  Peter Cousins has given me a permit to
borrow the McCormick bull gear.”
“Do you know how to get it off the machine?”
“Nope.  But I will figure it out.”
“Alan, this project is costing us a  lot of money.  How much are you being paid?”
I asked  for $1,500 …same as  the Merlin farmer  got.”
“Our costs are mounting up.  How much do  you think it will cost
to get a new gear made?”
“I would rather not think about that.”

Marjorie did not say it directly but she was likely thinking about that old
song…’Fools rush  in where Angels  fear tot red.’   Cool down, Alan, one
step at a  time.  Get your tools together.

“Let’s see…a set of open ended adjustable  wrenches, a hammer…and most
important a spray can of nut loosening lubricant, a mechanics overalls…a peaked
cap to hide my eyes…a nice new red tool box…maybe an electric drill?
No, scrap the drill idea…too likely to do  damage…also need a sports bag to bring
the gear home.”

“Alan, can you bring a bull gear across the border?”
“Not sure…one step at a  time.”

Once again a dash of serendipity helped me on that score…more than a dash
of serendipity for that matter.   That will come later.

It was late August when I flew  to Detroit with my tool kid.  Flew  alone. No holiday. This
was business.   Booked into a fancy hotel with an interior glass walled elevator as  I remember.
No joy alone in an hotel.  Made me  feel sorry for sales executives.  Lone hotel rooms
always remind me of the great John Candy movie titled Planes, Trains and Automobiles…a
lonely lost gregarious man ever on he move.

Early next day I put on my overalls and baseball cap.  (Did promote the Detroit Tigers?  Can’t remember),
grabbed  my tool box and took a cab to the Food museum  where my pass was  waiting.  Smooth at the
beginning until I stepped across the rope fence around the McCormick  Reaper.  

I set down the tool box and begin  disassembling the reaper.  Carefully.  Soon a small crowd  
was watching.  Unusual to see a featured machine being taken apart.  Like a watch repairman I
set the pieces  in line.   I was scared.  What if I broke something.  I soon got down to the
bull gear.  Great brute of  a gear.  Quite stunning really.  A piece of art.   I managed to get
the shaft clear.  All that I had to do next was  slide the gear off the shaft.

Whoa!  I pulled…twisted…tapped.  Failed on all counts.  The bull gear was rusted tight
to the shaft.  By this time the crowd was bigger.   “Keep calm, Al…no perspiration…act like
you know what you’re doing.”

“She’s trusted tight, folks.   Old as the ages.”
Calm …Al…keep calm.
“Just a good shot of penetratng oil should help.”
And I gave both ends  of the bull gear a good soaking.
“Give the stuff a  moment or two to soak in, folks.  And watch this.”

At which  point, I grabbed the bull gear with both hands … twisted …the gear came loose.
Just for effect I spun the big gear and  it whirled like a spinning dervish down the shaft
where I caught it, set it down,..and…And did  I turn to the crowd and take a bow?  I wanted
to do that but  then carefully put the parts back on the reaper.  Packed up my tool box after
giving the can of penetrating oil a  kiss.   No, I did  not kiss the can.  I wanted to kiss the can
but that would reveal too much about my state of nerves.

Before leaving the museum I dropped in on Peter Cousins to thank him and
then another wonderful thing happened.

“have  you got anyone willing to make a casting for the new bull gear?”
I looked quickly at Peter.  Was he setting me up?   He  was a serous kind  of guy.
No light talk.  No  jokes.
“Not yet.”
“Here take this phone number.  This  fellow owns a factory outside Detroit. He might 
be able to replicate the bull gear for you.”

So there was another big step in the project.   As things  turned out the factory owner
was quite willing to make me a  new gear.  No small task.   I expected it would cost
a fortune.

“How much will that cost?”
“Nothing…do it as a favour for you guys on the other side of the border. “
“No, I will  pay.”
“Nope, won’t let you…call it a neighbourly act … done for that old grouch  Cyrus McCormick
who has been dead  for years.”

A couple weeks later the new  gear was made and somehow  I managed to get the
gear from Detroit to Mississauga without a problem.  Sam Markou, a good friend, was
in our truck when I brought the gear across the border.  We were sent to a special
holding area where I explained  the project to Canadian border guards.  They cleared
the import.  Not sure they cared much about it.  This new bull gear was small  potatoes in
the great scheme of things.  A blip.

I worked all that fall improving  the reaper.  Some wood parts had to be refashioned.  A whole
new reel windlass for instance.  Easy work though even for a left handed historian.

Word got out to the local  paper and  a feature story was  written.  Friends came by often
Even our boys, then quite small, showed  an interest.   The McCormick reaper project was
a  rock thrown in a  small pool.  The ripples spread out.  

Then the fateful day arrived and I built two gigantic wooden crates for the reaper and the
separated cutters and wooden bed.  All crated  up and shipped  air freight to the
Ulster National Folk Museum of Northern Ireland.

There it rests today.  At least i think it is  there.  We have never heard a word about it.
I am not sure that anyone in Northern Ireland gives a sweet goddamn about the model
McCormick Reaper.

Bigger projects were done  in Northern Ireland.  Like the Titanic.

