Jersey Reflections: Steam Plow Inventor

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CUMBERLAND COUNTY, N.J. -

“Parvin was a true inventor, but someone else ran away with everything he had.”

Robert C. Parvin, the Cedarville resident who was the first inventor to produce a successful steam plow in the post-Civil War era, was poised for greatness by the end of 1873.

During the previous five years, he had worked on developing his steam plow, which made use of ample power and a self-laying endless track, preventing it from bogging down in the soil. He entered a prototype in the Illinois State Fair in 1872, earning a $100 prize. He offered demonstrations in various Illinois towns before devoting more time to perfecting the machine. With backers from the business world, he established Northwest Parvin Steam Plow Manufacturing in Farmington, Illinois and brought a sample of his work to a demonstration in Dixon, California to illustrate that his invention was capable of plowing 20 acres in 10 hours.

California farmers were interested. So were Kansas farmers. Annie W. Caldwell offered substantial publicity in an article, “Parvin’s Steam Motor,” after touring the Farmington facility and describing the invention with the term “par excellence.” So why is the name “Robert C. Parvin” unrecognized today as a revolutionary inventor?

The answer is not very forthcoming, remaining a mixture of speculation and reasoning due to lost records and accounts. What we do know comes from an article by Richard H. Parvin in the Vineland Historical Magazine.

According to the article, Northwest Parvin Steam Plow Manufacturing soon moved to nearby Elmwood, Illinois, maintaining its proximity to a rail line. Several hundred steam plows were produced there, but the company seems to have folded shortly afterward.

The article offers the explanation that “apparently larger and better-financed companies moved in on the new lucrative market, either ignoring or working around [Parvin’s] patents. It also includes a quote from an unidentified Elmwood resident, a descendent of someone who worked in the manufacturing facility, who reports, “Robert Crouch Parvin was a true inventor, but someone else ran away with everything he had. Elmwood was a disappointed town. There was a period when Parvin was the local hero and the man who would put Elmwood on the map. But it was not to be.”

Facing a failed business venture, Parvin decided to return his family to New Jersey, but not to his origins in Cumberland County. Instead, he settled in Bayville, near Tom’s River, and turned his attention to farming. His new profession was apparently not successful, so he tried his hand as a construction contractor and found success building school houses.

Restless for a new challenge, Parvin purchased a barge and a sailboat, according to the Vineland Historical Magazine article. “His son, Edward, by then an electrical engineer, fitted the sailboat with an engine to pull the barge and they went into the seaweed business on Barnegat Bay,” the article explains. “Seaweed at that time was dried and used as upholstering in buggies. [Parvin’s] youngest son, Bob, earned 25 cents per day driving an old gray mare, turning seaweed over to dry.”

It wasn’t the failure of this new occupation that forced Parvin to relocate once again. As the Vineland Historical Magazine article relates, his distaste for New Jersey winters had the family moving to Chartburn, North Carolina in 1905. Once again, Parvin took to building school houses to support his family, but it wasn’t long before another move occurred, this time further south to Florida. Settling in 1907 in Braidentown (known today as Bradenton), Parvin undertook the role of farmer once again only to abandon it as he had in New Jersey and returned to construction. One of his accomplishments was building a red brick bank in Braidentown before his retirement.

His hometown in Florida became home to his two youngest sons, Clinton and Robert, as well. It’s where they married and raised their families. It also serves as the resting place of Parvin, who died on November 23, 1915.

It’s highly unlikely his tombstone in the Forgartyville Cemetery gives evidence of his true accomplishments as an inventor and the promise he demonstrated in revolutionizing the world of agriculture. The revolution may have taken place without him and denied him the profits reaped from its success, but his place in history can’t be erased.

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