Rebirth of the Little Farmer Hand-Push Cultivator

Early hand-push cultivators battled weeds in farmstead garden plots.

cultivator

Cleats on the large powered front wheel adequately propel the implement in every condition.

Photo by Clell G. Ballard

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At one time, the garden plot was a common feature of almost every family farm. After all, most small agricultural enterprises were self-supporting, meaning that the family’s needs were met with homegrown produce.

Today it seems that if a young person wants to start farming he or she goes to a financial institution and borrows a lot of money. If the land purchased with that loan doesn’t already have living accommodations, a large, impressive house is promptly built.

In the early days, just the opposite was true. If money was borrowed, all early activity was directed at getting some kind of crop into the ground with hopes of reaping some kind of profit. Housing may have started in a tent; slowly some type of more permanent structure was built. Most definitely the early homes were about as basic as they could be.

The first thing planted was a garden, sometimes followed in subsequent years by an orchard. A small plot of land was tilled so garden plants could be started. How those plots were created varied by location and individual, but the simplest (and most energy intensive) was spading the soil with a shovel. If a horse and “foot-burner” plow were available, that could be used to break up the ground. No matter what method was used, a garden plot was job number one.

Hand-push cultivator replaces the hoe

After the ground had been prepared, garden seeds were planted. How and when they were watered varied by location. However, when the seeds sprouted and began to grow, they had to compete with all types of weeds. From that time on, the gardener had a difficult time keeping the weeds down so the vegetables could mature. That basically meant long, tiring hours with a hoe.

Hoeing was such a universal experience that our language incorporated a phrase that expressed the sense of having a hard time accomplishing something. When something wasn’t working, the statement, “it is as dull as a hoe” conveyed the lack of adequate resources.

Any improvement over manual hoeing was a boon to gardening. The development of a hand-push cultivator was an important one. The standard one consisted of a wooden framework that extended to the height of the operator’s waist and encompassed a large, thin-rimmed wheel at the front. Both the framework and wheel were purposely made as light as possible, because a digger of some kind was attached behind the wheel to stir the garden soil. Breaking up the soil surface was difficult enough without wrestling a heavy implement.

By stirring the soil, some weed seeds were kept from germinating and those that had already done so were dislodged so their roots were destroyed and they died. Apparently almost every family farm eventually had such a cultivator since this author has seen dozens of old wooden ones at farm auctions. At this late date, almost none were what one would call “decent.” Decades had passed since they had been used and cared for. In fact, I can never remember seeing one auctioned off individually. They were always lumped together with a bunch of other unwanted items that the auctioneer was lucky to get a dollar for.

Even today, people who still rely on garden produce to feed a family face the same problems our pioneer ancestors did. Plant a garden and before you know it, weeds are well established, robbing the vegetables of water and nutrients. The idea of using a cultivator to keep the weeds at bay is still a good one.

Birth of the gas-powered tiller

In the late 1960s, this author purchased a brand-new hand-pushed garden cultivator from the Montgomery Ward & Co. (we commonly called it “Monkey Ward”) catalog. It cost $42 (roughly $299 today) plus postage, a sizable sum at the time. Unlike the old-time cultivators, this one was made of light aluminum tubing supporting the front wheel and the attachment point where the various types of diggers bolt on. It works the same and has done yeoman duty for several decades.

Of course now it, too, is as archaic as the old wooden ones found at auctions. The gasoline-powered tillers that followed make short work of any weed that so much as sticks its head above ground. Since most are so large that they are unwieldy in the average garden, small powered tillers have been developed that are narrow enough to go between garden rows. Interestingly, modern manufacturing has succeeded in making them weigh about the same as the old wooden push cultivators. Gardening is still somewhat labor intensive, but modern conveniences make maintenance easier and faster.

Reviving the Little Farmer

Recently I ran across what might be considered a primitive attempt at easier gardening dating to the 1930s. As the photos show, Will-Burt Co., Orrville, Ohio, produced a gasoline-powered garden cultivator back then. An attempt to discover the history of the unique implement was basically unsuccessful. Even though Will-Burt Co. is still in existence, inquiries about the “Little Farmer” produced almost nothing.

The company representative I dealt with was most cordial and tried to give me some information. However, no company records mentioning the little tiller appear to exist. The only record they could provide was a newspaper article written when the company had an anniversary celebration. An example of the Little Farmer was on display, but there was no mention of it in the article.

The one shown here was found 100 percent complete, lying on its side in tall weeds at an abandoned farmstead. The aged absentee owner gave me permission to salvage it. He remembered it having been purchased secondhand by his father, who used for a number of years. Fortunately, our dry climate meant that during the several decades it was unused but exposed to the weather, it deteriorated very little.

Roaring back to life

The little Briggs & Stratton engine could be turned by hand and almost begged to be tinkered with. From time to time, a few hours were spent checking things out and doing a lot of pulling on the starter rope. A couple of times the engine fired but would not continue to run. That happened enough times that we kept trying.           

Since the electrical impulses for spark plug firing are controlled by a set of ignition points, it finally became necessary to remove the flywheel to check them. Anyone who has attempted a flywheel removal from such an old air-cooled engine knows the difficulty faced. Briggs & Stratton didn’t design the flywheels in such a way that a gear puller can be used. Early in an engine’s existence, they can be pried off without too much trouble. The one we faced had been firmly attached for at least 70 years. There was nothing to do but give prying a try. To our amazement, the flywheel popped right off!

The identification plate attached to the engine gave both the points and spark plug settings. The points were filed and set according to specifications. After reassembly, the engine started right up, to great rejoicing on our part. Some time was necessary to get the simple carburetor adjusted properly (we didn’t even have to clean it) and once again the Little Farmer was set to go.

A pretty strong operator is necessary to handle the implement between garden rows. And due to the unit’s size, a fairly large garden plot – one where the rows are quite some distance apart – is necessary. The Little Farmer was likely designed for commercial rather than homeowner use. How many were sold and how they figured into garden produce production in the early part of the 20th century may never be known. However, the fact that one still exists in presentable condition is remarkable. FC


A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Daylight Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.