Your questions?  “Did I make any money from the job?”   I never really checked.  Probably
lost a  few dollars when  everything is considered.   If my dad had been alive at the
time he would  have been impressed.  How would I know?  Because he would  have
called me s  goddamn fool which  was his way of saying “I am proud of you”

alan skeoch
Nov. 2020






Begin forwarded message:

From: ALAN SKEOCH <alan.skeoch@rogers.com>
Date: November 22, 2020 at 12:41:49 PM EST
To: Alan Skeoch <alan.skeoch@rogers.com>


alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

man guiding two horses pushing machine

Patrick Bell was 29 years old when he constructed this grain reaping machine in Scotland  in 1827-8…known to history as the Bell Reaper.
Few  people remember  him today.  But they should.  Because of  him bread became cheap and people lived longer.
(Note:  Bell is  no longer considered the principal inventor)

The  wheat is ready for harvest.  Today the  job of  harvesting is done by huge combine harvesters…great self propelled  machines
that cut the grain with reciprocating triangular blades.  All the elements of these modern machines occurred to young Patrick Bell
when  he  built his reaper.


I have  had more than my share  of ‘unexpected good luck’ in my life.   Sometimes I did
not see  the good luck when it happened. A major piece of good luck for me began when
Uncle Norman had a rock smash the master cyulliNder  of his 1953 Massey Harris combine
harvester.   This event was a major disaster for Uncle Norman…enough of a disaster for
him to blaspheme and give  the rock  a baptismal  name…i.e. “Goddamn Rock”

Then, much later another piece  of unexpected good luck came when my interest in

machine design and  function led me back to the University of Toronto as a mature
graduate student.  Luck and the kindness of the Toronto Board of Education (Sabbatical leave) gave me
the chance to delve deeply into the way agricultural machines changed human society
in he 19th century.    

The end result was a 300 page thesis, ‘Technology and Change – 1850 to 1891” (short form title)
My love for old machines led us far and wide.  I say ‘us’ because Marjorie and our sons Kevin and
Andrew were very much a part of this grand adventure.  (Coopeerstown, N.Y.,  Dearborn, Michigan, London (England)
Californin, NewZealand, Australia, Ireland, Scotland)


Another component came in the form of a strange phone call.

“Ring, Ring, Ring!”
“Marjorie, can you answer the phone?”
“Yes…yes…he is  here.”
“Alan, the call is for you.”
“Who is it?”
“Some bank executive from the Mellon bank in New York.”
“You must be kidding.,” 
“No, that’s what  he said…”
“Are you Alan Skeoch?”
“I am,  how can  I help you?”
“Did you write a learned paper on machine technology in the 19th century?”
“I did…but your the first person to say I wrote a ‘Learned  paper’.  What’s up?”
“We are searching  for someone in Canada to repair…reconstruct…the reaper
built by  Cyrus McCormick in 1831.   We have located what remains of the machine…bought
it from a retired farmer living near Chatham, Ontario.  Would you be interested  in
assuming responsibility for rebuilding the machine…some parts  are missing…and
then sending it air freight to a museum in Northern Ireland where McCoirmick was born.  We will pay whatever
seems reasonable.”
Is this a joke?”
“No, we are serious.  You were suggested by Mr. Cousins, Director of the Dearborn Museum near Detroit.”

My thoughts began to race.   This  guy is  serious.  He must think I am some kind  of
mechanical engineer who owns a machine  shop.   What a great chance!

“Yes, I will take the job.  Where is the Reaper?”
“Still sitting in a barn near Chatham.  Can you pick it up
and do the restoration?
“Sure,”  I said, bluffing somewhat.
“That’s wonderful.  Have you any idea of the costs?”
No idea at all…I will give you and estimate after I see the Reaper
and get back here in Mississauga.”

There are three great names in the 19th century history of  mechanical reaping machines.  One of
them is Cyrus  McCormick, who became  a classic entrepreneur creating a huge industrial corporation.  His beginning
was, however, humble.    Another was a very strange man named Obed  Hussey.   And the third
is Patrick  Bell/.  Three men who  changed the world  in which they lived.  Three men whose  inventions
made a better world for you and  me.  Three men who have been forgotten.

By a quirk of fate I was on their trail.  Well, the trail of two of them.  The  third,  Obed  Hussy, could have been
a great man if he had been given the chance.   He never really got the ‘unexpected good luck’ that I had.
That phone  call from the Mellon bank wanted me to reanimate the life  of Cyrus McCormick.  I could do that
I suppose.  He did not live in a vacuum however. His life was intertwined with the life of Rev. Patrick Bell, a Scottish Protestant minister.   

There is a  long line of  causes and effect that led from Bell and  McCormickBoth McCormick to the Skeoch farm outside Fergus where Uncle  Norman’s 
 Massey  Harris combine rested with a rock in its master cylinder.
Skeoch  connectons may seem  laboured to readers but they were very much alive to me..   Patrick Bell  comes  first.


PATRICK BELL (1799 – 1869, born Auchterhouse, Angus, Scotland

Patrick Bell was a farmers’  son born in Scotland.  He had a way with mechanical
things and  must have thought: “There has to be a better way of harvesting grain…barley, wheat and oats.”

