The rich history of the Fresno Scraper

The Fresno Scraper was breakthrough technology that revolutionized the jobs of leveling fields, digging ditches for irrigation, and building roads. “Fresnos” were the brainchild of James Porteous, a Scottish immigrant who was the son of a wheelwright and blacksmith.  

Porteous immigrated to America in 1873, moved to Fresno, and opened up a wagon shop, the Fresno Agricultural Works, which went on to become the largest agricultural implement business in the Central Valley. Today, that business is known as the Fresno Ag Hardware, and it has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operated business in Fresno.  

In his work with Fresno farmers, Porteous came to understand the Valley’s dependence on irrigation. Valley farmers needed a more efficient way of constructing canals, ditches, furrows, and stock ponds. 

Up until this point, farmers were using equipment such as the Buckboard, developed in the mid-1800s, which was basically a board pulled by horses in an upright position that scraped and pushed the soil from high spots to low spots, smoothing and leveling the ground. Buckboards were used in conjunction with the Slip/Scoop, an earlier invention of Flemish farmers.

Porteous proceeded to first make several design changes to the Buckboard, calling it the Buck Scraper, which he patented in 1882. Over the course of the next 14 years, Porteous as well as three men from Selma — William Deidrick, Frank Dusy, and Abijab McCall — worked on improving the design of the Buck Scraper.

In 1896, Porteous bought the patents of the inventions of the Selma men, and, using some of their design features along with his own idea, he perfected what became known as the “Fresno Scraper or ”Fresno.”

Another Central Valley gem

The Fresno Scraper was sold throughout the West, and when word got around about its efficiency, ease of operation, and reliability, scrapers ended up being shipped to almost every state as well as to many foreign countries. 

Not only did the Fresno Scraper play a vital role in making California’s Central Valley one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, it also played a vital role in the construction of the Panama Canal and was the forerunner of the modern day earth-moving scraper.

In the 1930s, tractors replaced horses for pulling scrapers and soon after self-propelled scrapers arrived on the scene, forever replacing the Fresno Scrapers.

James Porteous’s Fresno Scraper was one of the most important agricultural and civil engineering machines ever made. Between 1884 and 1920, thousands of “Fresnos” were produced for use in agriculture, land leveling, digging ditches, road and railroad construction, and in general construction, too. 

In 1991, the Scraper was designated as an International Historic Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Porteous received credit for 46 inventions, most of which had to do with farming equipment that was important to farmers of the Central Valley.

James Porteous and his invention, the Fresno Scraper, are treasures of California’s Central Valley.

You can still see them today

Even though the Fresno Scrapers were abandoned and left to rust with the advent of modern machinery, you can still see a collection of them at the Eastern California Museum in Independence, California.

Or, you may just see a treasured rusted Fresno Scraper that’s found a home in a neighbor’s yard because many are used as decorative yard ornaments, paying homage to an important chapter in the history of the Central Valley.

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