Looking Back

Leafing Through an Old Farm Magazine

Sam MooreI like to go through old magazines to see what was going on in the country at the time. Not only that, but if I'm stuck for a subject to write about, I can sometimes find a column (such as this one) in an old magazine. Seventy one years ago, Farm Journal readers, like my father and grandfather (and me as a 13-year-old), saw the following when they leafed through their December 1946 issue of Farm Journal magazine.

Allis-Chalmers looked ahead to summer with a full-color ad featuring a Model C tractor cultivating two rows of contoured, foot-high corn, as did IH with a Farmall M plowing down sod with a 3-bottom Little Genius plow. Willys-Overland touted their Universal Jeep as "a truck, light tractor, runabout, (and) mobile power unit."

Car-hungry farmers were treated to ads for the shiny new 1946 Buick, Plymouth and Dodge cars, while farm wives were tempted by Westinghouse radios, Pyrex Flameware, Frigidaire and Hotpoint electric refrigerators, Perfection oil heaters, and Gem Dandy electric churns.

Kate Smith, on CBS radio every Monday through Friday at 12 noon CST, advertised Post's 40% Bran Flakes – "And what could be more delicious Christmas morning than a luscious batch of hot, oven-fresh Post's Bran Muffins?" Film actress Hedy Lamarr assured us that Lipton Tea's "... brisk flavor is top drawer with me," while another Hollywood beauty, Anne Baxter, is shown glamorously snoozing on a Simmons Beautyrest mattress.

Prices being paid for farm products were dropping sharply after initial post-war highs, and FJ told farmers: "You take a grave risk when you hold products on a down market. Sell crops and livestock when ready for market, even though you don't get the top dollar."

President Harry Truman wasn't popular, with an approval rating of 32% and Republicans were joking that "... to err is Truman." Because of this, the mid-term election of 1946 resulted in Republicans winning control of both the House and Senate after many years of Democrat domination. Farm Journal cautioned: "May the Republicans travel humbly on their way to Washington! They have won, not a victory, but a chance to try to give the nation better government. Tired of New Dealism, the people have merely said, 'let's see what the other fellows can do.'"

Among the featured movies was My Darling Clementine, a western about the Earp brothers starring Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Walter Brennan and Victor Mature. Then there was Blondie Knows Best, with Penny Singleton as Blondie and Arthur Lake as Dagwood.

The Gillette Safety Razor Company – Look sharp! Feel sharp! Be sharp! – bragged about the smooth, refreshing shaves that Dewitt "Tex" Coulter, "... last year's great Army tackle, now with the New York Giants," got before he went on the field in a leather helmet to "anticipate enemy plays and stop them with uncanny precision."

In another ad, Santa Claus himself assured readers that a carton of Camel cigarettes or a one-pound tin of Prince Albert smoking tobacco were "Grand gifts for smokers."

Feature articles reported on a new sweet potato variety called Pelican Processor,  New York governor Thomas Dewey's dairy farm, how to "Lick Pullorum (a chicken disease) Now," and hunting pheasants in South Dakota.

A new self-propelled, 2-row corn picker, that could pick 20 to 30 acres per day, was announced by Massey-Harris, as "A machine that electrocutes weeds," from Apco Corp., of Los Angeles. Apco made a large trailer-mounted generator that powered a series of rake-like electrodes that were dragged across the ground, zapping 10 to 15 acres of weeds per day.

Speaking of weeds, FJ reported a "New source of income for Georgia farmers is growing kudzu crowns. With a ready market, some farmers sold as high as $10,000 worth of crowns (at $10 to $12 per 1,000) last spring.” Today they can’t get rid of the pesky stuff.

Under Changes We Want Made, are the following bright ideas. "Pack grease for pressure guns in cylindrical containers that can be slipped into the gun." This one came true, as did "Use flexible tubing to connect gas ranges, so they may be moved for cleaning." One man wanted "something to show hunters when a rabbit was close," while another guy wanted "square plates so we can back a pea into a corner."

In the Farmer's Wife section, recipes were given for a grand Christmas dinner that included steam-baked goose, delicious bread stuffing, Noel apples, and Christmas beet salad, as well as recipes for holiday cookies and frozen fruit cake.

