Check-Row Planter Ended Era of Hand-Sowing Crops

Implement that led the way to farm mechanization now collectible antique farm equipment

Promotional materials from Haworth & Sons, Decatur, Ill.

Promotional materials from Haworth & Sons, Decatur, Ill.

Courtesy of Junior L. McBride

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As recently as 150 years ago, crops were hand-sown.

It’s an image almost incomprehensible today: A farmer walking a plowed field, planting corn (or cotton, or potatoes, or other crops) by making seed holes with hoes, “dibble sticks,” or simple drop devices, then manually covering and tamping each hole.

By the early 1800s, though, mechanization became inevitable. Development of hand-pushed planters, then the horse-drawn drill-planter, and finally, the check-row planter, moved agriculture into a new era.

Check-row planter rise in popularity

The earliest mention of check-row planting found in patent reports occurred in the 1840s, say Jim Goedert and Larry Greer in their book, Planter Wire: A Patent History and Collector’s Catalog. The check-row planter got under way in earnest in 1857, when Martin Robbins, a Hamilton, Ohio, farmer, was granted the first known check-row planter patent.

By the turn of the century, the implement was widely used. A corn report in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1903 Yearbook noted that “perhaps more corn is now planted by means of a check-rower than by any other device.”

Goedert and Greer report that the last patent evidence found of check-line use was issued in 1939 to C.K. Shedd, Ames, Iowa, for a 4-row planter. As late as 1952, the International Harvester Co. was still making the McCormick No. 240 2-row check-row planter.

Check-row planter collectibles

Early planters are difficult to find intact, except in some museums. But related items are available and avidly sought by collectors. Plus, lots of planter literature, drawings and photographs – collectibles in themselves – are also available. Paper items include patent descriptions and illustrations, advertising materials and educational articles and booklets.

Popular planter items include planter plates, seedbox lids and wrenches. Check-planters have their own related collectible items, including check-line rope and wire, anchors, reels, tighteners and planter parts.

Benefits of check-row planting

Check-planter planting systems were designed to place hills of corn in checkerboard fashion, each about the same distance from its immediate neighbor. Thus a field could be cultivated first in the direction it was planted, later cultivated 90 degrees the other way, and finally, laid-by in the original direction. This was very effective for weed control, especially for tough ones like cockle-bur.

Meanwhile, the usual objective of three corn plants per hill resulted in yields comparable to those achieved when using drills. A 1903 USDA report says hill dropping benefits were mostly due to cleaner cultivation, but drilled rows provided a more equal distribution of roots.

Remembering check-row planting

While it’s difficult to find farmers who’ve actually check-planted, collectors and restorers congregate at antique farm shows. Many retired farmers remember seeing the planters in action. Chester Larson, Griswold, Iowa, is one of them.

“Seed drop was activated by buttons on a wire passing through the planter, so they had to anchor the wire, then tighten or pull it straight for each row,” he recalls. “The buttons caused a check-fork (on a ‘doffer rod’) on the planter plates to turn them to let out the corn, and the tension on the trip wire was critical. Also, kinks in the wire, or a weak rocker-shaft spring, could result in seed being scattered between the hills.

“They usually had a planter marker which they threw out when beginning a new row,” Chester adds. “That helped increase the accuracy of the checked planting. The planter plates had differences in design to accommodate for seed size and number of seeds dropped per hill. For example, they might have used plates to drop four kernels per hill, with a target of three growing plants. Or, three kernels, using very high germinating corn which was tested beforehand.”

Tripping device: The check-line and check-line knot

Goedert and Greer write that the knot or tripping device on a section of check-line is the object most collectors seek. Check-lines can be mounted on small boards or cut-out sticks for display such as that used by barbed wire collectors. About 200 knot designs are available to the collector.

The knot on the check-line is an obstruction that caused a trip-lever to activate the seed drop mechanism. Sometimes a spoked, rimless wheel was used instead of a lever, with the knot engaging the spoke end to make the wheel rotate, in turn activating the seed drop. In both designs, the planter slipped past the knot, and the lever or spoke was readied for the next knot.

Many types of knots were designed, including some which served as line connectors, throw-offs to drop or disengage the check-line from the planter when turning around, and to act as visual indicators for hand activating the seed dropper, or for hand planting.

Check-line was made of single and multiple wire, cord (often with a small wire core), rope, chain and strip. Some check-lines were continuous, while others were chain-like. A single knot on the check-line, centered in an 18-inch length, is the standard specimen length. That length was chosen to prove patent features, so be careful not to cut longer lengths down too much.

Check-row planters: What people collect

Recent values for check-lines have ranged from $1 for common specimens to $50 for very rare designs.

Cast iron planter lids or covers are also very collectible, especially when marked with the manufacturer’s name or logo. Like wrenches, they can be highlighted with careful painting, but some collectors just clean them up, leaving them in mostly “as found” condition.

Check-line planter reels, often made of wood, are rare and expensive (if found mostly intact). For example, one with original paint and rope line can fetch amounts in the low to mid three-figure range.

Planter-item descriptive and price reports are available in farm antique guides published by major companies. FC 

For more information:Planter Wire: A Patent History and Collector’s Catalog, a comprehensive guide for check-row planting, check-lines and other planter items by Jim Goedert and Larry Greer, is available through Larry Greer, 182 N. Green Trails Dr., Chesterfield, MO 63017-2552.The Bang Board, a newsletter published by the Corn Items Assn., in care of E. Eloise Alton, editor, 613 Long St., Shelbyville, IL 62565. 

Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.