The Nostalgia of Plowing
Gary Van Hoozer
Walking plow pulled with a Farmall Mule tractor
Most former farm kids remember vividly the smell of freshly turned dirt as it cascaded off a plow's moldboards. And it was a special occasion when a youngster was first offered the reins or a steering wheel to operate the plow.
'I started plowing 37 years ago, when I was eight years old, and I still remember it like it was last week,' states David Wolfe, who owns twenty-plus old plows and a nearly equal amount of antique tractors to pull them.
The plow is a simple tool that's taken millennia to evolve, observes old-farm journalist Cecil Darnell of Mason, Mich. The plow is an extension of man that allows him to turn sod into workable dirt. It's a spiritual thing, Darnell suggests.
Perhaps collectors are fascinated by plows because they are the first step, or make the greatest change. Regardless, all generations of farmers who have tilled the soil and planted seeds are bound together by memories of their use.
There's something to remember about every part of the plow's action. A steady cutting/tearing accompanies other sounds as the moldboards slice through the soil. There is the jingle of the tug chains, leather rubbing leather, horses' hooves hitting the ground in a steady pattern, a grunt from a horse, a word or sound from the teamster behind. The teamster places one foot ahead of the other, both hands grasping the plow handles, his callused fingers refusing to release them.
All become one as the green rolls beneath the black, Darnell says. The team, plow and driver are a single entity as they cross the field, leaving a bed for new life, as thousands have done before them.
Probably the most famous plow was made and sold by John Deere. It was a one-bottom walking plow that did a fine job of scouring the Illinois prairie. Deere built 100,000 wooden beam models, including the general purpose style, then switched to a steel beam model.
In 1875, Deere introduced the two-wheel, one-bottom Gilpin sulky riding plow. Walking plows still ruled the countryside, though, outselling the rider design. In the mid-1880s, sulky and walking plows were all made available by Deere. Even disk and two-way versions began to make their mark. (In fact, Deere and Company sold its 'MP' General Purpose walking plows until as late as 1942, so the plow you own may not be as old as you think!) As tractors became more and more widely adopted, plows became tractor drawn, multi-bottomed moldboard or disk styles.
Those who've restored antique farm equipment know that costs of parts can mount quickly, whether they're used originals, new-off-the-shelf or reproductions. That's what Ralph Blatterspiel of Payson, Ariz., found out when he restored a John Deere model 52 two-bottom plow built around 1935. He was fortunate, though, to have a parts book from John Deere to guide him.
Ralph took the plow completely apart then sanded, ground, straightened and replaced every nut, bolt and grease fitting with new Grade 8 hardware. New-off-the-shelf dog levers and other small parts as well as accurate decals were obtained from dealers across the country.
But making the piece exactly like original wasn't a concern for Ralph. He says he didn't use the correct Grade 5 square head nuts and other hardware, since such original hardware is expensive and difficult to obtain. Ralph says, original or not, the plow is his to do with as he wishes since he rebuilt it to his satisfaction, and it's as strong and good-looking as when new. 'I hope I'm in as good condition when almost 70 years old,' he observes.
Pete Cecil of Bend, Ore., was offered a free 'mystery plow' to restore. A friend had it hidden on his back lot, heavily rusted and missing its handles and a few metal parts.
A 14-inch steel beam walking plow, it has its land slide, share and moldboard stamped with the John Deere logo. All the other metal parts are stamped 'PO,' followed by part numbers. PO may stand for 'Pennsylvania and Ohio,' Pete guesses, adding that all the metal parts were originally painted red.
Pete obtained a set of replacement handles from the Ozark Handle Company in Mansfield, Mo. Also missing was the front horizontal quadrant, which Pete had purchased before he bought the plow.
A handle tension rod was also needed as well, so Pete purchased a quarter-inch by 24-inch steel rod from the hardware store and had both ends threaded at a local machine shop. Replacement carriage bolts and square-headed nuts were found at another hardware store.
Pete wire-brushed the plow with an electric drill, then coated the metal parts with primer and three coats of Chinese red enamel paint. After receiving the handles, he looked at a friend's plow collection for installation details.
Pete cut the handles to size, then made two stretcher rods from three-quarter-inch-diameter wooden dowels and installed the tension rod between them. He sanded the wooden parts and pained them with three coats of boiled linseed oil.
Pete's total cost for plow restoration was around $35 for the quadrant, handles, square nuts and paint.
Pete now practices plowing with the restored plow and a John Deere 10-inch walking plow. He also tills the garden using a Planet Jr. one-horse cultivator. Power is supplied by Babe, a Percheron mare.
But, if you really want to plow, it's hard to beat David Wolfe of Arcadia, Wis., who owns over 20 old working plows, mostly John Deeres.
Recalling the fall of 1963, David says he was first exposed to actual plow operation at that time on his father's small Wisconsin dairy farm. Most of the farm work was done in the evenings and on the weekends, as his father had another job.
"I was only eight years old, but knew that silo filling was finished, so it was time for fall plowing,' David remembers. 'My father said that plowing could start in a week, but my younger sister and I jumped the gun. Next Monday night after school, she and I installed the side-hill hitch on the John Deere A and hooked up the two-bottom plow and greased it up. Dad came home and I talked him into opening up the field. I rode with him and we made two rounds that evening."
The next evening David asked his mother if he could go plowing after he was done with his chores. "She asked if I knew how and I told her it was just like raking hay. Only one of the tractor tires had to be in the furrow, so it is hard to do it wrong. Well, it must have been a good line,' he says, 'because, after my chores were finished, I was out there plowing."
When David's father got home, he went looking for David in the barn and asked his wife who was plowing. "Mom said, 'That's David out there.' Dad told mom that I did not belong on the tractor plowing," David recalls. "Mom told him, after you tell him why he cannot be plowing, then come and explain it to me why he can't.
"When dad met me at the end of the field, I slowed the tractor down and the plow came out of the ground as I stopped the tractor. I expected the worst. Dad grabbed the side hill hitch lever and slid the drawbar over. He looked at me and said to make one more round and then call it quits for tonight.
"Dad went back to the barn and Mom said, 'Where is David?' Dad said, 'He is plowing.' From that night on, I plowed a lot of evenings. I guess that is how it all got started."
Several years later, David was given a Case 2 14-inch plow that had been retired by a neighbor. David restored it and sometimes plows with it even today.
Plows were put on the back-burner until, in 1992, a friend of David's hosted a plowing day in Waumendee, Wis. "A few people started collecting tractors about that time, including myself. I had a couple of old tractors and that Case plow.
"I borrowed a trailer and decided to participate. It was like being eight years old again, but it was much better, since I was strong enough to steer the tractor without straining myself, and it was my tractor and plow.
"There were 50 to 80 people as I dropped that plow into the ground. I opened the throttle and the tractor came to life. I saw 50 to 80 smiles at the same time," he recollects.
David says that what makes his hobby fun is that there is always room for more. He's currently working on getting six or seven plows which the owners don't know whether they want to sell or not.
"One says he's scared that they might sell too cheap, but will not put a price tag on his plow. I have some people looking for a John Deere number five or six for me."
David concludes that, if you're looking for a satisfying hobby, try plowing. "Just start with a tractor, buy or borrow a plow and try it out," he says, going on to invite others to join him. "If you are not sure about this, come tag along with me to one of the plowing days and I will show you a good time."
David Wolfe welcomes all calls about plows. He can be reached by phone at (608) 323-3087.
Gary Van Hoozer is a long-time contributor to Farm Collector and the former publisher of Farm Antiques News. You can call him in Tarkio, Mo., at (660) 736-4528.