Sylvanus D. Locke

Information on this page is from History of Rensselaer Co., New York by Nathaniel Bartlett Sylvester, published in 1880.

SYLVANUS DYER LOCKE, whose portrait appears herein, was born Sept. 11, 1833, in Richfield, Otsego Co., N. Y. He is the youngest of eleven children, [of whom] seven [are] now living. His father, Samuel Locke, born in Rhode Island, March 24, 1790, and who died in Richfield, Dec. 6, 1866, was a son of Samuel, who was a son of Timothy Locke, born in Hampton, N. H., in 1700. Timothy was a son of Nathaniel, a son of Capt. John Locke, who was the patriarch of the American family. The elder Samuel served honorably in the Revolutionary War. Timothy moved with his brothers, John, Joseph, and Abijah, more than a century and a half ago, to Rhode Island, where, in 1797, he died at the ripe old age of ninety-seven. A Bible inscribed by him, and well worn by his daily use in middle life, has descended as an heirloom in the family to Mr. Locke.

The family comes of good old English stock and traces its lineage through some of the best blood of the mother-country. Capt. John Locke, coming in the Puritan tide that political and religious persecution swept toward our shores, settled in Dover, N. H., in 1644. Afterwards he removed to Hampton, in that state, and there he planted a vigorous family tree.

Mr. Locke's mother, Anna Wentworth Locke, was also of English descent. She was a daughter of David Wentworth, who was a lineal descendant in the fifth generation of Elder William Wentworth, who settled in Exeter, N. H., in 1639, and from whom descended Benning Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire, who gave Bennington its charter, and "Long John" Wentworth, of Chicago.

Elder William Wentworth was a lineal descendant of Sir William Wentworth of England, from whom descended also the Earls of Strafford, King Edward VI, Lady Byron, and many others of note in English history.

But Mr. Locke puts lineage in the background. In the grand battle of life, he relies not upon his ancestors but upon himself. Bold, self-reliant and energetic, he holds that perseverance overcomes all things. Born poor, poverty has been to him not a burden but a spur to better effort. He is emphatically what the world calls a "self-made" man. Apt and untiring, he has demonstrated the worth of our public school system. At a "common school" he mastered astronomy, geometry, and surveying, and most of the higher English branches, and there laid the foundation for an excellent, if not a liberal, education. At the age of seventeen, he commenced teaching district schools winters, and "boarding around." In these three winters, he taught, and, during the balance of these years, pursued industriously his studies at Fairfield, in Herkimer County, this state [NY]. There, his teachers tell us, he soon took the lead in his classes and in mathematics surpassed all others. He attended that school nearly three years. In his twenty-first year, he became principal of a large "graded" or "union school" at Herkimer, this state.

In politics, Mr. Locke has always been a sincere, earnest Republican. All his family relatives are Republicans. In 1854, during the Kansas-Nebraska struggle in Congress, he visited Washington and for several days listened to the storm debate. In 1856, he cast his first presidential ballot for "The Pathfinder," John C. Fremont. Soon after, during the month of November, he anticipated the sainted Horace Greeley's injunction to young men and went west.

In 1857, as a civil engineer on the Wisconsin Central Railroad, he carried the transit and the level. Late in the fall of that year, the great financial crisis having knocked the bottom out of his railroad, he turned his attention again to teaching and accepted the principalship of a seminary at Columbus, Ky. He remained south until admonished in 1859 both by the shakings of the ague and [by] the thunders of the rising storm of rebellion; he sought refuge from either and turned his face northward. Again Wisconsin received him, and, abandoning teaching, he turned his attention to the law. In March 1860, he entered the law office of Bennett, Cassoday & Gibbs, in Janesville, Wis., and in 1861 was admitted to the bar of the Circuit Court in that city.

At the outbreak of the Rebellion, before the booming of the first gun [that had been] fired on Sumter had died away in the North, he aided in the organization of an infantry company that was tendered to the Governor of Wisconsin the first of May. He was elected and received a commission as lieutenant; but, in August, having failed to get into service, the company was disbanded.

