First Things

Digging In

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If this issue of Farm Collector seems just a bit top-heavy on the topic of plows, forgive us. It is the time of year when a person wants to get out and root around in the dirt, whether it's to plant crops or just set a half-dozen tomato plants.

Plowing is an activity we take for granted. It wasn't always so. Consider agricultural theory of the past: Plows made of iron poisoned the soil … riding sulky plows put excessive strain on animals … cast iron was too brittle to be used in plow shares.

Given the advanced technology of modern agriculture in everything from hybrids to equipment, how can we possibly imagine what life was like for a farmer in 1850 or 1900? We're intrigued, impressed even, by early mechanical ingenuity, but for a farmer 150 years ago, ingenuity for its own sake was of no value: It had to produce. It was a matter of sheer survival.

Articles in this issue, though, focus not so much on the plow's invention as on its impact. In everything from patent law to the domestic economy, from fire prevention to legal boundaries, the lowly walking plow was a key player in American history.

Village blacksmiths had front-row seats in that production, building and repairing and sharpening plows. But their talents were not limited to such work. They were hometown artisans, crafting whatever was needed in rural America, from farm equipment to household goods. In this issue you'll meet Dave and Janet Tempest, collectors of a variety of rare wrought iron items. Dave is a fan of the blacksmith's craft, and his collection reflects the artistry and ingenuity typical of the smith's one-of-a-kind creations.

The unique mechanisms of these devices (and of others that were manufactured commercially more than 100 years ago) are fascinating, even if they weren't always effective. "There never was a cherry seeder that worked right," Dave muses. That's certainly been my experience, speaking as a baker horrified to see more than 50 pits come forth from a single pie baked with last summer's handpicked cherries pitted using a modern mechanical device. The more things change, it seems, the more they don't!

Leslie McManus, Editor
lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com