In the November 2008 issue of Farm Collector David Dewey, Kersey, Colo., wrote a letter to the editor inquiring how check-row corn planters worked. Jim Boblenz had a good account of early hand-check planters in the December 2006 issue of Farm Collector in which he hit briefly on wire-check machines.
Check-rowing was a method of planting where each hill of two, three or four seeds was exactly the same distance from adjoining hills.
A field of check-row-planted corn had the appearance of a checkerboard, with a hill of corn stalks at the exact intersection of each line. That made it possible to cultivate the rows in several directions and made it much easier to keep a field free of weeds.
Highly labor-intensive technique
With the advent of chemical weed control, check-rowed corn fell out of favor and is rarely seen today. A 1944 study revealed that approximately 50 percent of the time it took to plant a field with short, 20-rod rows was taken up in handling check wire and stakes. Even with long rows of 160 rods, 10 to 20 percent of planting time was consumed by laying out, moving and picking up wire. Mechanical corn harvesters also worked much better when cornstalks were stretched out singly in rows rather than clumped in hills.
Check wire usually came in 80-rod (or quarter-mile) lengths, because that was the common length of a typical 40-acre field in the corn belt. Buttons were spaced along the wire at varying distances depending on the desired row spacing. Typically, 42-inch-row spacing was used, although wire was available for other spacing. Check wire had to be capable of being broken at the edge of a field, or passing around a tree or other obstruction in the field, so a special button was placed at about every 5 rods, enabling easy breaks and reconnection. In operation, check wire was stretched across the field and anchored to a stake at each end. Over the years, hundreds of patents were filed for different types of buttons and knots as inventors searched for the cheapest, most efficient and reliable style.
Technology brings enhancements
Check-row planters went through a long period of evolution along with planter wire. Later versions of a typical 2-row planter had a seed can for each row, with a revolving seed plate in the bottom of each. A series of notches around the seed plate’s circumference picked up and counted the desired number of seeds per hill. Each notch picked up only one seed, but it moved far enough between checks to drop the desired number of seeds into the tube.
The distance moved by the plate between drops was usually controlled by a foot lever that had positions for dropping two, three or four seeds per hill, depending on soil fertility. That group of seeds fell onto a valve at the top of the seed tube, while a second valve at the bottom of the seed tube worked in conjunction with the upper valve. Both valves momentarily opened each time a button in the check wire tripped the mechanism. The group of seeds on the bottom valve was deposited directly into the furrow, while the group above began its journey down the tube where it was caught by the now-closed bottom valve to await the next check-wire trip.
Button tripped the mechanism
At each side of the planter was a check head consisting of two pairs of rollers and a check fork. The rollers held and guided the check wire as it slid through the check fork. Each time a wire button reached the fork, it caught and forced the fork to the rear before sliding past the fork’s open end, which then returned to its upright position. Each time the fork was moved to the rear by a button, it opened the upper and lower valves in both seed tubes. At that time, seeds on the lower valves dropped into the furrow, seeds on the upper valves began their drop toward the lower valves, and the seed plates measured out the proper number of kernels onto the upper valves.
The valves could be locked open, allowing the planter to be used as a drill, planting a row of seeds at regular intervals as spaced by the seed plate and the variable drive gears, with no check wire required.
Some planters carried the check-wire reel under the seat at the center of the machine. Others used a side reel that could be mounted on either side of the planter. Center-mount reels were usually chain-driven from the main axle and had a friction clutch allowing tension adjustment. In addition, there was usually an oscillating wire guide to distribute the wire evenly on the reel while it was being picked up. Side-mount reels were driven by friction from the planter wheel and had a tensioning device for unwinding. Side reels were larger diameter and narrower than their rear-mount counterparts and required no oscillating guide. Side-mount reels were removed while planting; center-mount reels were usually left in place.
A poorly checked field can’t be hidden. From the time corn plants break through the ground until late June, the field is a public demonstration of how much care was taken in laying out wire and adjusting the planter. Therefore, most farmers took great care in planting corn, or they were sure to hear about it from their neighbors at the general store or at church on Sunday morning.
For more about the technique, read “Trying Your Hand at Check-Row Planting?”
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at