Flying Dutchman Line from Moline Plow

From sulky plows to corn planters, the Moline Plow Co. line of products was a hit in the marketplace.

Flying Dutchman walking plow

The Flying Dutchman walking plow.

Illustration courtesy George Wanamaker

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In maritime tradition, the Flying Dutchman is a notorious ghost vessel, doomed to sail the seas forever. In the world of antique farm equipment, however, Moline Plow Co.’s Flying Dutchman line of products enjoyed fame from coast to coast before being rendered obsolete by the march of progress.

Moline Plow Co. traces its roots to the 1850s, when Henry W. Candee, Robert K. Swan and several others formed a partnership — Candee, Swan & Co. — in Moline, Ill., to build and sell fanning mills and hay racks. Soon after, Andrew Friburg — formerly a shop foreman at John Deere — joined the partnership and the fledgling company began to manufacture plows.

Stillman W. Wheelock, owner of Moline Paper Mill, joined the firm as a partner in 1868, contributing $75,000 of capital. By then building what it promoted as the “Moline plow,” the company was renamed Moline Plow Co. and incorporated in 1870 with capitalization of $400,000.

That name, and the company’s efforts to represent itself in ways strikingly similar to those employed by John Deere, had already prompted legal action. John Deere filed suit for trademark infringement in 1867. Deere, until then the only manufacturer building plows in Moline, called its product “the Moline Plow.” When Candee, Swan & Co. changed its name to Moline Plow Co., and adopted a logo very similar in appearance to that used by John Deere, the latter sued. The Illinois Supreme Court eventually ruled (in 1871) against Deere’s claim of infringement, and Moline Plow Co. was free to proceed under its new moniker.

Marketplace innovation

Moline Plow released its Flying Dutchman sulky plow in 1884. The name, speculates author C.H. Wendel in American Farm Implements & Antiques, may have been intended to sound a familiar note among Midwestern farmers, many of whom immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and northern Europe.

Whatever the intention, the Flying Dutchman eventually led to new designs in sulky plows all over the world. The new product changed the concept of a sulky plow from one with two wheels to one with three wheels. It also transformed Moline Plow into a leading manufacturer of farm equipment.

Two years later, in 1886, Moline Plow entered the corn planter manufacturing business with the introduction of the Moline Champion corn planter. As innovative as the Flying Dutchman sulky, the new planter was a hit in the marketplace. In a very short time Moline Plow became the leading U.S. manufacturer of corn planters.

Soft-centered steel

Moline Plow went on to pioneer a third innovation, one enhancing the farm plow. In that era, plowshares were made of either soft steel or hardened steel. Soft steel was less likely to break in use as it had the ability to flex and absorb twists and shocks. However, it required more frequent sharpening. Shares made of hardened steel wore longer, but shocks and twists resulted in frequent breakage.

Moline’s innovation featured steel that was hardened on both sides to a depth of one-third of the thickness, but which retained a soft center. The steel flexed when needed and held a sharp edge much longer. It also had another big advantage: It could be tempered by simply heating to cherry red and quenching until cool. This was a much easier and more satisfactory method of tempering than that used on other companies’ hardened shares.

In 1911, Moline Plow bought Acme Steel Co. Acme had patented a process to make soft-center hardened steel. The process required special furnaces, which Acme had also patented. Moline Plow won an exclusive: No other company’s plowshares used the new steel until the 1920s.

Industry leader 

George Stephens became the company’s third president in 1892, signaling a period of growth and innovation. Shortly after taking over, Stephens changed the method by which the company’s sales were handled. Until that time, the sales function was handled by traveling salesmen and jobbers. Under Stephens’ direction, a branch house system was implemented. Eventually 14 branch houses were established. Kansas City, Kan., was first, followed by Indianapolis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Minneapolis, Denver, Sioux Falls, Iowa; Stockton, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; and Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. All but the Portland branch were owned and controlled by Moline Plow.

Moline Plow soon accessed foreign markets, entering into an agreement with International Harvester, which was launching into business in Siberia. At home, the company expanded its product line. In 1906, Moline Plow bought Henney Buggy Co., Freeport, Ill., and Mandt Wagon Works., Stoughton, Wis. In addition to its own line of products, Moline Plow also sold other companies’ wagons, grain drills, seeders, feed mills and implements.