August 13, 1861, at the residence of the bride's father, near Janesville, he married Ellen Josephine Parker, youngest daughter of Hon. John Parker, formerly of Oneida Co., N. Y. Mr. Parker was a cousin of Hon. Amasa J. Parker, of Albany, and a representative of what has been for nearly two centuries one of the most numerous, leading, and respectable families in America. Four children have blessed this marriage.

In 1861, Mr. Locke was elected county surveyor for Rock County [WI], and also city engineer for Janesville, Wis. He held these offices for nearly eight years, or until he removed from Wisconsin, in 1869. During all of this period of eight years, he was also continuously engaged in what at that time, and to others, seemed a fruitless endeavor to construct an automatic machine for binding grain. His life during this period, and subsequently, with reference to this machine, will constitute one of the most eventful chapters in the history of American inventions; for to him, more than to any other man living or dead, does the world owe the present successful automatic binding harvester. With a good income from his surveying and engineering, every dollar of it beyond the necessary provision for his family was freely put in his machine. Against the advice, warnings, and even entreaties, of his friends, who declared he was pursuing a will-o'-the-wisp [and] was sacrificing the best years of his life in hopeless efforts to obtain what never could be obtained, he pursued unfalteringly his purpose. Defeated often, but discouraged never, failure seemed only to confirm him in his purpose, and to add to his determination to succeed. Wonderfully gifted for the work, he knew always he was to succeed. Possessed of marvelous ingenuity and skill, yet failure was yearly added to failure as the harvests came around. So, for nearly ten years, he battled, almost against fate, to produce what the world had never seen: a successful automatic binding harvester. The difficulty was not so much in the production of devices to manipulate the bands as in handling the grain and adapting the machine to it.

At last, in 1870, at Hoosick Falls, [Rensselaer Co] N. Y., where he is now residing, his efforts were crowned with that success which, sooner or later in life's grand battles, unwavering devotion and indomitable energy are almost certain to bring. In the harvest of that year, he had the Pioneer binder. This machine cut and bound rapidly and well a swathe eight feet wide. This was at least two years in advance of any and all inventors and competitors in the grain-binder field. To him be all honor therefor! Having produced a successful machine, the way has been easier for others to follow. About March 1, 1869, having previously arranged with Walter A. Wood to assume the financial burdens of his undertaking, Mr. Locke came to Hoosick Falls to reside. His family came the first of October following. His endeavor that year to apply his binder to Mr. Woods's "chain-rake" reaper was a failure. Later in the season, he applied his present "rotary binder" to a side-delivery apron-machine. This machine was destroyed by the terrible conflagration that swept away in a single night, in March 1870, the extensive works of the "Walter A. Wood Mowing- and Reaping-Machine Company." Immediately after the fire, he commenced rebuilding his machine, and during the following harvest it proved eminently a success. The next year he built five of these machines, all of which were sent west, and thoroughly tested by Mr. Locke himself in the harvest-fields from southern Illinois to Minnesota. So year after year passed, constructing machines at the manufactory at Hoosick Falls, and testing them in the west, to adapt them to run in the hands of unskilled farmers in all the varied conditions of grain, soil, and weather. In 1874, twenty-five machines were built; in 1875, three hundred; in 1876, twelve hundred; in 1877, three thousand. In 1878, five thousand five hundred were built and sold. During this year, 1879, several thousand more will be put into the harvests of our own country, South America, Europe, and far-off Australia and New Zealand. About twelve hundred have already been sent to Australia. Mr. Locke has obtained nearly fifty patents relating to harvesters and binders. So, in return for a life work of usefulness to others, a harvest of wealth is gathering for Mr. Locke. May it come in full measure to him and to Walter A. Wood, whose strong heart, clear head, and open hand have been extended in sympathy and effective aid to Mr. Locke in his great work! Most men accord honor to the inventor and his works, but few have returned curses. Several of his machines have been destroyed by the unthinking rabble whose burdens they were sent to lighten. A few days previous to this writing, one was burned in Kentucky. The writings of Savonarola and Galileo were burned, but the world is better for their having lived in it.

Mr. Locke is a sincere, unobtrusive Christian, and for several years has been a trustee of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Hoosick Falls, to the support of which, and the enlargement of its church building, he has largely contributed. Generous, open-hearted, public-spirited, Mr. Locke is one of those representative American citizens to whom wealth comes only to widen the sphere of their usefulness and well-doing.

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