The harvesting of grains was a monumental task prior to the  reapers  invented  by  Bell, Hussey and  McCormick.
Thousands of  men and women were hired to cut and bundle sheaves of  grain using hand tools most important of
which was the cradle scythe…really a long knife with a basket attached.  Men  did the cradling.  Women and children
bound the cut grain into sheaves.  The sheaves were pitched onto wagons and  hauled to threshing floors and pommelled
with hand held  flails to knock the grain loose after which the grain was winnowed  by being pitched in the air to let wind
blow the chaff free.  It was laborious.  And  much grain was lost in the process.

This threshing machine nocked the heads of the wheat stalks … an improvement over the flail
but still labour intensive…

After the  harvesting…hit and miss harvesting. The grain fields were open to the gleaners…farm workers, villagers, poor
peasants.  The gleaners rescued as much fallen  grain as they could.  With the gleaners came flocks of seed eating birds
also gleaning.  In the evenings small creatures slipped through the fields, also gleaning.  Harvesting  was a wasteful
and laborious task prior to the invention of  Patrick Bell’s reaper.

man guiding two horses pushing machine

This  engraving of the Bell Reaping machine invented and constructed  by Patrick Bell in 1827 and first used on his father’s farm in September 1828.
It worked so well that young Patrick  Bell was awarded  a 50 pound grant from the Scottish  Highland Society..   The  real machine was much heavier than this depiction.  How do I know?  
Patrick  Bell’s prototype reaper continued to be used on his brother’s farm until l870 when  it was purchased by the Science  Museum in London, England.   Marjorie and i flew to  London to marvel
at the machine.  Today,  in November 2020,  the large lumbering machine has been moved into storage but someday it
will be put back on display we hope.  

The astrobiologist, Chris Impey,  in his book The Living Cosmos expressed our feelings best when he wrote  “No other species has created machines to extend
the senses and do its bidding.  No other species invented art or mathematics.”  The Bell reaper blends  art and mathematics into a machine that has extended
the lifespan of millions of people improved copies, called combine harvesters,  are working today..  Art and Mechanics…art and mathematics… apt description of the Bell Reaper!

Some readers  might be interested  in the elements of the Bell Reaper.

1)  The Bell reaper was  pushed by a team of horses.
2)  At the front of the machine there is a reel that gently pushed
the standing grain towards the cutter bar which is  at ground level
3) The cutter bar holds a  series of reciprocating blades that cut
the grain stalks.   Really a  linked line  of grass  clippers…that was
Bell’s idea.   “Why can’t I build a machine with mechanically driven 
grass  clippers?”, he must have thought.
4) There are two large drive wheels …  bull wheels …that are linked
to a bull gear that makes  the clipper do their snipping as long as
the horses  provide the power.
5) There is a movable looped ‘apron’ upon which the sheared grain falls
and  is moved to the side of the  reaper where it can  be bound
into sheaves.   The horses do not tread  on the cut grain.

(Note John Common had  a similar idea much earlier in 1812.  No invention
comes  from nothing…there are stepping stones)

This  is the prototype of the Bell Reaper.  What is  most obvious?   To me it isThe large bull wheels which drive
the bevelled Bull Gear that makes cutter bar move at right angle to the direction of movement … cutter bar acted 
 like a  bunch  of hand shears joined together..  
    Readers do not need  to be engineers
to get drawn into this story.  Remember I am an historian…not a mechanical  engineer.  Worse still, I am left
handed and therefore find machines  made by those of you in the 90% majority goddamn awkward.  Try 
cutting open an envelope with your left hand  using right handed  scissors and  you will get an inkling
as to the mechanical handicaps faced  by left handers.   This story is not reserved for mechanics.  It is
best understood by dreamers…people with imagination.


Much of this story has chunks of SERENDIPITY.   Meaning what?  Meaning that there a number
of wonderful elements that have com together without me looking for them…’unexpected good luck’
  1. (Serendipity is a noun, coined in the middle of the 18th century by author Horace Walpole (he took it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip). The adjective form is serendipitous, and the adverb is serendipitously. A serendipitist is “one who finds valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”)  Persia is  now Iran. 

    This story has a lot of unexpected elements  that came together and  changed our lives.   First was  the
    ‘goddamn’ rock in the master  cylinder of Uncle Norman’s Massey Harris combine harvester.  That happened
    on the Skeoch farm located on the south west corner of the town of Fergus, Ontario ( called  Upper Canada when
    the little  Skeoch boys, James and  John, arrived  in 1846).

         In 1851, Patrick Bell left Scotland to teach school in Fergus.   The Bell papers have
    yet to be published.  He kept a  record of his life in Upper Canada… records that have
    yet to be turned into a book although someone in the 1990’s
    is supposed to be doing so…or was doing so thirty year ago.

    Did Patrick Bell likely notice the Skeoch boys on the streets of Fergus.  Did he teach  them?  Unlikely
    because education was reserved for the toffs of the town.  Then again, Scots  have always highly valued  education.
    Maybe Patrick  Bell and  the Skeoch boys  did  come together but that is  pure speculation.  By 1851 the Skeoch
    boys were teen agers.  Busy farmers sons.  No time for book learning.

    But just to think they came that close to each other… serendipity.    

