Special Reports

Historical Perspective: Fresno Agricultural Works

A young Scottish blacksmith made his fortune in late-1800s Fresno with a knack for business and an invention that would make history.

James Porteous, a 29-year-old blacksmith and wheelwright, settled in Fresno about 1877, finding work in the blacksmith shop of J.W. Williams at Mariposa and J (now Fulton) streets.

He soon took over the shop, where he made heavy freight wagons and buggies. His business thrived to the point he needed to expand, and he bought five lots at Tulare and L streets. The same year he became a U.S. citizen.

Porteous called his business Fresno Agricultural Works. His shops for machining, blacksmithing, woodworking, painting, and storage for wagons and farm implements eventually took up most of a city block.

But Porteous was also an inventor. He learned the needs of his farmer clients, and foremost of those needs was an efficient way to move dirt.

The life blood of agriculture in the dry Valley, then as now, was water. Moving it required a system of irrigation canals, which in turn took back-breaking labor to build.

Along with other blacksmiths and farmers such as William Deidrick, Frank Dusy and Abijah McCall, Porteous began work on a dirt scraper, a U-shaped iron bucket pulled by horses (and later tractors), that would scoop earth into its "bowl." The operator could distribute the dirt by raising a handle.

An early scraper was invented by Dusy and McCall in 1872, and patented in 1885. Porteous bought the rights, improved the design and turned it into the famous "Fresno Scraper."

Local demand for the "Fresnos," as they were called, was so great that it would be nearly 10 years before they could be made in large enough quantities to be sent to other markets.

The precursors of the modern bulldozer, they played a major role in ditch digging, road and railway construction and dam building.

They were shipped by the thousands worldwide for decades.

The Army took "Fresnos" to the European front in World War I, and the scraper even took part in the world's most ambitious construction project in the new century: the Panama Canal.

Porteous didn't stop with the Fresno scraper. He is credited with 46 inventions, and held some 200 patents on such implements as brush cutters, weeders, a rotary harrow, centrifugal pump, all-steel vineyard truck, tree plow, raisin-mill machinery, tractor wheels, the first raisin stemmer and a power sulphur duster. His goal: saving farmers time, money and labor, and increasing their yield.

Along the way, he became one of the richest men in the Valley. When he died in 1922, he left an estate of well over $1 million. And Fresno Agricultural Works grew from $400 a year when Porteous started it to more than $1 million in sales in 1924, with an annual payroll of $150,000 for 75 employees.

Recognized as one of the most vital civil engineering and agricultural tools ever made, the Fresno Scraper was listed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1991 as an International Historic Engineering Landmark.

Porteous' business lives on as Fresno Ag Hardware, recognized as the oldest continuous business in Fresno.

The site of the old Fresno Agricultural Works is now part of downtown's Fresno County Plaza.

Related stories from Fresno Bee