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The Tongue Truck, or Kids Sometimes Misunderstand

by Sam Moore


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An acquaintance named Melvin once told me of an experience he had as a young boy on his father’s farm. The father had been an active farmer until being badly enough injured in an accident that he gave up farming and went into a business where he needed a truck. He bought a used, early 1940s Ford one-ton pickup that the family always referred to as “the ton truck.”

 1940 Ford One-Ton truck 
1940 Ford One-Ton truck. From a Ford ad in the Jan. 1940 Farm Journal, from the author's collection. 

The father then advertised the no longer needed farm machinery, which included a grain binder, for sale. One day a farmer came to look at the grain binder, which led to Melvin’s embarrassing moment. Melvin’s father wasn’t home but the boy, feeling quite important, undertook to show the machine to the prospective buyer. After a careful examination of the binder and a lot of questions, which Melvin endeavored to answer, the farmer asked, “Do you have a tongue truck?”

Melvin had never heard of a tongue truck and heard the question as, “Do you have a ton truck?” “Yes!” He answered and proudly led the way to a shed where he pointed to the Ford. After a good bit of confusion on both sides, it was revealed that there was no tongue truck for the machine and the disappointed buyer left empty handed.

For those of you who, like Melvin, aren’t familiar with tongue trucks, here’s an explanation.

Tongue trucks were often used, not only with horse-drawn mowers and grain binders, but with disk harrows, corn planters, corn binders, potato diggers and even dump rakes. Most two-wheeled, horse-drawn machines are designed with the seat sticking out behind the axle, thus allowing the operator’s weight to help offset the weight of the implement on the horse’s shoulders. Tongue trucks are used to lessen this weight on the horses, but they have other important benefits as well.

A Deering grain binder equipped with a tongue truck 
A Deering grain binder equipped with a tongue truck. From the 1928 IHC General Catalog, from the author's collection. 

Many of these implements require a specific and constant position in relation to the ground in order to do their best work. Once the machine is adjusted properly, a tongue truck that supports the front of the machine maintains this critical operating position without regard to the natural movement of the team. A tongue truck also eliminates the variations in implement operating position caused by different sized teams, while the length of the traces, as well as the adjustment of the breast straps, can best be made to suit the load, without worrying about any effect on the implement’s optimum operating position.

On some implements with stiff poles, particularly those with considerable side draft, such as corn and grain binders and mowing machines, the use of a tongue truck eliminates the sore shoulders caused by the whipping of the tongue against the horses.

A tongue on a disc harrow makes disking very hard on the horses, due to the twisting and bucking of the implement which whips the pole against the team almost constantly. For this reason, disc harrows can be equipped with a tongue truck, thus relieving the team of neck weight and any side draft, as well as eliminating the necessity for the team to pry the disc around when turning.  On a disc harrow, a front truck is often used without a tongue. In this case, the evener is attached to a clevis that steers the truck wheels. However, a tongue attached to the truck gives the team much more leverage for turning the disk at the corners.

As can be seen from the illustrations, the tongue truck is bolted to a stub tongue so it supports the front of the implement. The pole is then attached to the truck in such a manner that it steers the wheels and guides the implement as the team turns. The eveners usually are attached directly to the truck itself, and the pole is used only to steer the device.

 John Deere No. 999 corn planter with a single dolly wheel tongue truck 
The John Deere No. 999 corn planter with a single dolly wheel tongue truck. From the 1941 John Deere General Catalog, from the author's collection.

The truck usually consists of two 15 to 20-inch, steel wheels set fairly close together on a flexible frame that allows the wheels and axle to pivot horizontally as well as to swivel to the right or left. The horizontal pivot feature allows the truck to follow the ground and keeps the wheels steady and the implement tracking properly.

Some machines, such as the illustrated John Deere No. 999 corn planter, could be furnished with a single wheeled front truck. In this arrangement, the front wheel supports the front of the planter and the tongue is free to move up and down, relieving the horses of weight while assuring the planter stays level for uniform planting depth and check pattern. The wheel is mounted as a caster, allowing it to follow the machine as it is steered by the team.

Kids often hear something else when they hear unfamiliar words. For example, a little girl was caught in the rain and earnestly told her grandmother that her mom said she had been “exposed to the elephants.”

When I was growing up during the 1940s in western Pennsylvania, the main radio station we listened to was KDKA out of Pittsburgh. One of my mother's favorite music programs was called "Treasure Trails of Song." The program was directed by Aneurin Bodycombe, who was the organist at Pittsburgh's First Presbyterian Church.

I heard his name as "An Iron Bodycomb" and I always had a vision of a man combing his chest hair with an iron comb. It was several years before I realized that Mr. Bodycombe wasn't standing in the studio grooming his body hair with a heavy metal comb.

If you have a funny malapropism from one of your kids, let us know.