    The Bell Reaper and the modern Combine Harvester

    Patrick Bell did not become a farmer.  Nor did he become a mechanical engineer.  Nor did he become an inventor
    beyond his Bell Reaper.  Patrick  Bell became a Christian minister in the Church of  Scotland.   No longer
     tinkering with bull gears and  bull wheels  and reciprocating garden shears.   And  isn’t it serendipitous
    that Patrick Bell came to Fergus to teach school in 1851?   That is really weird.

    The Bell Reaper on dislay at the Science Museum in London, England.  (Now removed to storage)


    Patrick Bell was very different from the  American inventor Cyrus McCormick.  How?  Bell refused to
    patent his inventor.  He refused to make money from the invention of a machine that would make
    life easier for human beings around the world.  He encouraged  others to improve his machine which
    they did and  are continuing to do right now.  Just look at those giants of the harvest fields today.
    Direct descendants of a machine imagined  and built by a 27 year old farm boy, future Christian minister, future
    school teacher, in the barn on the Bell farm in Scotland.


    Remember, When  I answered the phone call and accepted the project to rebuild a 
    a  McCormick Reaper I had never heard of  Patrick  Bell.  To fully understand
    the projects I  undertook to research the history of reaping.  Seemed a good
    idea to do so.  And that led me to Patrick Bell.  Serendipity at work.  

    The ‘goddamn rock’ in Uncle Norman’s combine set off ripples like a rock thrown in an Ontario pond.
    On March 1, 1976, my M.A. thesis was completed.  Three hundred pages under the title “Technology and Change
    in 19th century Ontario Agriculture, 1850 to 1891.  A massive tome of 300 plus pages.  I think it was too much
    for my history professor Dr. J. M. S.  Careless to read.   In  the school year, 1975-6, I was  granted a year long
    sabbatical leave by the Toronto Board of Education to put my love  affair with machines together.  Copies of
    the thesis are  held by the New York Sate Historical  Society in Cooperstown, and  Black Creek Pioneer Village
    in North York courtesy of a request from Jim Hunter, collections department.

    WHAT A  JOY 

    My work overlapped  into three University of Toronto departments.  First was the history department, then
    the Fine  Arts Department chaired by Dr. Webster and  finally the Engineering Department …then Bruce Sinclair, the School of
    Practical Science…S.P.S.   I still have a good  feeling about that  engineering department and the book
    ‘Let use Honest and Modest’ by Bruce Sinclair and  others.  That was  46 years  ago..  The SPS members were so 
    incredibly helpful and actually interested in what I was trying to accomplish.  At some point
    a U.  of T. history professor  asked  how long I expected to take.  “Seven months”, I answered.  His response was
    a furrowed brow.  Scepticism.  I soon understood why the furrowed brow. There was a big bump in the road.


    There was one tricky side to this sabbatical.  In 1976 an M.A.  graduate student was expected to have reading level
    familiarity with French.  We were tested.  I say ‘we’ because there were many  fellow graduate students.  I was two decades older than all of them.  
     But accepted. Nice feeling.  The French  requirement, however,  was a  hurdle that most had trouble leaping 
     over myself included.  My  first score  was ‘zero’ which must sound  terrible.  In fact it was the mid  point
    between a score  of  -7 and  +7.  Most, perhaps all, of my fellow grad  students scored the same or less.  At least
    I had high  school French which  most of them did not.  My friends  at Parkdale took great joy in 
    my ‘Zero”.   After a lot of work I managed to get +3 on the second effort.  That was a  pass. How in hell
    most of the kids  I was with could be expected to translate a Syrian  script in French I failed
    to understand.   Soon afterward that French hurdle for graduate students was dropped.  

    Why  tell you this?  Because the hurdle was way too high and failure  to clear it
    led  to a  very amusing incident in my life.  Perhaps offensive to purists.  On my second
    attempt at the reading  level in French we lined up at the  exam building on Queens Park Circle.
    One of our student leaders came over and said, “Al, you are number 4.”which  meant nothing to me.
    “We’ll all meet for s beer after the exam.”  Now that was fine by me.  Nice to be accepted by
    kids twenty years younger than i was.  The exam was hard but I soldiered my way through it.
    Then we went for a beer….about ten of us.
    “OK, Number 1, give me your sentence.”
    “And now Number 2…”
    “Number 3…”
    “And  you, Al, what was the fourth sentence.”
    I failed to understand…did not know I was supposed to memorize the fourth sentence. The 
    plan was to memorize the whole exam then Parrot it back  to our leader
    who would  get the exam translated  by someone that actually knew French.
    Then they would be ready for Test attempt Number Three.   The plan was
    both funny and tragic.  I did  not believe the test would be the same paragraphs
    for Test Number 3.   So the whole effort was tragic.  These kids, most of them,
    had never even taken Gr. Nine French.   Eventually the U. of  T. big shots must
    have realized that fact and dropped the need  for reading level in a second  language.
    Although  I failed my young friends I was flattered to be considered part of the
    conspiracy.  We had a few laughs with our  beer that afternoon.  I credit my success
    with the French requirement to Madam  Schroeder at Humberside C.I. who kept me
    in the front seat because I made up words that did  not exist.  She was  a great teacher.
    I will always be in her debt.

