“Old Joe Anderson, Greenville, Once slave of C. H. McC.” (1885)

Painting of a bearded Cyrus Hall McCormick with rosy cheeksMcCormick factory complex on the banks of the Chicago RiverCatalogue cover of the McCormick company's product line in 1860An engraved image of a farmer seated on a two-wheeled mower drawn by horses

In this interview of Joe Anderson, included in the pamphlet called, “Notes On a Virginia Trip,” written by William J. Hanna, Anderson describes his relationship with the McCormick family and the role he played in the development of the McCormick reaper, which heralded the rise of industrial agriculture. Anderson was enslaved by Cyrus McCormick, who was a friend of Hanna and a sales manager at McCormick’s Chicago office. Those ties surely shaped what Anderson felt he should say or could say, safely. In 1885, Hanna wrote this collection of interviews with people who remembered the early days of the mechanical reaper. He never published them and they only survive in manuscript. Hanna, included comments in his transcription of the interview. His bracketed comments have been included below.



Yes, sah, I am old Joe. I’m seventy eight years old and was born at old Massa Rob’t McCormick’s house. I was his slave, but when a baby was given to Massa Cyrus. No man who ever had a servant treated one better than he did me.

We suckled at the same titties together, for when my mammy was away ole missis would nurse me, and when Missis was out visiting, my mammy would nurse Massa Cyrus. So we nursed together and played together all over the farm when we were both chillen. I used to go to school with him for company along the road to an old field school where about thirty or more scholars met. It was near Sally Carsons house (I saw the ruins of the old chimney—all that is left of it in the field) and Mr. James Moore was the teacher. Massa Cyrus was always quiet and had no wild capers with him like some boys. Oh, yes, sometimes he and I used to go out of an evening to see our girls, but we was always home again early at night, for late hours was agin the rules of the house. Massa Cyrus was a mos elegant rider, no better in all the country. The family went to Old Providence Church, where Rev. Jas. Brown preached, but because of some troubly among the church people about the minister they changed to New Providence where Rev. Jas. Morrison preached. Massa Cyrus went punctually to church every Sunday. Had forenoon and afternoon services, and as it was too far to return home between services they took lunch along. No night preaching as a rule.

I remember a long long time ago ole Mass. Robrt tried to make a reaper which had some knives like the old reaping hooks fixed to it. It was a right smart ingenious thing, I tell you, but it would not work. Massa Robrt gave it up cos he could not make it work good.

I don’t remember clear, but I think Massa Cyrus made his first reaper in the blacksmith shop. He first made a little model and then I fotched loose grain to the shop so he could see how it cut it. I don’t remember the trial at D. Steele’s place, nor do I remember leading the horses

– page 81 –

as Polly Carsons says, but it mos likely I did. But I remember going to Billy Moores to cut one Saturday.

Billy was an old bachelor and had no children. We cut eight acres west and I raked off walking on the ground. Machine worked well, but had been working right smart before that. [His mind began to waver and become confused and so I gave him time to rest awhile—Resumes—]

Oh, yes, ole Massa Robrt gave up working on the reaper when Massa Cyrus said thought it could be done, and when he was determined to try it his father consented to let him, and I remember Massa Cyrus laying out his plans on big sheets of paper, and working on these plans for a long time to show how his sickle would work. He mad several little machines (models) before he got one that pleased him.

I was waggoner for him when he was in the Iron Furnace business at South River. I don’t know why they failed at it. Some folks said they did not sell iron but stored it when it would have fetched $50 a ton, and had to sell it at $25 at las. I waggoned pig iron to Scotsville on James River six days round trip, six horse team, bringing back plaster. Two tons was a big load.

I remember Cyrus and his father, brother and some workmen building reapers at the old home to sell. Some of them I waggoned off, but don’t remember where to. I was blower and striker for the blacksmith making these machines. This work did not last over two or three years I think. One of the workmen was a yankee, one of his best workmen, and was sent out one time to put up and start machines and to collect pay for them. Massa Cyrus gave him a fine horse, saddle, bridle and saddle bags. He set up the machines and collected the money, but forgot to come back—never heard from him no more [instead of smiling Joe was very grave over the enormity of this crime.] We thought it was an awful powerful mean trick for that Yankee to play.

Massa Cyrus lead the singing in New Providence church. He was a good singer. Below the pulpit was the clerk’s desk, and as hymn books were not plenty when the minister gave out the hymn he handed down the book to the clerk, who read out two lines at a time and then led the singing. Massa Cyrus was never cross with me, and I tried to do all a human could do to his satisfaction.

