The Character of Corn Planter Lids

Cast Iron planter lids kept moisture and insects out from getting into the seed corn, and also served as a convenient place for companies to advertise their names.

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This ad shows clearly the seed boxes where the planter lids would have been placed. They are directly above the blades. Note also that this is a two-person model. One person would sit in the back and handle the horses, the other would sit on the front seat and drop the seeds by lever. The front, round seats are rare, partly because few two-person plows were manufactured after check-row planters became the fashion. This advertisement was provided by Martin Wilkerson, who co-authored the guide book Value Guide of Collectible Planter Lids and Markers.

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There's something kind of sad about modern technology. Sure, most every aspect of farming seems to have been improved upon by computerization, mechanization and new fertilizers and pesticides, but there's something lacking in the somewhat coldly mechanically-enhanced agricultural new world order.

In a word, it's character that's lacking. Not the character of the life or of farmers who choose to live it, but the special character which made vintage farm equipment both useful and, often, quite charming.

There is, perhaps, no way to better exemplify this loss than to take a look at cast iron corn planter lids. Collectors seem to be rediscovering the charm and style inherent to these items daily. They have become a way for collectors to  maintain their connection to the rural life past without needing to maintain space for less wieldy collectibles, such as implements and tractors.

One of the more appealing aspects of the lids is that charm was never a requirement for the task they performed. The lids were used just as that, lids for the boxes on planters in which corn was stored. As a corn planter was pulled through a field by a team of horses, one person would sit on a forward planter seat and pull levers to drop seeds into the trough being sliced by the planter's blades. Later, check-row planters, operated by wires with regularly spaced tines —which triggered the seeds' dropping — made the lever-operator position unnecessary.

The lids on the planters remained quite necessary, however, keeping insects and moisture from mingling with the seed. There was never a need, however, for anything even approaching charisma in order for planter lids to do their job.

Yet, when implement manufacturers quit using wooden planter lids and switched to cast iron in the 1860s, they realized that the manufacturing technique of using molds to make their iron lids would allow them to use lids not only for their basic purpose, but, also to use them as advertising. Another benefit was that the somewhat utilitarian corn planter could be spruced up, made a more attractive device by making the planter lids something special.

Cast iron lids were not used long, in relative terms. By the early 1900s, companies had begun phasing them out in favor of stamped steel lids. But, nearly a hundred years since their discontinuance, cast iron planter lids have become a hot item for collectors.

Eagle Rock, Mo., collector John McNamara caught the fever for planter lids a little less than 20 years ago. At an auction near Cresco, Iowa, in 1982, John bought a C.B.&Q. planter, just to scavenge its seat and wheels. "The lids looked kind of neat, so I cleaned and painted them," he remembers. "I was hooked on planter lids. They are lighter to handle and easier to display than the seats and other planter items."

Since that seminal purchase, John has amassed a collection of about 300 planter lids. He has hunted them down through half of the United States and gathered the rest from foreign countries. He says that he's missing only eight or nine of the known cast iron lids, and has some that are rare enough that they weren't listed in a recent reference book. (He also has all of the tin lids made. Only 30 are known to have been manufactured.)

John says the ideal place to track down planter lids is at an auction, although they infrequently appear at flea markets and larger farm machinery shows.

But it's not a hobby in which a newcomer can build a collection quickly. "Lids are relatively scarce and difficult to find or buy at any price," John notes. "I've only found two lids in the past year, after traveling quite a bit. But don't give up. Like anything else, there're always more out there."

Once they are found, prices can be all over the map, from $10-$400 and up. The hobby, it seems, lacks a specific collectors' organization to help stabilize prices, although many members of both the Corn Item Collectors Club and the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association also collect planter lids (see an article about cast iron seats in this issue). There's another reason that collectors say prices are kind of hard to come by — collectors don't seem to want prices to draw 'antique tourists' into their hobby. "Prices are closely held, being somewhat of trade secret," John says, "but I assure any lid in good condition doesn't often sell cheaply."

Some of the cast iron lids John needs to fill out his collection include the Tip Top, Hayes Eclipes (yes, spelled like that), Chieftain, Galt Rotary and only a few others. He is pretty happy with many of his acquisitions, however. "I have a True, which is really an oddball," he explains, "since it's a throwback to the Gerber baby food company. It was made by them for the True corn planter, which spun off from the company later."

Some of the more decorative lids John has include the Bullseye and the Deere and Mansur Bignose. The rare ones are the Hapgood, Common Sense, A.C. Evans, Sunflower and Monmouth.

"The Ladd lid I have I know nothing about, and these are very rare," John says. "My Davenport wireless is also scarce because few were made. The Davenport planter wasn't a check-wire design, while most of the planters in the late 1800s used knotted wire when planting."

John's oldest lids are 1873 A.C. Evans. There are even small lids from one-row garden planters.

Many collectors prefer to leave their lids as they find them, but John likes his to look nice. When preparing his planter lids for display, John usually sandblasts them, applies a couple of coats of primer, then two or three coats of enamel. "My sister-in-law Doloris Buchheit from St. Lucas, Iowa, painted the three wooden lids with farm scenes."

So, while it's not a hobby into which newcomers can wander easily, many new collectors are picking up the habit. John jokingly offers some advice to those new to the hobby: "My advice to beginners is to stay away from auctions that I attend." FC 

The photos of planter lids in this article were supplied by Olan Bentley and are from his collection.