Drill End Plates: The Ends Justify the Means

End plates for press drills and grain drills make up impressive collection

Roger Eshelman's display of cast iron drill box end plates at a Waukee, Iowa, show

Roger Eshelman's display of cast iron drill box end plates at a Waukee, Iowa, show. "They haven't made them with cast iron for 50-60 years," Roger says. "If it's cast iron, it must be at least 60 years old."

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With more than 300 pieces in his collection, Roger Eshelman has a nice selection of cast iron end plates from wooden box drills and seeders. But even in his wildest dreams, he knows he'll never have them all. 

"My collection represents 102 different companies and 290 different parts numbers," he says. "But I'll bet there's another 400-500 plates out there that I've never heard of."

Roger, a retired teacher living in College Springs, Iowa, says that numbers like those don't translate into a widely available collectible.

"These days, I get the biggest share of my plates at swap meets, or sales of collectors," he says. "You can still get some from junk dealers. And in Nebraska and the Dakotas, there's still some out there. But in Iowa, there's been so many scrap drives, that kind of stuff has almost vanished." Once, though, the drill end plate was as common as the dandelion.

"They made hundreds and hundreds of different ones," Roger says. "Each company may have made anywhere from six to 20 different ones. Some were from press drills, some were from drop seeders, but they were basically from grain drills and seeders."

With multiple manufacturers came a wide variety of drill end plates.

"Everybody tried something different," he says. "Some were mounted on the disk. Most were on horse-drawn equipment."

The oldest piece in Roger's collection dates to 1857. In the space of six decades, though, the wooden box and cast iron drill ends had been abandoned.

"By the mid-1920s into 1930, almost all of them switched from wood to steel boxes," Roger says. "The design, the workmanship of the pattern maker was gone; that was the end of it."

Roger's collection started by chance. About 25 years ago, while doing salvage work, he ran across a machine with plates on the end.

"I thought they were neat, and I saved them," he says. "I'd always been interested in antiques and old farm machinery, and started seeing the plates at swap meets and shows."

The collection started slowly, but then he stumbled on to nine at one time.

"Back then, they were pretty easy to come by," he says. "Now they're harder to find. In wheat country, you find more, but they're more modern."

Compared to many farm collectibles, Roger says, most drill end plates are affordable.

"Drill end plates are not nearly as popular as planter lids and cast iron seats," he says. "I got into it because I couldn't afford seats. I saw one of those go for $7,000. The highest price I've seen a drill end go for was $320, and that was completely inflated: there were two people bidding on what was probably a $75 drill end."

The average, he says, is closer to $15 or $20.

"I got a pair for $5 at a flea market recently," he says.

Novice collectors, he says, should steer clear of plates that are cracked or broken.

"As far as the collector is concerned," he says, "that's a no-no, unless it's an extremely rare piece."

Most collectors today prefer the matched pair to a single piece.

"When I started collecting, I bought singles. If I had a pair, and it was a mirror image, I would trade," he says. "But now, more than half of all collectors prefer pairs, and I've kind of gone to that, too."

A single plate, he says, raises more questions than it answers.

"You have no idea what's on the other end. Is It blank? Does it have a patent date? Is it a mirror image?"

His collection provides year 'round activity.

"It's just like climbing a mountain to see what's on the other side," he says. "I like to look for ones I don't have, and see new names. I enjoy cleaning them up and, in the winter, I enjoy painting them.

"Some people don't want paint on any of this cast iron," he adds. "But so many of the plates are rusty ... I don't know how else to make them look good."

Roger's collection includes as many as 130 plates that he's sandblasted, under-coated and repainted. He's quick to admit that his efforts have more to do with the painter's whim than original appearance.

"Some of the colors I use probably never even existed on farm machinery," he says. "When you get them, they don't have any paint left on them. You can't tell what the colors were. But the lettering, the numbers and the designs ... when I paint them, they're so pretty."

Drill end plates are part of the decor at the Eshelman home, and occasionally go on the road to shows.

"I've shown them about three times in past six years," he says. "I have a rack that holds 60. When I set it up, it's like an A-frame."

Roger maintains a computer registry of his plates and their parts numbers. He also identifies drill ends, if he has a company name and parts number. For his own collection, he assigns a rating based on a scale of one to ten (ten being the best). A one-of-a-kind piece will earn a rating of 10.5 until another is found.

One of his biggest sources of information is the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association. Members of that group collect seats, but also mower ends, planter ends, tool boxes and more. His collection fits in well in that group. Earlier he collected gas engines, but has sold most of those. He still has some wrenches, a few seats, a few planter ends, and anything unique from the Minneapolis-Moline companies. All of it, he says, is hard to find.

"It's getting pretty thin," he says.

"Some of the junkmen are smart enough to save it." FC 

For more information: Roger Eshelman, 204 Missouri Avenue, College Springs, IA 51637; (712) 582-3338.