A History of Corn: Corn Planters and the Corn Belt's Check-row Revolution
(Page 2 of 3)
Check-row planters put corn fields on the straight-and-narrow
Although corn drilling was a popular planting method in the eastern U.S., Corn Belt farmers, with their much larger farms, needed a machine to plant the seeds in checkered patterns so the corn hills could be cross-cultivated. Eastern farmers planted much smaller amounts of corn, and the weeds could be kept in check by frequent cultivation - as well as hand hoeing. But with the huge acreages of corn in the Midwest, a faster, more efficient method of weed eradication was essential.
Check-row planting allowed for cross-cultivation. That necessity led to many inventions before the Civil War. One of the most successful inventions, described in last month's issue of Farm Collector, was a two-row corn planter that included a separate seat for a second person — usually a young boy — to ride and trip the seed-dropping mechanism each time the planter shoes crossed pre-marked lines.
Other planters were designed so the driver tripped the seed dropper himself, requiring only one person instead of two. I read about one farmer who didn't want to pre-mark his fields with a row marker, so he tied a rag on the planter wheel. Every time the rag hit the ground, he tripped the planter and dropped a hill of seeds. The rag idea went further when someone stretched a knotted cord across the field and then manually dropped the seeds each time a knot appeared, thus eliminating the need for a pre-marked field.
At first, the knots only signaled the operator to manually drop the seeds. By 1860, the knots in the rope were used to mechanically trip the seed droppers, allowing the operator to concentrate on driving in a straight line. Unfortunately, rope stretched when dry, and shrank when wet. It also broke easily, and the knots wore rapidly with repeated use. Thus, the knotted rope wasn't a perfect technique.
Literally hundreds of patents were issued during the last half of the 19th century for check row planter mechanisms, check-lines and the knots or buttons that tripped the planter. Eventually, cord or rope, or chain and jointed rods were abandoned in favor of heavy-knotted wire, which became a Corn Belt standard by the 1870s.
There was a price to be paid for those neat, checkerboard-like corn fields, since check-row planting required more time than drill planting. First, the wire was stretched across the field and staked. Then, at the end of each row — after the planter was turned and put in position for the return trip across the field — the wire was removed from the stake, thrown over to a new position, staked behind the planter and replaced into the check head. Finally, the check wire was gathered up after the field was finished (click here to see a related article about check-wire planters).