Homegrown cultivators marked by farmer ingenuity
Early-day California oil field history tells that when drillers reached the approximate depth of an oil or gas formation, they cleared the hole of tools and cables. Next, they lowered a package of nitroglycrerin to the bottom on a twine. Last, they dropped a heavy object down the hole and ran for cover. This impact set off the explosives and, it was hoped, fractured the formation and allowed for the product to seep into the hole for recovery. The heavy object was called a "go-devil." In Texas oil field history, the same heavy object was referred to as a "torpedo."
The only other go-devils I have seen are homemade crop cultivators resembling a sled with heavy wooden runners. I have found one manufactured go-devil. Made by the P&O Plow Co., it was called a no. 18 lister cultivator. Old-time farmers tell me local blacksmiths often made the complex parts, and the builder furnished the rest, constructing the device himself. I would guess this is true, as I have seen very few go-devils of similar construction. Most units have been patched, mutated, wired together, added to, spliced, repaired and changed so many times they barely resemble the original model.
The sled runners measured 2 inches by 8 inches by 60 inches, and stood on edge some 8 inches apart. Most builders attached strap iron or buggy tires to the bottom edge for wear prevention. Angle iron cross-pieces kept the runners in stable position. Heavy knives some 3 feet long and 4 inches wide were attached to each outer side of the runners at a 45-degree angle in a swept-back position.
A 1-square-inch tool bar was bolted to the rear of the runners for attaching plow points, sweeps or gang-type discs. A frame above held the operator's seat, a lever for lifting the plows and a place where the operator could brace his feet. To lift the plows when making a turn at the end of a row, pull the lever back; to lower the plows into the soil, push the lever forward.
The growing crop slid between the runners and under the operator's position. Small fenders on each side leveled the lister ridge tops so that the big knives on each side traveled smoothly beneath the lister ridges slicing the weed roots. The plows at the rear killed weeds close to the crop, and the disc gangs pushed loose dirt in against the plants, helping stabilize the roots and protect against moisture loss.
Since the sled runners followed the lister furrow continuously, and most teams of horses or mules learned the routine quickly, there was little for the operator to do except pull or push the handle at the ends of rows. As a result, this was usually the first job most farm youngsters learned. It was dirty and hot work, but a lot easier than chopping weeds with a garden hoe.
Wise old teams knew to walk the ridges, turn slowly at the end and pick another row to plow. Most operators kept 4-foot-long sticks in hand in case goat-head vines caught on the big knives. He just jabbed the stick into the dirt ahead of the knife and the wheels would ride to the end and drop off. If the land turned sandy, he merely adjusted the hanging fender to hold back the loose dirt. Why this device was called a go-devil, however, remains a mystery.
- Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: email@example.com