Notes and Postscript

-Note that Patrick  Bell is no longer credited  exclusively with the invention of the reaping machine

Papers of Reverend Patrick Bell (c 1799 – 1869)

Scope and Content

Journals of the Reverend Patrick Bell (c 1799 – 1869) kept during his visit to Canada, 1833 – 1837. 

GB 231 MS 2317/1 – 2 Journal of travels between Great Britain and the province of Upper Canada, 1833-4.

GB 231 MS 2317/1 contains an itinerary of the journey from Great Britain to the Province of Upper Canada, describing his route through Dundee, Cupar (Fife), Glasgow, Isle of Man, Manchester and Liverpool; his passage to New York on board the Eagle, continuing up the River Hudson to Albany, and by Erie Canal to Queenstown, Canada, passing through Saratoga, Little Falls, Utica, Syracuse, Auburn, Lockport and Louisville, Jun 1833 – 1834. The volume is fully indexed and accompanied by a tabular record of daily temperature and weather conditions, Nov 1833 – Feb 1835; an account of a journey from Niagra Falls to the city of Fergus, township of Nichol, Apr 1834; and outline plans for his second volume, to include an account of agricultural practices in Upper Canada, notes on the natural history of the region and hints to emigrants, Jul 1835. 

GB 231 MS 2317/2 is a fair (and slightly expanded) version of the first part of GB 231 MS 2137/1, and of another volume (or volumes) which has not survived. It begins in 1833 and ends 6 Mar 1834. The last page is inscribed Drummondvill Niagra Falls U.C. – Patrick Bell.

GB 231 MS 2318 Journal or rather observations made in Upper Canada during the years 1834, 35, 36 and 37.This is a continuation of Bell’s journal for the period 1834 – 1837; also containing weather observations, Jan 1835 – Apr 1837; thermometer readings at Quebec, 1832 – 1833; and temperature statistics for Montreal taken from a Montreal newspaper, 1826 – 1835.

Each volume described above is illustrated with sketches and diagrams of farm steadings, houses, agricultural implements, and detailed pencil drawings of plants and animals observed. His observations of people and places encountered are detailed, often amusing, and full of social and political comment (see in particular his account of the Campaign against the Swine in New York  which terminated shamefully for those in power , GB 231 MS2317/1 p 50 – 52)

Administrative / Biographical History

Patrick Bell was born at Mid-Leoch farm, Auchterhouse, Dundee, c 1799, son of George Bell, tenant farmer there. He studied divinity at St Andrews University, and was ordained and appointed minister to the parish of Carmylie, Arbroath in 1843, where he remained until his death in 1869. He was for many years credited as inventor of the reaping machine, though the title now rests with John Common of Denwick, who invented a machine based upon the essential principals of the modern reaper in 1812, some 15 years ahead of Bell. The machine which Bell developed in 1827, whilst still a student at St Andrews, remained in regular use until c 1868, when it was purchased for the museum of the Patent Office. In recognition of his services to agriculture, he received a presentation from the Highland Society, subscribed for by the farmers of Scotland and others, and was awarded the degree of LL.D. by the University of St Andrews. 

From 1833 – 1837 he travelled in Canada, where he seems to have found work as a private tutor. During this time he kept a detailed journal of his travels, making particular note of the geography, natural history, and agriculture observed.



alan skeoch 

nov. 2020

Begin forwarded message:

From: Alan Skeoch <alan.skeoch@rogers.com>
Subject: Skeoch Family…to complement the Auction poster
Date: April 13, 2018 at 1:33:04 PM GMT-4
To: Karen Wagner <karenw@wellington.ca>


“ALAN, how would you like to take the Ford tractor and the side delivery rake…turn over the hay in the south field.”
“Love to…”
“Hay got a little damp in the rain…too wet to bail.”

That must have been in the late 1970’s.  Uncle Norman (Skeoch) was running the Skeoch farm alone by then.  Uncle Archie had
died in the west.  Choked to death.  Which left Norman alone on the Fergus farm.  It was mid summer, beautiful day, smell of growth in
the air coupled with the perfume of new mown hay.  A gaggle of guinea hens ran here and there yapping to beat the band.

Uncle Norman surprised me that  day.  That was the first and only time he ever entrusted me with a farming operation.  Hell, I didn’t
even know how to start the tractor let alone guide the side delivery rake accurately down the windowed timothy.   

“No problem, just
push the starter and put her in gear.  Do it now.  I’ve got to work on the combine.”

The combine?  Archie and Norman had pooled their resources back in the early 1950’s to buy what was then a brand new Massey Harris combine harvester.
By the late 1970’s it was no longer new.  The red paint of its halcyon days had faded to a rusty red hue.   The great hulking machine had lost its
novelty.  New combines had replaced this one.  Huge, self-propelled machines that could consume wheat, oats or barley fields as if they were morning
porridge in a lumber camp.

“Needs some repairs.”

Seemed off to me that Uncle Norman was going to repair the machine with a big ball pain hammer.  But what did  I know?
So he began hammering as I drove down past the barn to the south field. Elated to be trusted.  Determined to ruffle up the wet hay as perfectly as
possible.  What a grand afternoon?  What a great job?  Could I do the turning twice just for the hell of it?  Best not.  So I returned to
the barn where Uncle Norman was pounding the Massey Harris combine as if it was some enemy in mortal combat.

