The Great Plow Debate

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Sam MooreSam Moore

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In the February 2003 Farm Collector letters to the editor column, there was a letter from a reader about his grandfather's plow, in which he expressed surprise that the plow was right-handed. There have been many questions about why some horse-drawn moldboard plows, both walking and riding, throw the furrow to the left, while most others throw to the right. The short answer is that it's strictly a matter of preference, custom - and prejudice.

The right-handed plow is well rooted in history. Illustrations which depict English plows from the 17th century show they were all right-handers. Drawings of several wooden plows often used by American pioneers show both right-and left-handed versions.

Two specific early American inventors, Charles Newbold from New Jersey, with his 1797 cast iron plow, and Jethro Wood, a New Yorker who in 1819 designed an improved plow, both favored the right-handed design. In fact, John Deere's famous steel plow was right-handed. Since most plows made in the United States, however, were built by blacksmiths, carpenters and wheelwrights until the 1830s or 1840s, there were many local customs and designs. As a result, some areas of the country used one type to the exclusion of the other.

When implement manufacturers began to build plows, they offered both right and left versions to cater to the demand of farmers in all parts of the country. That practice continued until 1917, when American plow manufacturers announced an agreement to eliminate what they called 'the southpaw plow.' The resolution of the manufacturers, as published in the Jan. 5, 1918 issue of the Rural New Yorker, reads:

'Whereas, it is the belief of those present that left-hand plows are non-essential; therefore, we, the undersigned manufacturers of left-hand plows, hereby agree with each other to discontinue the manufacture of left-hand plows as soon as the present stock of materials is exhausted.'

The agreement excluded hillside plows and left-hand bottoms for two-way plows, as well as replacement parts for existing left-hand plows. Parlin & Orendorff Co., a major plow builder, explained the decision. 'Left-hand plows have been used to the exclusion of right-hand plows in the states of Indiana and Ohio, with some overlapping into eastern Indiana and western Pennsylvania. This defines what might be called the left-hand plow section of the U.S. The present day farmers of this section are using left-hand plows because they were brought up that way, and this goes back for two or three generations.' The article went on to explain that several factors combined to bring about the decision, including the large number of tractor plows, which were all right-handed, being sold to those farmers in Ohio and Indiana. Another concern cited by P&O was the cost of producing both left-and right-hand plows and providing spare parts for them both.

All these early plows threw the furrow to the right.

The top two and the bottom right illustrations are from Land of Plenty, published in 1950 by Farm Equipment of Chicago. The drawing at bottom left is from Jethro Wood, Inventor of the Modern Plow, by Frank Gilbert and published in 1892 by Rhodes & McClure of Chicago.

The editor of Rural New Yorker wrote that, 'The great majority of farmers never saw a left-handed plow, but there will be a few who will protest against this order.' He was right. It wasn't long before the letters poured in. In the Feb. 2, 1918 issue, an angry letter from 'Kentucky Farmer' reads in part: 'What about Kentucky and Tennessee and the other states? I know farm after farm that hasn't any other kind of plow than a left-hand one. They say since they don't make left-hand tractor plows they must stop making left-hand plows. There are thousands of farms that will never use a tractor of any kind. Why take the left-hand plow away from these? Any man that has ever plowed a day knows he can do more plowing and better plowing with a left-hand plow than he can with a right-hand one, simply because his lead horse walks in the furrow, and the plow cuts an even width and depth all the time, whereas with a right-hand plow the lead horse walks on the land and is continually bearing into the furrow, which makes the plow cut less and unevenly. A stoppage of making left-hand plows would work a hardship to many farmers in Kentucky and Tennessee and other states. It looks to me like a ruse of the manufacturers to unload their stock of right-hand plows on the farmers. I hope the factories in Kentucky will continue to make the left-hand walking and riding plow.'

Another letter in the same issue reads: 'I have lived on this farm for over 54 years and we have used only left-hand plows and our plowmen would find the right-hand plow quite awkward. We use only one line, usually a rope one, with a loop at the end which the driver slips over his left hand, the lead horse walking in the furrow, which, if the team is properly geared, making driving much easier. Of course, with the right-hand plow the leader can be put in the furrow, but the driver then would have the line in his right hand, which, to us old men, would be very awkward. Please, Mr. Plow-maker, let us old fellows pass away before our old friend, the left-hand plow. Wm. R. Duke, Virginia.'

Two weeks later, an Ohio farmer told his fellow left-handed plowmen not to worry. 'It is their (the manufacturer's) privilege to make any kind of plow they see fit, likewise it is our privilege to buy the kind of plow that best suits our needs. Remember this, they do not own the universe and they can't force that kind of stuff down my throat, and I think there are a few million more farmers of the same opinion. Let them make all right-handed plows if they dare, but, when they do, let them keep them and then it is our time to get busy and see that some new firm starts making left-hand plows. With a tractor it makes little or no difference whether it is a left-hand or right-hand plow, but with a team of horses it makes all the difference in the world. As long as I plow with a team I shall use a left-hand plow, regardless of what a few manufacturers say.'

Not all farmers objected to the plan. In the same issue, J.B. Wells from Nelson County, Va., wrote in defense of the right-hand plow: 'Now all this question about left- and right-hand plows resolves itself into the particular manner in which the team is harnessed and hitched. The left-handed plowman seems to use but one line, which is attached to the furrow horse. From this furrow horse a connection is made with the off or land horse by means of what is called a barring stick attached to the rings of each bridle bit, which keeps the team together. So, after all, this plowing business is altogether a matter of habit and custom. In Maryland and eastern Virginia where I have farmed, I never saw a left-hand plow. Here in the Virginia Piedmont, farmers generally are using left-hand plows. If I must use one here in order to be fashionable, I shall have to learn how.

'The point I wish to make is this: The right-hand plow will do just as good work as the left-hand plow if the team is properly harnessed and hitched and the plowman knows his business. Put a pair of double-harness driving lines (leather or rope) on your team, then pass those lines over your right shoulder and around your back and under your left arm. With a team thus properly harnessed and hitched to a plow a good job of plowing ought to be done, no matter whether it be a left- or right-hand plow.'

Apparently, the uproar from the left-hand plow users was loud enough, and the demand for such plows was strong enough that the agreement was quietly scrapped. Plow manufacturers, including Parlin & Orendorff, continued to offer both right- and left-hand walking and riding plows into the 1940s. Even today, a demand exists for both right- and left-hand plows. The leading manufacturer of modern horse-drawn plows, Pioneer Equipment Inc., of Dalton, Ohio, offers walking and sulky plows in both versions. The president of Pioneer Equipment, Wayne Wengerd, doesn't know why some farmers prefer one to the other, but they do - and he supplies 'em.

- Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now, he lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors and implements and related items.