Northwest Thresher Manufacturing Company
Written by R. Molenda
Here lies a great mixture of post-Civil War adventure and intrigue, right here in river city, Stillwater, Minnesota. The story of Northwest Thresher Manufacturing Company includes a great offering of products, employment of as many as 1,600 men, the use of convict labor within and outside the prison confines, contracts with the territorial prison, building of huge manufacturing facilities, engine shops, woodworking shops, machine shops, foundries, politics, railroad shipping inside and outside the USA and of course, competition.
In the 1860’s, George Seymour organized a prison-labor based cooperage at the north end of Main Street near the Territorial Prison. Dwight Sabin joined Seymour later. Much of the technology in Seymour, Sabin & Company had to do with steam-powered tractors that were later built right across the street from the Territorial Prison. Prison labor gave the enterprise a competitive edge and kept idle hands from becoming the devil’s playmate at the Territorial Prison. After the arrival of railroads, in the mid-1870’s Seymour, Sabin and Company were shipping threshers to western Minnesota. During this time period, Mr. Sabin served as a Minnesota legislator as both a senator and a representative. In 1883, he served as a US Senator. George Seymour served as a councilman and mayor of Stillwater and was elected as a representative to the Minnesota House in 1889.
In 1882, Sabin organized the Northwestern Manufacturing and Car Company, which was the largest corporation in Minnesota at the time. Northwestern manufactured sashes, doors, barrels and other millwork. They also manufactured railroad cars,steam powered threshers and farm implements that were of very good quality and demand. The wheels on these threshers were steel and were the origin of the foundries near the Territorial Prison. Prison labor and civilian labor were used together in this setting. You can imagine what went on in the minds of product designers, manufacturing engineers and civilian laborers as they worked next to the best criminals in the prison, vetted by the warden. George Seymour and Dwight Sabin must have been visionaries and talented enough to connect the prison, city, state, business and organization to create the largest corporation in Minnesota.
The business became the Minnesota Thresher Manufacturing Company and the steam tractors were well-known in Canada and Mexico as late as 1902. There were several different tractor models offered and they were regarded as very safe machines to operate. The safety of operation had to do with how the level or water protected the boiler from failure when the tractor moved uphill or downhill.
The days of steam tractors were numbered in the early 1900’s and Northwest Thresher was planning on offering a gasoline-powered product. The Minnesota Thresher Manufacturing Company became Northwest Thresher Company in 1901, bought Universal Tractor Company also of Stillwater in 1911, then all entities were sold to M. Rumely Company of La Porte in 1912. The new owners wanted to increase the manufacturing capabilities and make it more profitable by selling products in Canada. Several hundred gasoline powered tractors were made at this time for the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company. The Stillwater operations were shut down one year later. There are still some Minnesota Giant steam powered tractors that show up at regional Steam Threshing shows, but the industry that brought them to life left Stillwater in 1913.
Little, if anything remains of this huge enterprise that started on the north end of Main Street in Stillwater.
Brent Peterson; Stillwater Gazette, April, 2015
Stillwater Gazette, World’s Fair Edition, August 22, 1904
Washington County Historical Society
Intensive National Registry Survey of Downtown Stillwater, MN; August, 1989, Final Report; Norene Roberts, Ph.D., Principal Investigator assisted by Rhonda Evenson, Historical Research, Inc.
Historical Reconstruction of Riverfront, July, 1985, US Army Corps of Engineers,
Norene Roberts, Ph.D., Principal Investigator, Historical Research, Inc.; John A. Fried, Associated Architects and Engineers, Inc; for US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Paul District, Contract DACW37-84-M/459; July, 1985
Farm Collector, Article by Bill Vossler , Built with Minnesota Prison Labor, May, 2010
Farm Collector, May/June 1998, Larry G. Creed, New Giant Traction Engine and Field Crew.
Farm Collector, Heritage of a Farm Machinery Company, Bill Vossler, September, 2005
Farm Collector, Article on Products, Company, Bill Vossler, November 2005, part of a Two Part Article, includes photos, products and story.
Biographical information on Dwight Sabin, US Senator and Businessman, Biographical Information of the US Congress