“Job’s done, Uncle Norman.”
“What’s up?”
“Picked up a son of a bitching rock … bent the goddamn master cylinder.”
“Can it be fixed?”
“Not today and not with this goddamn hammer.”
“Yep, still in  there…”
“Can it be fixed?”
“Nope…dead…dead as that guinea hen I hit with the mower…damn,damn, damn!”

So, while i was enjoying myself, Uncle Norman was trying in vain to attempt to harvest the oats whose golden tassels were waving in the summer breeze.

“What will you do?”
“Have to get a custom machine in to harvest the oat field.  Have to pay for that.  Farming can be a losing proposition.”

That comment made me think of another visit to the Skeoch farm.  Uncle Norman was in the stable and a big five ton truck
had backed up close to the stable door.  A boarding ramp had been lowered.  Painted on the side of the truck were
the words  “dead and disabled animals,  call ….”

“What’s up Uncle Norman?”
“Had to call the dead wagon…heifer in the barn got the bloat…blew up like a goddamn dirigible…dead…alfalfa, I think.”
“Happens once in a while with cattle.  if I had seen her I could have driven-in the bloat knife right into her gut and let the gas out of her.  Happened so goddamn fast
that I couldn’t reach her in time.  Now she’s wedged in the barn, blown up…take a look if you want….”

And there she was, Dead as a doornail, lying on her side at the stable door.  Huge.  Seemed too big for the doorway. Wndered if she
could be deflated somehow but Uncle Norman and the dead wagon man hooked her up with a cable and winch and hauled her
through the door and up into hte back of the truck.

“What happens  to her now?”
“Depends  how long she’s been dead,” said the dead wagon man.  Which  was not really a straight answer.
“Dead  loss to me, for sure,” responded Uncle Norman.

Farming is a chancy kind of business.  Lots of things can and do go wrong. Often.  At the time I was young and it never occurred to me
that Uncle Norman’s income from farming must have been a pittance.  So small that the loss of a heifer and the loss of the Massey Harris
combine might have pushed him over the edge into near bankruptcy.    His expenses  were small.  For most of his life he was a bachelor
Never travelled much.  Couldn’t really because his truck was so badly battered that it raised  eyebrows on the road.  That condition coupled
with the fact he had four or five dogs as passengers, their heads jockeying to get in the open air from the passenger window.  There was no back window
making the truck rather chilly on winter days.

Back to the combine.  “Barring!  Whump…boom.”   Uncle Norman could not dislodge the rock that had been the master cylinder.
Each time he pounded the combine the closer it got to the scrap heap.    Finally Uncle Norman gave up and hauled the Massey
to the fencerow of dead machines … a grave yard if you will.  The combine would not be lonely for others were abandoned there long the golden rod… a couple of drag plows, a timeless dump rake
and various sections of harrows both spring toothed and straight toothed.

Up a little further in the orchard archaeologists had identified the fragmentary evidence that ancient people…perhaps Neutral aboriginals…had once lived and laboured
on Skeoch land.   But that was supposed to be a secret lest souvenir hunters destroy any remaining evidence.  Perhaps the Massey Harris combine was about to be discarded
on top of a long forgotten First Nation fire pit.   No matter.  All dead and forgotten.

So, on that summer day, I drove down the laneway feeling both exhilaration and depression.   Uncle Norman had tried to cheer me up with his usual offer of a bottle of beer
from a case hidden in the cattle rubbed manger.   “Thanks anyway, got to head back…thanks for the job turning hay…loved it.”

Norman’s figure receded as I bumped down the long lane passing the pig barn on the way.  Pigs seemed to pay well and Uncle Norman had several big fat brood sows
with their tiny piglets rooting around the bedding straw.  I could  see Uncle Norman in the rear view mirror.  He was slaking his thirst with a brown bottle of Molson’s Golden Ale.
All was not lost obviously.

That was the last time I remember seeing him alive.  He died in 1979 and when his Safety Box was opened  and the will read I got a big surprise.  My cousin John Skeoch…long John Skeoch…and I
were named as executors in the will … not as recipients but executors.  We had to carry out Norman’s wishes.  He left the farm to his  brothers and sisters and their families.  Holy Smoke!
That meant one unpleasant task was placed in our hands.  We had to sell the farm.  How else could the farm and its contents be divided? It had to be converted to cash and then divided
equally as possible to the families of Lena,  Elizabeth, Greta, Archie, Arnold, Arthur and John.  And, in the cases where some had pre deceased Norman then that share had to be further
subdivided.   This was going to be messy.  

To make it simple.  Our job was to convert the farm into cash and then divided the cash among all the surviving relatives.   We did  the best we could.

Today, in April 2018, one memory of that ‘executing the will’ ordeal stands out in my mind.  Yes, correct. You guessed it.  That Massey-Harris combine harvester.

    Who owned it?  Was it Uncle Norman’s?  Or Uncle Archie’s?  Well, it belonged to both of them.  So in order to avoid family squabbles we decided that whatever we got from the machine

    at the auction then that amount would not be divided up but go directly to Uncle Archies surviving family members.  Seemed wise at the time.  But wasn’t.  

“Next is this Massey Harris combine harvester.  Not running right now
so you are buying it as is.   Open bid?”

