Sulky vs. Gang: Different Plows, Different Chores
Let's Talk Rusty Iron
The New Deere light-draft gang plow's land wheel.
Courtesy Deere & Co. archives
Someone recently asked about the difference between a sulky and a gang plow, which isn’t an unreasonable question. With so many plow designs made by literally dozens of manufacturers throughout the years, it’s easy to be confused. So listen up, students, here’s the skinny on sulky and gang plows.
The number of plowshares distinguishes a sulky plow from a gang plow. Any single-bottom riding plow is called a sulky plow. Two-way riding plows with only one bottom in use at a time are also known as sulky plows. Riding or walking plows with two or more bottoms are called gang plows.
Evolution of the sulky plow
The progression from sulky plows to gang plows took hundreds of years. Old engravings show that Europeans used wheeled plows as far back as the Middle Ages. However, the plows required the plowman to walk behind the device and to control it with one or two handles. Until the middle of the 19th century, American farmers relied on the ol’ tried-and-true walking plow. American-made, two-horse walking plows had either a 10- or a 12-inch bottom, while a 14-inch plow was standard for a three-horse team.
By the 1840s, ingenuity led to the addition of wheels and a seat so the plowman could ride the plow, but most farmers considered the plow itself a large-enough load for the horses. A riding plow was also more expensive than a walker, and many farmers felt they couldn’t afford to take the “lazy man’s way” and buy a riding plow. Yet, when settlers moved west and encountered vast expanses of unfilled land on the Great Plains, the old single-bottom walking plow seemed woefully inadequate.
During the 1860s, several inventors patented wheeled riding plows. The huge farms of Minnesota and the Dakotas were desperate for something better than a one-bottom walking plow and were quick to adopt 14- and 16-inch riding sulky plows, often having dozens of them in the field at the same time.
More bottoms make a gang plow
Probably during the 1870s, additional bottoms were added to riding plows, which were then called gang plows.
While gang plows may have as many as four bottoms, the two- and three-bottom versions were the most popular. Not all gang plows were ridden, however. Some required the operator to walk behind the plow, especially the lightweight walking plows with multiple 8-inch bottoms, which were popular in orchards and vineyards.
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