Farm Collector Blogs > Looking Back

The History of the Harrow

Sam MooreBack in the day when every farmer worth his salt believed that a well-tilled field was essential to growing a good crop, a harrow was an essential implement. First the ground would be plowed, and then the turned furrows were worked down with a couple of passes with a disc harrow that sliced up clods and did the initial smoothing. Lastly a harrow, an open frame with several rows of either spike or spring teeth and sometimes called a smoothing, or drag harrow, was run over the field until the soil was in good tilth for planting.

When seeds were commonly sowed by broadcasting, or scattering them evenly on the field, rather than by drilling them into the soil, a harrow was used to cover the seeds. After the planted seeds and the weeds were just peeking through the ground, a spike tooth harrow was commonly run over the field. The tender young weeds would be uprooted, while the deeper rooted crop plants would survive.

Harrows are mentioned in the Bible and are as ancient as the plow. The first such implements were nothing more than a carefully selected tree trunk or limb with protruding branches, that scratched the soil when pulled along by hand or behind an animal. England's Parliament felt it necessary, in 1664, to abolish “as being cruel and injurious to the animals,” the practice of tying, with a rawhide cord, the brushy limb of a tree to a horse's tail for use as a harrow.

Early American farmers made an A-harrow that consisted of timbers (or a forked log), through which wooden or iron pegs were driven. Especially useful on just cleared fields that often were full of stumps and rocks, the A-harrow was strong and would slide around obstructions rather than get caught on them. By the 1850s, square harrows, made of wood with wrought or cast iron teeth were popular. However, the iron teeth often snapped off when a rock or other obstruction was struck. Finally, after the War Between the States, manufacturers began to use steel teeth and iron frames, and added levers to change the angle of the teeth. These spike tooth harrows changed very little from then on.

Of course, the way a harrow is usually used requires the operator to walk either behind, or to one side of the machine. These many miles of walking in soft, mellow soil is very tiresome. Not only that, but harrows don’t do much good in heavy, wet soil, so the ground is usually dry. An old Zane Grey book, titled The Desert of Wheat, gives an account of a man harrowing with four horses in a Washington wheat field. “Driving west, he faced a wind laden with dust as dry as powder. At every sheeted cloud, whipping back from the hoofs of the horses and the steel spikes of the harrow, he had to bat his eyes to keep from being blinded. The smell of dust clogged his nostrils. As soon as he began to sweat under the hot sun the dust caked his face, itching, stinging, burning. There was dust between his teeth.”

To make things a little easier on the harrow operator, ingenious inventors began to patent wheeled, or sulky harrows, where the harrow itself was suspended under a frame that was supported by two wheels. None of these devices seems to have caught on, probably because they were heavy, awkward and, undoubtedly expensive. However, lightweight riding attachments were developed that had some success. Some of these have survived and occasionally one is seen in a suburban lawn as an ornament.

The 1939 International Harvester catalog lists a harrow cart with the following comment: “No man who has tramped all day back and forth across a plowed field behind a peg-tooth harrow can fail to appreciate the value of a harrow cart.” The 1928 John Deere catalog describes their No. 4 harrow cart as “A popular drudgery-saver,” and goes on to list the advantages. The two “drawbars are crossed, making cart trail harrow in turning.” An automatic lock “Prevents the cart from swaying and holds it straight in hillside work. Automatically unlocks in turning.” There was “no danger of tipping over on hillsides,” and the 36-inch wheels gave a light draft. The final selling point was the high seat described thus: “Because of large wheels and long seat spring, operator sits high, away from the dust.” While I doubt the operator escaped much dust, there’s no question that riding beat the stuffing out of walking in loose dirt.

As can be seen from the illustrations, the two drawbar arms bolted directly to the wooden harrow drawbar. The carts themselves were lightweight, with the IH model weighing 121 pounds, while the John Deere No. 4  was a little heavier at 135 pounds. The light weight of the cart, plus the weight of the operator that balanced any additional weight on the drawbar, along with the large diameter wheels added very little to the draft of the harrow.

– Sam Moore

John Deere No. 4 harrow cart

The John Deere No. 4 harrow cart. (Illustration from a 1928 John Deere catalog in the author’s collection)