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Earthmoving Heritage: Miskin Propelled Scraper Technology During WWI

For Arthur R. Miskin, it was a simple case of finding a better way.

The son of an Idaho farm couple, Miskin was well versed in the use of agricultural implements and tools. He also had the mind of an engineer and the heart of an entrepreneur. One day in the early 1900s as a crewman on a canal construction project, he was troubled watching fellow workers using earth scrapers. The dirt pan on one operator’s scraper got stuck on a rock. The long handle used to control the pan caught the man under the arm and threw him forward into the horses. After being trampled by the horses, he was run over by the scraper.

Arthur R. Miskin

At home that night, Miskin declared, “I can make a better scraper than that.” This wasn’t pie-in-the-sky talk or false bravado. Miskin was an inventor and holder of U.S. patents for an agricultural spading machine and a spring-assisted automobile wheel. He was determined to improve upon the design of the popular Fresno Scraper being used all over the West. The former school teacher with a curious mind set off to do just that. “He is a farmer by occupation, a school teacher by profession and an inventor by choice,” The Idaho Register wrote of the young Miskin.

In the 1870s, the Western Wheeled Scraper Company of Aurora, Illinois laid claim to manufacturing the first pull-type wheeled earth scrapers in the United States. These were literally horse-powered contraptions, used to prep railroad beds, excavate building foundations, dig irrigation channels, and build levees. The original design was based on a prototype used on railroad construction jobs. They brought portable excavation power to bear on small projects and large.  Another early innovator, the Smith & Sons Mfg. Co. of Kansas City, marketed its Royal line of wheeled scrapers, which had a platform on which the operator stood.

In the early 1880s, inventor Abijah McCall and sheep rancher Frank Dusy designed a scraper with front wheels attached by a flexible rod and chain to a trailing dirt pan. At the time, both men were working on irrigation canals in Fresno County, California. In June 1885, the men were awarded U.S. Patent 320,055 for what would become known as the Fresno Scraper. James Porteous, an accomplished inventor in his own right, manufactured thousands of the scrapers at his Fresno Agricultural Works.

Early scrapers were like open-ended wheel barrows with handles and a cutting edge. Fresno scrapers had a long handle extended from the back that the operator used to control the cutting edge and dump the load. On major jobs like canal construction, Fresnos were operated in groups of 10-12, with a horse team and operator for each scraper. They were considered faster to load and dump than drag scrapers towed by two horses. Idaho was prime territory for the earth scraper in the early 1900s. Land developers built hundreds of miles of irrigation canals fed by the Snake River to open up huge swaths of land to cultivation across the state.

A 1908 American Traveler automobile outfitted with Miskin Spring Wheels.

After witnessing the scraper mishap with his co-worker, Miskin returned to a familiar place: the drafting table. He had a real talent for it. Back in December 1899, he was awarded U.S. Patent 639,752 for a mechanized spading machine used to break up and prepare earth for planting. In April 1908, he organized a new company to sell his spring-action steel wheel, which he hoped would be widely used on automobiles, trucks, street cars, bicycles, and even baby buggies.

The wheel had spring action, designed to adjust the wheel to the surface over which it passed. This reduced jarring and recoil that were common with rubber tires of the era. Miskin was awarded U.S. Patent 950,952 for his spring wheel. The June 1910 issue of The Western Monthly showed a sleek American Traveler automobile outfitted with Miskin Spring Wheels. Miskin continued working on his wheel designs and earned a second patent in February 1916. To promote his invention, Miskin rode a bicycle outfitted with his spring wheel in the July 1908 industrial parade in Idaho Falls. He showed off his invention at the Utah State Fair, civic events, and business gatherings.

Side and top views of the Miskin scraper as drawn by Arthur R. Miskin in his 1915 U.S. patent application.

Whatever promise the spring wheel might have held, the earth scraper would prove to be Miskin’s most enduring work. His scraper design featured two wheels, a curved dirt pan and locking foot-controlled levers that engaged the cutting edge and controlled position of the belly pan. The operator rode on a seat fastened to the frame. The designed allowed him to hold the reins in his hands while operating scraper controls with his feet. A pair of runners attached to the pan held it just above ground level for discharging, allowing the dirt to be spread in a thin, even fashion. It could also simply dump the load when spreading was not required. The scraper was designed to save labor and operate smoothly when scraping or transporting. It did not require a plow to loosen the earth first, as was often the case with Fresno scrapers.

Miskin filed for a patent on his earth scraper on Oct. 21, 1915. He organized the Miskin Scraper Works in Ucon, Idaho in the fall of 1917 and began production of the Miskin scraper in the quarters of a former drug store. On June 11, 1918, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Miskin Patent 1,269,484. Miskin quickly set off to market his easy-control scraper. His advertisement in the February 1918 issues of the daily Idaho Falls Times urged farmers, “Place your order NOW for Famous Miskin Scrapers and you will be insured of prompt delivery by the time you will need it.”

The Miskin wheeled scraper appeared in the September 15, 1921 issue of Engineering News-Record magazine.

In short order, Miskin scrapers were being pulled by horse teams on some jobs and by farm tractors on others. A 1926 ad in the The Bakersfield Californian marketed the Miskin scraper pulled by a McCormick-Deering tractor. This duo was said to “move as much dirt as three men with three four-horse teams and 5-foot Fresnos.” In 1922, Miskin introduced scraper models designed to be towed by wheeled farm tractors or crawler tractors. Ford Motor Company invited Miskin to show these scrapers along with Fordson tractors at implement exhibitions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the ensuing years, Fordsons were often paired with Miskin scrapers on construction sites and in farm fields. By 1930, Miskin was shipping his scrapers internationally to Russia, South America, Australia, and Egypt.

From the 1920s on, wheeled pull scrapers towed by tractors became popular tools in agriculture and construction. Equipment historian Keith Haddock, author of The Earthmover Encyclopedia, Giant Earthmovers, Modern Earthmoving Machines and many other books, has pull-scraper literature from nearly 60 manufacturers from over the decades. His collection includes such brands as Allis-Chalmers, Bucyrus-Erie, Heil, Ateco, Gurries and LeTourneau. In those early years, manufacturer innovations included rear-dumping scrapers, elevating scrapers, addition of pneumatic tires and creation of the “tumblebug” style scraper, which allowed a tractor operator to control and dump the scraper without leaving the tractor seat.

Arthur Miskin, who died in 1960 at age 84, remained active in the design and manufacturing operations of his company for many years after launching the first series of Miskin scrapers. Some of his 14 children also became active in the scraper business. Renold A. Miskin (1911-2001) operated a distributorship for Miskin equipment in Colorado. Shop foreman Merlin R. Miskin (1913-1985) invented the first hydraulic Miskin scraper in 1946. Ervin N. Miskin sometimes traveled with his father to demonstrate scrapers around the country. Ervin was killed in action in 1944 during World War II. Design engineer Richard B. Miskin (1929-2013) became the longtime owner and general manager of the Miskin Scraper Works, securing 17 patents for his work. Richard’s son, Mark Miskin, is the current president of the Miskin Scraper Works and also holder of patents for scraper innovations.

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Joe Hanneman, Director of Industry Engagement for IronDirect.

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