A young girl wrote Dear Polly: "Last Christmas Eve, I was out with a boy whom I liked very much, and he asked me for a Christmas kiss. If it happens again, what should I do?" Polly answered that there's something about Christmas that "sometimes permits a holiday kiss for a special friend." She goes on: "If you step under the mistletoe, there's nothing much left to do but give in gracefully."

Finally, my favorite Farm Journal feature: Now Is The Time To.

Milk fast.
Let it snow.
Mulch roses.
Post your farm.
Read Psalm 100.
Keep an open mind.
Use Christmas seals.
Clean up junk piles.
Clip old boar's tusks.
Poison orchard mice.
Renew kitchen linoleum.
Cut next year's firewood.
Cover carrots with straw.
Help Fido with his fleas.
Count the days until Christmas.
Rabbit-proof young trees, shrubs.
Count your blessings; share them.
Keep machine sheds sparrow-free.
Put a petunia in the south window.
Ask the preacher if he likes chicken.
Encourage 4-H and F.F.A. members.
Clean leaves from rain spouts and gutters.
Put a new pane of glass in place of that pillow in the attic window.

Looking through these old magazines reminds me of the old song: "Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end."

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

– Sam Moore

Farm Journal December 1946 cover

Cover of the December 1946 Farm Journal magazine (in the author’s collection).

Steam Plowing on the Western Prairies

Sam MooreDuring the 1870s, the old portable steam engines were being replaced by traction engines that could drag a thresher from place to place. Initially steered by a team of horses out front, it wasn't long before a chain and drum mechanism and a proper steering wheel eliminated the need for the horses.

In the vast expanses of the prairies, the native Buffalo grass made breaking the sod with horses an extremely difficult task and, even after the ground was broken, it was a huge job to plow it each year for the new crop. A 12-inch walking plow behind two horses was usually used in those days and in the book, Power and the Plow, written in 1911 by Edward A. Rumely and Lynn W. Ellis, they estimated that a man would have to walk 5,280 miles to plow a 640-acre section with a 12-inch plow. It's no wonder that the riding plow became so popular when it was introduced, even though it wasn't much faster.

Some men experimented with using the steam threshing engines to pull plows, but they weren't very successful. Of course, there were no large gang plows being made, so a string of 1- or 2-bottom horse plows was chained on behind. One man in the Dakota Territory in 1883 told of his first experience of plowing with a Frick engine:

"We labored under many disadvantages ... among which was scarcity of water, there being but few wells. With steam we found that fifteen acres could readily be turned in one day, using five 16-inch Casaday sulky plows."

The rigs were difficult to turn at the headlands and horse plows were too light to withstand the increased power of the engine. As stated, water was scarce, as was fuel, which was often straw gathered up from the field and carried on a wagon that ran beside the engine.

Another problem was that the engine wheels were usually driven by chains or multiple trains of gears. Chains were made of wrought iron and gears usually of cast iron. Under hard plowing conditions, the chains would break and brittle cast iron gears would lose teeth or break into pieces. In addition, traction engines of the day, designed to pull only themselves and a separator, had relatively narrow and small diameter drive wheels and would bog down easily in soft ground. They weren't that powerful either, since in those days of small, hand feed threshers, it required only 10 or 12 horsepower to run the machines.

The first real use of steam traction for plowing was in the vast wheat fields of California, Washington and Oregon, where giant Holt and Best engines were used.

By the turn of the century, threshers had grown in size, and had sprouted self-feeders, grain weighers, and wind stackers, all of which necessitated larger and more powerful steam engines. Manufacturers began to turn out engines intended for plowing, with stronger steel gears and axles, larger fuel bunkers and water tanks, and larger and wider drive wheels, with lugs adapted for traction in soft ground. Special engine gang plows were being built as well, some with steam cylinders to lift the bottoms.

As might be imagined, the bigger, and more powerful engines cost considerably more than before. Prices ranged from $3,000 to $4,000 for one of the new improved plowing engines. That was more than most farmers had paid for their farms and was out of reach for all but large farmers, or custom farming operators.

During the first decade of the 20th century, custom steam plowing rigs swarmed over the prairie. A Dakota newspaperman wrote in 1908: "Where a year ago the coyote and jackrabbit were undisturbed...great traction engines are plowing up whole townships daily."