Silence. No bidding. Eventually the scrap man bid around $40 for the machine…might be worth $100 in the scrap yard but it would cost quite a bit to get it there.
The $40 satisfied no one.  We would have been wiser to have avoided trying to be nice guys.  Got us only anger. Being executors in a will where there are many
people to satisfy is not easy.  And sometimes things being sold have higher emotional value than market value.   Some relatives stopped talking to us after the sale was over.

To avoid this kind of dispute I did what I thought was an honourable thing.  Uncle Norman had given me the cast iron pot used in pig slaughtering or alternatively used to
boil maple sap into maple syrup   A huge thing bigger than a bathtub.  To avoid trouble I returned it to the farm auction and was resolved to buy it back at whatever
price.  Bidding was spirited  I won but nearly damn well broke.  That honourable effort got me no praise.  Instead the men from the Fergus Legion got really angry with me.

“Norman brings this cauldron to our corn roasts every year…has done so for decades.  It’s ours”
“Then why not bid for it?”
“Who do you think was bidding against you…that was our man.”
“Why did he stop>”
“Price went too high.  But that is our pot…need it for the corn roast.”

I said nothing but just loaded it into our truck.  Seemed being honourable was not a good idea.


Strange thing happened  that day.   Somehow that bashed up and broken Massey Harris combine harvester 
became lodged in my mind.   Events followed culminating in my M.A, thesis  at the University of Toronto on machine
design.  Sounds boring!  Right it does sound boring but stick  with me.   The story is goddamn interesting. Have you
ever heard of Patrick  Bell? Cyrus McCormick? The Massey  Family?  Well, more by fluke than design my life
changed when  that “goddman rock” bent the master cylinder of Uncle Norman’s 1953 Combine Harvester.  
After his death, my cousin John and I had the unhappy job of getting the auctioneer Max Storey to sell off
Norman’s possessions.  The Massey Harris  combine sold  for $40 or so and  went to the local  scrap yard.
I should have bought the machine.  It became that important to me as you will read shortly.  

alan skeoch
Nov.  2020

EPISODE 174 the sun is still shining


alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

So here we are.  Going into another lockdown in Peel County, 
Ontario.  Cold weather on the way and fear of explosive Covid 19
return.   Now that is a ‘downer’.

“What we need is an upper.”  that thought I am sure was on the minds
of many this week.   And lo and behold an upper arrived with the morning
sunshine as recorded by friend Rick Irving whose apartment looms over
Lake Ontario and his unit faces east from which arrived a glorious morning

The kids gave me an ATV for my 80th birthday two  years ago.   So I went 
for a drive over the bare fields in search of more uppers.  And I found
one in the least likely place…an open air swamp that had been clear cut
by Ontario Hydro so the company could deliver  Nuclear energy
to our households.

And there in the midst of the beige and dark brown landscape of November
a different kind of  sunshine sparkled. Little islands of colour …contrasting bursts
of colour.   I have no idea what the plant was
called but it was a pleasant adventure slogging through the near dry swamp
to get these photographs.   I got the  pictures for you.  To brighten your day and
my day.

There is joy in the big  things…such as the sun rising beneath a few clouds…and
the small things….such as the survival triumph of bushes crowned with orange  red berries.

While we all wait for the snowflakes 

alan skeoch
nov. 2020



—– Forwarded Message —–
From: ALAN SKEOCH <alan.skeoch@rogers.com&gt;
To: Marjorie Skeoch <marjorieskeoch@gmail.com&gt;; Alan Skeoch <alan.skeoch@rogers.com&gt;; John Wardle <john.t.wardle@gmail.com&gt;
Sent: Thursday, November 19, 2020, 12:27:38 PM EST

Alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

Machines have  always fascinated  me.  Not because I know how to operate them or
even want to operate them.  The fascination is  historical.  Years ago  a material  historian
names John Kowenhaven (sp. is incorrect ) wrote that “machines reflect the culture in
which they were created.”  Not his exact words but the meaning is clear.  Machines are  
historical objects.  They fit into their historical settings.   

Half way through my teaching career I applied for a sabbatical leave to study  machine design
in the 19th century.  The end result was a 300 page tome describing the changes  in machine
technology in the 19th century.   

That was when i started to buy old machines.  Dozens of them.  Hundreds  of them.  Initially there
was no financial reason for doing so other than the encouragement I got from Marjorie.  Grain cleaning
machines…fanning mills…really fascinated me because by the end of the 19th century these machines
were made into objects of beauty by the paint ‘stripers’ in the factories.  I think I bought 80 fanning mills.

Then the movie industry came to Toronto needing authentic sets.  Sets that would transport TV and Movies
watchers into the past where particular machines were needed as background (sets) or as foreground
objects actually touched by actors (props)..  They needed our machines.  And suddenly we had a business
We  were considered a bit eccentric in that Marjorie and I took real interest in each movie that was being made.

At the same time, quite a few of the students I taught at Parkdale Collegiate found themselves employed
in the movie industry.  Some  of those students rented machines from us.   We were the bottom of the
movie pyramid…no one was lower.  A  role reversal that my ex-students  relished.  One movie I remember well.  A village in Ontario was converted
into a movie set and rented truckloads of our things.  We drove over, asked the art director if we could take pictures
of our things. 

