Nichols & Shepard Company History

Information from Oliver Hart-Parr

By: C.H. Wendel

John Nichols opened a blacksmith shop at Battle Creek, Michigan in 1848. Little is known of Nichols’ early life, nor does anything but the most scant history of the early years of his shop still exist. In the early 1850s Nichols took in David Shepard as a partner. During those years the firm built farm machinery, steam engines, and mill machinery. Virtually nothing is known of the early products from Nichols, Shepard & Company. Apparently the products were sold on a more or less localized basis, and word-of-mouth was the primary advertising method.

The Pitts brothers developed their first thresher about 1837. For some years the actual separating of the grain from straw and chaff was achieved by a slatted apron behind the cylinder. These so-called apron machines were the accepted standard for about twenty years. Nichols and Shepard decided that the apron machine was never going to be a complete success. Numerous problems besieged the apron machine. One was that when the apron was overloaded, much of the grain was not separated from the straw. In other words, the cylinder had much more capacity to thresh than the separator had to separate. Numerous improvements were made to the apron machine, with varying degrees of success. One was an octagonal roller which operated beneath the slatted apron. As it turned it was to give the apron a vibrating effect aimed at helping to separate the grain from the straw. About 1850 the beater was developed; it first was equipped with teeth to help in the separation process, but the teeth became tangled with straw. Finally the teeth were removed from the beater paddles. From that time on the beater was essentially developed to its present state.

About 1857 Nichols and Shepard developed their first Vibrator thresher. It utilized an entirely different design. Instead of the endless apron came vibrating straw racks, just as used today. The first year, Nichols and Shepard built ten of these machines. Remarkably, they stayed sold! From this point on, Nichols, Shepard & Company was in the thresher business in a big way.

Limited research material of the period nevertheless indicates that the introduction of the Nichols & Shepard Vibrator created a furor among the competing manufacturers. At the time, no one but Nichols & Shepard was building such a machine; all the others were building their own variation of the endless apron machine. Obviously the intrusion of this newcomer was very upsetting to the established builders.

Within a few years, most thresher manufacturers had adopted some form of vibrating threshing principle, although a few continued building endless apron machines for several decades. In fact, some companies, including Farquhar, previously noted in this volume, continued to offer endless apron machines into the early 1900s.

An 1876 Nichols & Shepard catalog points out numerous design features of the Vibrator machine, especially in comparison to the endless apron design. For example, the Vibrator used only five belts, where others used anywhere from six to ten. Only ten pulleys were used on the Vibrator, compared to thirty or more on many of the apron machines.

At one point in their 1876 catalog, Nichols & Shepard invokes the scriptural injunction that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” followed by the advice that ’Our Vibrator makes no litterings, and saves the dirty and disagreeable [job] of cleaning up.’

By 1876 Nichols & Shepard was offering their threshers adapted to steam power, as well as the usual geared type. These machines could be furnished for use with virtually any make of steam engine, but the company advised that they could also supply the complete outfit of engine, thresher and accessories. However, virtually nothing is known of the earliest Nichols & Shepard steam engines, except that their first portable appeared in 1877.

During the early 1880s Nichols & Shepard moved from portable steam engines to their own traction engine. With their traction engine development came a legal problem which eventually was decided by the United States Supreme Court.

On May 3, 1880 a patent application was filed with the U. S. Patent Office. This patent was for a steam engine valve gear, and was filed jointly by Elon A. Marsh and Minard Lafever, both of Battle Creek, Michigan. On December 28 of 1880, Patent No. 236,052 was issued to Marsh and Lafever. The result was the Marsh reverse, a style which would become widely known. However, the patent documents contained a technical, albeit a fatal flaw. The patent was inadvertently not signed by the Commissioner of Patents. Thirteen months later the error was detected, and the error was corrected. Meanwhile, Nichols & Shepard began using the design.

Marsh demanded an accounting of Nichols & Shepard for profits derived from use of the patent. However, counsel for the defendants argued that no such accounting could be demanded where the infringement took place previous to the issuance of the validated patent. Further, it was argued that a Special Act of Congress of February 3, 1887 for the relief of Marsh and Lefever could not be construed to have a retroactive effect.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that since the patent was originally unsigned, it was not valid until the signature of the Commissioner of Patents was placed on the patent. After the smoke cleared, Marsh and Lefever were left with the letter of the law, while Nichols & Shepard were effectually cleared of the charge of infringement. Further details of the Marsh v. Nichols & Co. suit are cited in 15 Fed. Rep. 914 and 24 O.G. 901. This case was decided by the Supreme Court on December 10, 1888.