Many of the engines were equipped with locomotive headlights and plowed all night. A record may have been set near Albion, Wyoming in 1911, when a 40 hp Reeves engine, with sixteen bottoms and two grain drills behind, plowed and planted 65 acres in one long day.

Running the big steam plowing rigs wasn't cheap either. One Minnesota man with a 40 hp Avery engine pulling 12 bottoms, charged $4.00 per acre. His daily expenses were:

One engineer: $5.00
One fireman: $3.00
One tank man: $4.00
Two blacksmiths: $8.00
Two plow men: $4.00
One cook: $3.00
Oil & grease: $2.00
Board for the crew: $4.50
Fuel: $6.00
Repairs, plowshares, depreciation, etc.: $8.00

Total cost per day: $47.50

So, just to meet expenses the rig had to plow at least 12 acres every day. Getting stuck, breakdowns, or rainy weather all made the life of a custom plowman no bed of roses.

It was an impressive sight, however. Folks came from miles around to watch the big rigs move ponderously across the prairie, while gulping every day some 70 barrels of water and a ton and a half of coal and puffing out great clouds of black smoke. Behind the engine, 10 to 16 gleaming plow bottoms sliced through the soil, leaving long, even furrows, a mile or more in length, in its wake.

Two decades was about all the longer it lasted, though. Fuel and water for the engines was too expensive and hard to come by. By 1920, most plowing was being done by gasoline or kerosene tractors. Steam hung on for a while, and in dwindling numbers, as power for threshing, but by the time World War II rolled around, most steam engines were quietly rusting in the fencerows.

The scrap drives during the war eliminated the majority of these engines and today only a few are to be seen puffing away at steam shows around the country.

– Sam Moore

Nichols & Shepard engine pulling a plow

A big Nichols & Shepard engine pulling a 10-bottom plow and two 8-foot single discs on the Alberta prairie in 1900. The engine appears to be 20-75 or a 25-90 double-cylinder model. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Encounter with a Tramp

Sam MooreWhen I was a kid an occasional “tramp,” as Mom called them, although they were also called “hobos” and “bums” while today they’re known as “homeless people,” would show up at the kitchen door of our western Pennsylvania farmhouse asking for a bite to eat. As with most farm families during the 1930s and ’40s, we didn’t have much money, but we always had food from the garden and the critters we raised so these itinerate “knights of the road” usually got a morsel or two of food from my mother or grandmother.

In the October 1927 issue of The American Thresherman magazine “Aunt Malinda,” a column that was written by M. Belle Clarke, the wife of the publisher Bascome B. Clarke, wrote of an encounter she and “Uncle Silas” had with one of these itinerate gentlemen.

The two had just sat down to a supper of fried eggs, bacon, bread and butter and a pot of tea, and “Silas had just told the Lord that we were grateful for the helpin’” when a tramp knocked on the door with his hat in hand.

Aunt Malinda goes on, “He was a polite old German and grey-headed, a man of more than fifty years. I told this old man that we could certainly fix him up, takin’ the bacon and eggs for our supper, when Silas began to mutter about the crop of tramps that were gatherin’ in flocks these days. I never feed tramps at my table like I used to do and when I saw Silas reach for the teapot, I told him I’d do the honors. To drink tea properly one must sit down and that meant at the table.

“I scraped the platter, takin’ both his bacon and mine and I started to do likewise with the eggs but Silas ’lowed he’d just finish that egg seein’ that he’d started on it. After I handed the old man the lunch—five or six strips of Swift’s bacon and a few eggs and other things thrown in—and he’d hoped that God would bless me for my kindness to the homeless and made his getaway, Silas grabbed a skillet and started in fryin’ more bacon and eggs.

“‘Malinda,’ he says, ‘you’re getting’ chicken-hearted lately. The idea of feedin’ a tramp Swift’s bacon taken from a box that costs fifty cents a pound, and slippin’ him all the eggs and cake and all that, and then refusin’ him a cup of tea. Shortin’ him on the cheapest part of the meal proves you ain’t as generous as you let on’

“‘Yes,’ I says, ‘and with all your mutterin’ about bein’ disturbed durin’ a meal you wanted to sluice that tramp with hot tea. I’ll not feed any tramps at my table,’ I says, ‘not unless they’ve been fumigated, but as long as we’ve got bread and meat I’ll share it with any old grey-headed man who’s destitute.’