– page 82 –

I waited on ole Missis three months lacking three days before she died. She said to me Joe, get behind me in the bed, and raise me up, and let me lay my head upon your shoulder for five minutes as near as you can reckon and then lay me down, and that will be the last time Joe for your ole Missis, and so it was. She suffered a great deal.

Ole Missis was a mighty fine woman, as good a housekeeper as could be skeered up anywhere –illegible—she was a stirring business woman.

Ole Massa Robert was a small man, but a fine smart man and industrious. Always at work on something, building heap breaks or threshing machines—but I don’t remember much about that.

Massa Cyrus was a good master to me and God knows I tried to be a good servant to him. [Occasionally as the rheumatism gave him a twinge during the conversation he would utter a short invocation such as “Oh Saviour,” “Oh dear Lord,” for Old Joe is a Methodist bred and a Methodist hymn.]

He used often to send me to Scotsville to sell grain for him. I would put the money wrapped up in paper in my waistcoat well wrapped up and hid it under some old bags in the forward end of the wagon. He trusted me and I was honest with him.

Old Missis would let none but me and my sister Hannah wait on her. She would say when she got sick “These are my good servants.”

For mo than a month after she died I used to jump up at night in my sleep thinking I heard my ole Missis calling me.

Befo the war Massa Cyrus gave me my freedom though I was always happy, quite happy, at Walnut Grove farm in slavery times.

My task was to thresh ten bushels of rye a day and when the dinner horn blowed I would be putting the last bushel into the bags. The rest of the day I had to myself and so with cutting rails. My task was one hundred rails a day and I could always finish the one hundred by noon.

I can neither read nor write, but I know what my Saviour says, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you a crown of life.” I am living here suffering much pain and don’t expect ever to walk out no mo but I will not murmur.

– page 83 –

I am waiting patiently till his time comes, trusting I will be ready when he comes. I have a with with me and she has some children. Massa Cyrus has been powerful kind to me and gave me this little cabin where I live and when he was alive he used to write me kind letters. Oh, he was a good good master to me.

Some folks round here say ole Massa Robert invented the reaper, but I say it was Massa Cyrus. [He said this with great emphasis and animation as he turned on me the full and powerful gaze of his lustrous eyes. He seemed to rouse up at the very thought.] Ole Massa Robert tried it and gave it up, and there never would have been a reaper but for Massa Cyrus. It is like de good Lord who sent his son to save sinners. He began de work but his son did de work and finished it.

I would have been taught to read and write, but the law would not allow it.

Oh, yes, Massa Cyrus was a powerful good hand to play on the fiddle. He used to sit on the porch of an evening and play beautifully.

[I asked him before leaving, “Joe, ain’t you glad slavery is at an end?”] Well, sir, in some things it may be good, but when I look around me and see so many strong young fellows growing up in idleness and drunkenness I don’t know but they would be better with a master.

In parting said he, “Tell them all in Chicago that I may never see them again, but tell them that by the grace of God I hope soon to reach heaven and there I hope to see them all.

[Old Joe is very weak and may die any day, He can’t walk and had to be lifted out of bed and propped up in a chair to receive me. He is tall and straight and the finest specimen of the African I ever saw, very regular features, an old grizzled man, though it is evident he has been an athlete in his day. He has a very honest open countenance, talks with calmness, chooses his words and is in no hurry to speak till he knows what he is going to say.

He has none of this silly chatter of most negroes, but on the contrary is disposed to be reserved. He evidently has made Mr. C. H. McCormick his model in speech, manner and everything, and one is more struck with this in the manner in which he can turn on one the full power of a pair of lustrous eyes that seem to read you through and through.

– page 84 –

I consider old Joe Anderson a very superior man indeed who under different circumstances would have made his mark. As it is he has made his mark by faithfully doing his duty in a very subordinate sphere, and I have no doubt in another world the master of us all will grant him a higher place than many who have had greater advantages.]

APA Citation:
Anderson, Joe & Hanna, William. “Old Joe Anderson, Greenville, Once slave of C. H. McC.” (1885). (2021, December 09). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Anderson, Joe, and William Hanna. "“Old Joe Anderson, Greenville, Once slave of C. H. McC.” (1885)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (09 Dec. 2021). Web. 18 May. 2024
Last updated: 2022, January 26
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.