Shortly after 1900 the company introduced their famous Red River Special line of threshers. Like other threshers of the time, these were of wood construction, with an all-steel machine appearing about 1915. However, the company continued to market selected models of wood machines for a few more years. With the advent of the Red River Special line came the special construction which came to be known as the 4 Threshermen—the Big Cylinder, the Man Behind the Gun, the Steel-Winged Beater, and the Beating Shakers. Until Nichols & Shepard merged into Oliver Farm Equipment Company in 1929 the Red River Special line and the 4 Threshermen were nearly synonymous terms. Subsequently, Oliver continued to build the same threshing machines for some years to follow.

With the development of steam traction engines in the 1880s, Nichols & Shepard continued apace in their development. The company offered numerous sizes in single and double-cylinder styles. However, Nichols & Shepard seems to have been intent on remaining in the engine and thresher business, since early advertising literature makes little or no reference to plows and other farm implements.

The company began developing a gasoline tractor in 1911 and continued with three different models into the early 1920s. At that point the company built began building their own tractors on order, and also sold a Lauson-built tractor under the Nichols & Shepard masthead.

Nichols & Shepard controlled numerous patents. A sampling of these includes: No. 34,071, Grain Separator, January 7, 1862; No. 91,658, Threshing Machine Concave, June 22,1869; No. 59,440, Thrashing Machine, November 6,1866; No. 225,560, Traction Engine, March 16,1880; Re 9951, Valve Gear, November 29, 1881; No. 244,807, Valve Gear, July 26,1881; No. 265,809,Traction Engine, October 10, 1882; No. 257,435, Grain Separator, May 2, 1882; No. 274,386, Grain Separator, March 20, 1883; No. 303,516, Traction Engine, August 12, 1884; No. 293,876, Thrashing Machine, February 19, 1884; No. 427,372, Thrashing Machine, May 6, 1890; and No. 616,380, Traction Engine, November 8,1904.

Numerous other improvements to steam traction engines and threshers were also patented by Nichols & Shepard. During the 1920s the company developed a line of combines which would later prove to be the nucleus of further activity on the part of Oliver Corporation. Likewise, Nichols & Shepard also developed a corn picker during the 1920s, and it was the direct ancestor of the Oliver com picker line which followed.

David Shepard became a partner o f John Nichols in the early 1850s. Apparently the firm operated for some years under the title o f Nichols, Shepard & Company. In 1886 the firm was incorporated as Nichols & Shepard Company, and by this time was one o f the leading American thresher builders. Shepard’s role in the company has not been well defined, and is now lost to history. However, Shepard remained fairly active in the company until his death in 1904.
This illustration shows the Nichols & Shepard concern, probably in the early 1860s, especially since some indications have it that the first Vibrator thresher did not appear until 1863. From a historical perspective, it is likely that much normal manufacturing activity was slowed or perhaps ceased altogether diming the Civil War. Thus, introducing new machines at this time was probably difficult, if not altogether impossible.
A stained and tattered bill head from Nichols & Shepard dated May 6,1868 is one of the earliest extant pieces o f N & S ephemera to emerge thus far. Typical of the period, there are six lines of type, all of them in a different face, plus numerous type embellishments. Note that the billhead indicates that this firm is the manufacturer o f ’their patent Vibrator Threshing Machine.’ It was in fact covered by patents, and would be the catalyst which would revolutionize the science of threshing grain.
A well-worn cover from an 1876 Vibrator catalog tells of Nichols & Shepard products. At the time, the annual catalog was the primary means of getting the Nichols & Shepard message to prospective buyers. The line included traction engines, steam power outfits, separators expressly for steam power, plain engines, clover trailer attachments, and horse power establishments (the latter term meaning a fixed or settled machine). The company also pointed toward reliability by noting their ’thirty-three years of continuous and successful business without change of name, location or management.’
Into the 1870s, Nichols & Shepard built four sizes o f the Vibrator thresher. The 24 and 28-inch machines differed only in cylinder width; both used a 47-inch separating width. However when use with a sweep power, the smaller machine could be operated with six horses, while eight were required for the 28-inch machine. The 32-inch machine was intended for use with a 10 horsepower steam engine; the same held true for the 36-inch machine, the largest of the line.
A Nichols & Shepard catalog of about 1906 illustrates the company’s attractive logo. About this same time Nichols & Shepard introduced their new Red River Special separator, and the latter term would quickly become synonymous with Nichols & Shepard. In many areas, the Red River Special became that standard by which other threshers were compared. Although the company was successful solely through its engines and threshers, the market eventually became saturated, and eventually began to disappear due to the coming of the combine. Thus, Nichols & Shepard was ripe for merger when the Oliver Farm Equipment Company was formed in 1929.