“‘Oh, maybe he was wearin’ a wig,’ says Silas. ‘They do lots of things these up-to-date tramps who put the sign somewhere for other tramps to read, thus encouragin’ more of them to apply for bacon and eggs. His hair wasn’t any greyer than mine,’ says he, ‘and not half as near thread-bare.’

“‘You should be ashamed to begrudge a tramp a bite to eat,’ I says.

“‘I don’t mind feedin’ one once in a while,’ says he, ‘but darn ’em, let ’em come before or after, for it spoils a meal to have a hungry-lookin’ tramp poke his prow in at the back door and cause me to stop feedin’ until I fill his hopper.’”

Aunt Malinda ends her story, “I’m sure that Silas is becomin’ penurious as he reaches the sundown of life ’n Old Gabriel is due to blow his horn most any time. When I told Silas this, he said, ‘Let Old Gabriel blow his horn whenever he’s ready, but don’t cause me to cater to a tramp right in the middle of a good meal of bacon and eggs, Gabriel or no Gabriel.’”

– Sam Moore

Drawing of a tramp

A cartoon drawing of the stereotypical tramp. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Radio Surprise

Sam MooreNinety years ago the new-fangled radio was found in few homes. The following account of an individual’s first encounter with a radio was written by a man named Fred Meeker and appeared in the September 1927 issue of The American Thresherman magazine.

“Probably many readers now own radio receiving sets; but there are probably many more who are looking forward to the time when they too will own one of these wonders.

“Several years ago I was invited to a friend’s home one evening, ‘To listen to the radio.’ It was some ten miles distant and the weather was cold, but we bundled the five children up well, climbed into the flivver and went to hear the voices and music out of the air. The first thing to attract my attention, when entering the house, was the loud speaker. Although I was offered a more comfortable chair across the room, I chose a straight-back one by the loud speaker, for I did not want to miss anything. I was very nervous and could hardly wait for the thing to be set going. My host remarked, ‘Oh, there’s nothing on the air right now; it will be fifteen minutes yet.’

“Would those fifteen minutes never pass? It seemed more like fifteen hours, but at last he announced, ‘KDKA is now on and we’ll try them.” I moved my chair right in front of the horn so I could see every move he made and hear all that might be said.

“My friend first pulled a switch which lighted some bulbs similar to electric light bulbs, and then slowly began to turn a knob. Suddenly, ‘Whee! O-o-o-o-w! whiz! bang!’ I nearly fell off my chair! I had expected to hear music or someone’s voice, but not such a screeching, whistling, howling racket as that. The ‘o-o-o-w, r-r-r-r-r-r, o-o-w-e-e’ kept up and the longer it went the louder it got. Was this radio? If so, it certainly wasn’t enjoyable, let alone entertaining. At last, after a half-hour of noise without one word or musical note from the blooming thing, my host, who was sweating like a butcher, said he’d have to give it up for a while. ‘That’s radio,’ said he; ‘just as soon as someone comes it always acts up, but when we are here alone it’s fine.’

“Finally he said, ‘Well, we’ll try Detroit, they’ll be on in five minutes and I know I can get them.’ Detroit is one hundred miles from here. In five minutes he put the set in operation again and with one little ‘wheek,’ a voice boomed right in my ear, ‘This is the Detroit News, station WWJ.’ I nearly toppled from my chair again. For, after a half-hour of ear-splitting racket, to hear a voice as realistic as if right in the horn was some surprise.

“It seemed only a short time when I looked at my watch and saw to my utter surprise that it was ten o’clock, and we had ten miles to drive through the cold. But it was worth it! I had heard a radio! On the way home my wife remarked, ‘Well, it was wonderful after he got it tamed, but it sure was some squealer in the wild state.’”

Mr. Meeker tells how, after this initial encounter, he “had the fever and accordingly bought all the books and read all the magazines which had any articles bearing on the subject of radio.” He also experimented with many radio sets then on the market and built several himself, becoming quite an expert on radio.

