Though his name is not nearly as familiar as John Deere’s, James Oliver of South Bend revolutionized agriculture with his invention of a new type of plow.
An 1878 advertisement for the Oliver Chilled Plow boasted: “Buy no other. Will last for years, and no blacksmith’s bill to pay. It is the only guaranteed chilled plow made.”
That wasn’t hyperbole. At its height, Oliver’s company produced 300 plows a day, exporting them to such faraway places as Japan, Germany and Mexico.
The story began in Scotland where James was born in 1823, one of nine children to George and Elizabeth Oliver. “An older brother and sister had immigrated to America, and they sent letter after letter home begging the rest of the Oliver family to come,” says Travis Childs, director of education at the History Museum in South Bend. They did come — when James was 12.
Reports of cheap land and jobs lured some of the family to St. Joseph County, where Oliver demonstrated an intense work ethic. He cut and sold wood, did chores and worked as a farmhand. He cast molds at a foundry. He packed flour into wooden barrels at a gristmill. He mastered carpentry skills in a cooper’s shop.
In 1847, Oliver went to work for the St. Joseph Iron Co., which made plows and castings. All of these experiences prepared him to become South Bend’s leading industrialist. In 1855, he invested in a foundry that made cast iron plows and began looking for a way to make a better one.
Plows, of course, are as old as agriculture itself, necessary to turn and break up soil to make it arable. The standard plow consists of two main parts: a moldboard, the curved piece that lifts up and turns over the sod, and the blade that does the cutting, known as the plowshare.
In Oliver’s day, both cast iron and steel were used, but steel was scarce and expensive, and cast iron was soft. That caused dirt to stick to the moldboard, forcing farmers to stop every few minutes to clean it.
In 1857, Oliver received his first patent for “An Improvement in Chilling Plowshares.” A chill is a mold that cools liquefied metal rapidly, making the metal harder on the surface. Over the course of several decades, Oliver obtained 45 patents aimed at producing sharper and firmer cutting edges while maintaining flexible, more break-resistant turning pieces.
In 1871, the South Bend Register observed, “If he keeps on improving his plow it will soon have no rivals in the country.” To keep up with demand, the Olivers opened a new factory complex in 1876 with five buildings, 400 employees and a 600-horsepower Harris Steam Engine to power the machinery.
After James Oliver died in 1908, his son J.D. took over the company and directed two more decades of innovation. He and his family lived near the factory in a 38-room mansion called Copshaholm. Today the house is open to the public as part of the South Bend museum complex that includes the Studebaker National Museum and the History Museum.
Changing economics forced the Olivers to take the company public in the late 1920s. Stockholders approved a mega-merger that kept the Oliver name alive in tractor and tool production for some time; it was subsumed in a series of consolidations and plant closings in the 1970s.
The South Bend factory closed in 1985; its smokestack and boilerhouse still stand in a new industrial park named after the man who changed the face of plowing.
The Oliver mansion is at 808 W. Washington Street in South Bend. The Oliver Plow Industrial Park is on Chapin Street between Western Avenue and Sample Street in South Bend.