I’m an anthropologist/archaeologist and not much inclined to embrace the “great man” approach to history. I suspect that many creative individuals had a hand in developing what became the landmark, horse-drawn Fresno scraper (photo at left). The desire to level San Joaquin Valley land for irrigation and dig ditches was the initial driver. And the mechanical innovators, the entrepreneurs (like James Porteous, who first produced the scraper at his Fresno Agricultural Works, or the Holt Manufacturing Company in Stockton, which soon also manufactured them), and the industrial base were already in place in the 1880s.
In an upcoming exhibition at the Museum on the history of earthmoving equipment we will share the following accounts. Please send me any others you may know of. Better yet, please post them as comments after this blog entry so others can read them, too.
Frank F. Latta’s account in the April 1930 Lindsey Gazette credits George Stockton Berry, a farmer from Lindsay in Tulare County, with inventing a scraper very similar to the classic Fresno scraper while constructing a ditch in the Herndon area near Fresno between 1880 and 1883. James Porteous was also involved in that ditch project and he encouraged Berry to patent and manufacture the scraper. Berry wasn’t interested and he freely gave the idea to Porteous. (Berry was a gifted inventor who developed another milestone in 1885: the first self-powered combined harvester. Although several Berry Combined Steam Harvesters were built by Benicia Agricultural Works, Berry sold the patent to Daniel Best of San Leandro.)
In Garden of the Sun, an early twentieth-century history of San Joaquin County, author Wallace Smith supports the idea that the Fresno scraper was invented during the Herndon ditch project and confirms Berry’s involvement. But this account holds that Abijah McCall, a blacksmith from Selma, in Fresno County, brought the scraper concept to the ditch contractors. Frank Dusy (who put up the money for the patent fee) and McCall obtained a patent on McCall’s scraper in June 1885. James Porteous bought the rights to the Dusy-McCall patent from Dusy and from McCall’s descendants in 1896.
A third account in 1911 also points to trial-and-error during ditch projects in the San Joaquin Valley, but it credits William Diedrick, another blacksmith from Selma, as the inventor of what became the Fresno scraper. Reportedly, Diedrich had helped make the first McCall scraper on the Herndon ditch project. Deidrich patented his scraper in April 1883 and James Porteous bought the rights to the patent in 1889.
David Stuart is executive director/CEO of the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum.