The Fresno Scraper: A Mechanical Engineering Marvel

Aug 14, 2010 | Diana Bulls, Hometown History

by Diana Bulls

Since the beginning of agriculture and construction, mankind has needed to move the earth’s soil. It was first moved by man in baskets carried on the head or hung on poles carried on the shoulders. Later, man learned to use domesticated animals to help move the soil. Flemish farmers were the first to use horses to pull a Slip/Scoop to move the soil. This implement remained in use until the middle of the 1800s when the Buckboard was developed in the western United States. This was basically a board pulled by horses in an upright position so that it scraped and pushed the soil to smooth and level the ground. There was a tail board where the driver would stand until he wanted to dump the soil. Buckboards and Slip/Scoops were used throughout the San Joaquin Valley from the 1840s to the 1890s.

Fresno Agricultural Works

This all changed when a Scottish immigrant named James Porteous, the son of a wheelwright and blacksmith, brought his skills with him to the States. He arrived in Fresno in 1877 and opened a wagon shop in the downtown area where he fabricated buggies and heavy wagons.

Porteous recognized the dependence of Central Valley farmers on irrigation and the need for a more efficient means of constructing canals and ditches in the sandy soil. Working with the simple buckboard, he made several design improvements and called it the Buck Scraper, which was patented in 1882. Porteous made additional improvements and received his second patent for the Dirt Scraper on April 3, 1883.

During the same time, three Selma men were working on overcoming some of the problems with the Dirt Scraper. This second invention had three major problems: (1) rolling resistance of the iron wheels in sandy soil, (2) a tendency to overrun the horses on firm down slopes and (3) short runners sinking into sandy soil. William Deidrick eliminated the wheels by using long, flat runners — an important step in the evolution of the final design. He received a patent for this on April 17, 1883. Frank Dusy and Abijah McCall received a patent on June 15, 1885 for their use of curved runners and chains to control and adjust the dump load.

dirt scraper

The perfected Fresno Scraper

Porteous continued making improvements to his initial design and received a third patent in November 1883. Finally, he bought the patents held by Deidrick, Dusy and McCall, gaining sole rights to the scraper. Using some of the features of these patents, along with his own inventions, he perfected the scraper which became known as the Fresno Scraper and commonly known as a “Fresno.” The “Fresno” was built at Porteous’ shop, the Fresno Agricultural Works. A two-horse model sold for $28 and a four-horse model sold for $37.

dirt scraping with two horses

Fresno Scraper two-horse model

The Fresno Scraper is the basis of most modern earthmoving scrapers, being able to scrape and move soil while also dumping it at a controlled depth. The blade scooped up the soil, which ran along a C-shaped bowl that could be adjusted to alter the angle of the bucket to the ground, so that the dirt could be deposited in low spots (“Figure 8” below). Between 1884 and 1910, thousands of “Fresnos” were produced and used in agriculture and land leveling, road and railroad grading and in general construction. They were shipped throughout the United States, as well as South America, India, the Orient, South Africa, Australia and Europe. The “Fresno” played a vital role in the construction of the Panama Canal and later served the US Army in World War I.Fresno Scraper Modes of Operation

The Fresno Scraper was one of the most important agricultural and civil engineering machines ever made. In 1991, the Fresno Scraper was designated as an International Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. James Porteous was credited with 46 inventions, most of which had to do with farming equipment important to the farmers of the Central San Joaquin Valley. The Fresno Agricultural Works in now known as Fresno Ag Hardware, located on North Blackstone Avenue.

Diana Bulls is an ongoing contributor to our
Hometown History section, having collected vintage kitchen utensils for over 40 years; she is also actively involved with the Reedley Historical Society.


  1. I always did wonder about the Fresno Scraper, Thanks for clearing that “problem” up! I suppose we have one of them at the museum? Gordon’s grandfather probably used one in the ’30s on this very farm we live on.

    • Yvonne, we do have one (or two) at the museum — there is also an early version sitting in front of the main building at Kearney. Are you sure Gordon doesn’t have one sitting out in an old junk pile somewhere?

      .-= A previous Hometown History submission from Diana: Baker’s Magic =-.

  2. Does anyone know where the actual Fresno Scraper artifact that was designated in 1991 by the Americvan Society of Mechanical Engineers. We would like to know if it still exists and if so where

    Lynden Davis, ASME History Volunteer for California

    • Lynden, Sorry it took so long for me to get back to you, but I have an answer for your question. Originally the scraper, Landmark #158, and its plaque were located at the Fresno District Fair Grounds. In 1992 a group began campaigning for the scraper to be more accessible and eventually it was placed with the San Joaquin County Historical Society & Museum, where it remains on display. A rededication ceremony was held on March 26, 2011.

      A Fresno scraper, in excellent condition, sits in front of the administration building of the University of California Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension center in Parlier, California. This implement, along with others, were presented to UC KARE by the Reedley Historial Society.

  3. Hello, you may find this interesting
    I came to this site after doing a search on the fresno scraper after having just finished reading a alternate history book from the Ring Of Fire series called 1636: The Kremlin Games. I’m not here to pimp the book, (though it is really good) just bear with me. In this series a globe shaped space about 6 miles in diameter centerd on a small coal mining town in W. Virginia is transported to the south of Germany in the year 1632 in the middle of the 30 Years War. A 3 page sci-fi setup and from then on its just modern people dealing with being over 350 years in the past. in the middle of a war. One of the many interesting things about the books are the choices people have to make about which modern -called “up-time” devices and techniques to try to reproduce with what they have available to them. That is what brought me to the Fresno Scraper. in the latest book, a young, depressed man who is a decent auto mechanic is hired by the Russians to come to Moscow to help them take advantage of the new up-time knowledge that was already changing Europe. One of the first devices they decided to build in Moscow is the Fresno Scraper. This is a device almost 200 years ahead of its time. Used in conjunction with a dragboard, a large board or frame of boards with large spikes driven through it, a 2 man crew with a team of horses could move more dirt in less time than 20 men with shovels could. I had never heard of the Fresno Scraper and I wanted to learn some more and my search led me here. Very interesting information. Now a corn ball and a smart alec might say that they understand why this is considered such a ground breaking device, but that that’s not me. I can see why this was such a big deal. It is pretty simple to produce, the technique is pretty easy to use, and it Works. A great invention. 1 guy started it, 2 or 3 other guys improved on it, and the original guy brought it all together and made it work. Here in my town of Orange, outside the public works building, is a horse drawn version of a modern road grader.

  4. what are antique fresno earth scrapers worth now?

  5. As an “un-paid” research person on the subject of American
    involvement in The Great War, I’m very interested in any
    sources for information about the use of Fresno Scrapers
    on the Western Front. Road building and repair were a real
    challenge. I believe “some” were sent to France, But how many
    and what use was made of them has escaped me, so far.
    Thanks for any ideas.

  6. I believe I have one…looking for help identifying it…



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