 “Not supposed to let pictures be  taken,  but what the hell…just get your things and not
the whole set.”
“And move fast while we are on a coffee break.”

We  zipped from store to store snapping digital  pictures.  


“What the hell are you doing here, Skeoch?” came a voice from a guy high up on a
movie ladder.  In the dark.
“Taking pictures…all cleared.”
“Skeoch…I heard you were in the business.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the best boy on this set”
“Who? How do you know me?”

Then Phil Calambakis came down the ladder.  One of my Parkdale students.   Great kid. Taught his sister Anna as
well.  His mom and  dad were boosters of our school.  Now he had become and I think remains a pillar of 
the movie industry.

“Remember the smelly feet kid, Phil?”
“God his feet were bad…I had to sleep on the couch. Abandon my own room to his shoes and socks. Rotten.”
“Your mom and dad were always willing to help music exchange students…”
“Well, Not that willing, sir,   After the guy with the stinking feet.  I lost my room SIR   (Did Phil say ’Sir’…yes he did) …still blame you for it.”

I noted  that Phil slipped back into the ‘Sir’ mode…an expression of respect that I always savoured
when used by my students.   We had a few laughs that day.  Then the actors began to troop
in and we were politely ushered out.

So here below  are a few of the things we have rented  this  month…November, 2020.

A  period calendar from 1945 to 1946…interesting.

One ladder is not rentable…movies want multiples…so our collection expands.

You will hear about this machine in a story shortly.   Bet you do not know what it is.  It revolutionized agriculture.  Cheap food followed its’
invention.   We travelled  to England, Ireland, USA…in search of the history of this machine.   Then I rebuilt it in our back yard.;;and  
shipped it air freight to a museum in Northern  Ireland.   interested?  Are you interested?

alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

Question:  Which object … artifact…do you remember best?



Alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

Machines have  always fascinated  me.  Not because I know how to operate them or
even want to operate them.  The fascination is  historical.  Years ago  a material  historian
names John Kowenhaven (sp. is incorrect ) wrote that “machines reflect the culture in
which they were created.”  Not his exact words but the meaning is clear.  Machines are  
historical objects.  They fit into their historical settings.   

Half way through my teaching career I applied for a sabbatical leave to study  machine design
in the 19th century.  The end result was a 300 page tome describing the changes  in machine
technology in the 19th century.   

That was when i started to buy old machines.  Dozens of them.  Hundreds  of them.  Initially there
was no financial reason for doing so other than the encouragement I got from Marjorie.  Grain cleaning
machines…fanning mills…really fascinated me because by the end of the 19th century these machines
were made into objects of beauty by the paint ‘stripers’ in the factories.  I think I bought 80 fanning mills.

Then the movie industry came to Toronto needing authentic sets.  Sets that would transport TV and Movies
watchers into the past where particular machines were needed as background (sets) or as foreground
objects actually touched by actors (props)..  They needed our machines.  And suddenly we had a business
We  were considered a bit eccentric in that Marjorie and I took real interest in each movie that was being made.

At the same time, quite a few of the students I taught at Parkdale Collegiate found themselves employed
in the movie industry.  Some  of those students rented machines from us.   We were the bottom of the
movie pyramid…no one was lower.  A  role reversal that my ex-students  relished.  One movie I remember well.  A village in Ontario was converted
into a movie set and rented truckloads of our things.  We drove over, asked the art director if we could take pictures
of our things. 

 “Not supposed to let pictures be  taken,  but what the hell…just get your things and not
the whole set.”
“And move fast while we are on a coffee break.”

We  zipped from store to store snapping digital  pictures.  


“What the hell are you doing here, Skeoch?” came a voice from a guy high up on a
movie ladder.  In the dark.
“Taking pictures…all cleared.”
“Skeoch…I heard you were in the business.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m the best boy on this set”
“Who? How do you know me?”

Then Phil Calambakis came down the ladder.  One of my Parkdale students.   Great kid. Taught his sister Anna as
well.  His mom and  dad were boosters of our school.  Now he had become and I think remains a pillar of 
the movie industry.

“Remember the smelly feet kid, Phil?”
“God his feet were bad…I had to sleep on the couch. Abandon my own room to his shoes and socks. Rotten.”
“Your mom and dad were always willing to help music exchange students…”
“Well, Not that willing, sir,   After the guy with the stinking feet.  I lost my room SIR   (Did Phil say ’Sir’…yes he did) …still blame you for it.”

I noted  that Phil slipped back into the ‘Sir’ mode…an expression of respect that I always savoured
when used by my students.   We had a few laughs that day.  Then the actors began to troop
in and we were politely ushered out.

So here below  are a few of the things we have rented  this  month…November, 2020.

A  period calendar from 1945 to 1946…interesting.

One ladder is not rentable…movies want multiples…so our collection expands.

You will hear about this machine in a story shortly.   Bet you do not know what it is.  It revolutionized agriculture.  Cheap food followed its’
invention.   We travelled  to England, Ireland, USA…in search of the history of this machine.   Then I rebuilt it in our back yard.;;and  
shipped it air freight to a museum in Northern  Ireland.   interested?  Are you interested?

alan skeoch
Nov. 2020

Question:  Which object … artifact…do you remember best?