From 1916 to 1924, Moline Plow manufactured Stephens automobiles, named for the company’s third president. During the same period, the company also built the Moline Universal Tractor, having bought rights to produce Universal Tractor Co.’s motor cultivator in 1915. Moline manufactured and sold tractors until the agricultural depression of the early 1920s. The company discontinued tractor production in 1923.

Changing its name to Moline Implement Co. in 1924, the company began to retrench with manufacture of farm implements. Eventually, in 1929, Moline Implement Co., Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. and Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. merged to form Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Co. That company was bought by White Motor Co. in 1963.

Vast product line

With the end of World War I, business boomed in a hungry world. Moline Plow was a market leader in production of agricultural equipment. In 1919, the company released Catalog No. 47. Sprawling over 236 pages, the catalog offered every conceivable plow share, walking plow, sulky plow, gang plow, harrow, planter, stalk cutter, cultivator, drill, hay loader and wagon, in addition to a limited selection of products built by other manufacturers, including Adriance harvesting machinery and mowers, McDonald Bros. Pitless Scales and Freeport vehicles, buggies and business wagons.

Flying Dutchman sulky plows were offered in two grades: Good Enough and Best Ever. The Flying Dutchman had particularly light draft because, by design, the front and rear wheels ran straight, true and under control. The plow was said to run as straight as a wagon. It also had a self-leveling foot-lift that lifted and leveled the entire frame, from in the ground to full height, in one smooth motion.

The innovative Flying Dutchman corn planter offered four drop methods: edge drop, flat drop, variable drop and drill. Edge drop was more accurate but costly. It required that the corn be graded and all tip and butt kernels be eliminated. The flat drop method used all types and shapes of corn kernels. The variable drop method used a clutch mechanism to admit two, three or four grains. The kernels were in the drop chamber in 29 inches of ground wheel travel (when check wire was used, the spacing of the buttons was 36 or more inches, thus the full number of seeds was always chambered for the drop). The drill method dropped seeds directly into the seed shank. Depending on the plate used, it spaced the drops at 7-, 9-, 11-, 14-, 18- or 22-inch intervals.

Monitor drills were advertised to use one-fifth less seed because the seed was deposited in two rows, at an even depth, by each pair of discs. No seed was left on the surface for birds and none was insufficiently covered, left to start early and wither in the hot sun. Yields were claimed to increase by three to seven bushels per acre.

The rotary disc plow, another interesting plow shown in the catalog, was available with one, two, three or four 26-inch discs. This plow was of use when plowing very hard ground that a moldboard plow could not break. The frame was designed to have maximum weight transfer, including driver weight, to the blades. There were also provisions for the addition of racks to carry sand and/or stones to add weight.

Cutting-edge technology

The Flying Dutchman hay loader was another advanced implement offered in 1919. Using the loader, one man with one team of two horses could load hay on a rack for transport to the barn. There were no adjustments, chains, gears, sprockets or webs. Raking was done parallel to the ground, something no other loader of the period did. It was constructed entirely of steel, making it light and strong.

The Flying Dutchman spreader’s frame was made of steel, enabling it to carry a load of 4,500 pounds. The wagon box was built low to the ground (41 inches) to facilitate easy loading and had a 4-inch slope to the rear, to aid the apron in moving manure to the back. Lighter draft was accomplished by using a shorter wheelbase with all four wheels under the wagon body. That also put the weight of the load over the rear wheels, increasing traction to turn the beater when spreading. The beater was driven directly off a large sprocket on the rear axle. The apron was also driven directly from the rear axle and not from the beater, as other spreaders did.

Mandt wagons, wholly owned by Moline Plow, were advertised as the best on the market. Mandt’s steel axles were said to be one-sixth stronger than wooden axles on other wagons. Cast hubs on the axle ends increased the bearing surface and made them much easier-running. The hubs had a sand-and-dust cover that kept grit out and reduced wear. The bolsters were clear oak and hickory with steel stakes, much stronger than the mortised wood on other wagons. Finally, the gears were clipped instead of bolted and were held in place by steel dowels. FC


George Wanamaker is a past president of the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. He started collecting carpenter’s tools in the mid-1970s. Since then he’s also become a collector of farm and kitchen tools and anything old and unusual. Contact him at george.wanamaker@gmail.com.