He explains many of the technical aspects of the technology then current and concludes with, “If you are thinking of getting a radio and want the best to be had at any price without paying out of reason, then either build or buy a two-stage tuned neutralized radio frequency stage set; and for some time to come you will have a satisfaction in radio which is second to none.”

– Sam Moore

A family gathered around the radio

A farm family gathered around the radio to hear the latest news. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Case Model CC Tractor

Sam MooreAnother Case story for this 175th anniversary year of the founding of the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company.

The International Harvester Company came out with a motorized 2-row cultivator about 1916. The machine wasn’t a success, but it began a long period of experimentation by IHC that led to the introduction of the Farmall in 1924. Generally acknowledged to be the first true row-crop tractor in America, the popularity of the revolutionary Farmall soon had other tractor manufacturers scrambling to build a row-crop tractor of their own.

At the time the Farmall came out, Case was still selling cross motor tractors, a design that was not only outdated, but totally incompatible with row-crop design. Case badly needed a new tractor and the 3 to 4-plow Model L, introduced in February of 1929, was an immediate success. At the same time as the Model L was being developed, Case was thinking about a smaller row-crop machine.

A smaller 2 to 3-plow version of the Model L, designated the Model C, was introduced to the public in August 1929, and this was to be the basis for Case’s row-crop tractor as well. A prototype was built with a single front wheel and rear wheels that slid in and out on the exposed rear axles. Dubbed the Model CC, the tractors were ready for testing in March, 1929.

There were problems. The front of the CC was light and would rare up during a hard pull. When the front came crashing back to the ground, the front gooseneck casting and the cast iron front wheels would often break. There were oiling and steering troubles as well. Finally, early in 1930, Case announced the new CC tractor.

The Models C and CC were powered by a 4-cylinder overhead valve engine with 3 7/8 by 5 1/2 inch bore and stroke, that turned 22.7 HP on the drawbar and nearly 29 on the belt. On steel wheels, the CC weighed about 3,600 pounds and had a 3-speed transmission with speeds of 2.63, 3.75 and 5.14 MPH.

Described by Case as “two tractors in one,” the Model CC’s rear wheel tread could be adjusted from a narrow 48 inches for plowing to a wide 84 inches for cultivating. Wheel tread adjustments were accomplished by the use of 2, 10 and 12-inch spool-type spacers and reversible wheels.

Leon Clausen, who was president of Case at the time, insisted that purpose built implements be designed to go with the new Model CC tractor. He wrote to his engineering manager in 1929: “It is obvious that the Case Company is going into the general purpose tractor field and that they must be able to supply the attachments that go along with the CC tractor, so the farmer can do the things he wants to do and so we will be on a competitive basis with International and John Deere. We can’t do this by furnishing the tractor alone or by having one or two attachments.”

1936 Case CC

1936 Case CC and a mounted lister-planter owned by Lyle E. Lannon of Sydney, Illinois. (Photo by Sam Moore at the Half Century of Progress Show, Rantoul, Illinois, in 2009)

The Case engineers designed two and four-row planters and cultivators, listers, middle busters and a rear-mounted mower to fit the CC. These implements were lifted by either the “armstrong” method, or an optional power lift. At first the power lift was chain driven from a sprocket on the right rear axle, but about 1933, a PTO-driven lift was mounted on the differential housing.

Leon Clausen was vice president of manufacturing for Deere & Company in 1924, when he was made president of the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Company. When he first came to Case, he seemed to have a vision for the future and was responsible for many improvements. He recognized that Case’s automobile line wasn’t adding to the bottom line and got rid of it. He said later: “When I came to Racine, Case’s tractor line was obsolete, both in appearance and performance.” He pushed for a new tractor line and the Models L and C were the happy result.

The Case L, C and CC tractors sold well. During their ten-year run, 1929 to 1939, Case built 34,000 Model Ls, and almost 53,000 series C tractors, of which nearly 30,000 were row-crop Model CCs. They were up to date machines in their day and were powerful, reliable and difficult to break.

However, it seemed that once he had pushed through these successful models, Clausen thought nothing could be improved upon and he became very resistant to change. Although the gray Case tractors were modernized in 1939 and 1940 with new sheet metal and flambeau red paint, underneath they retained the 1929 design. No tractor development was undertaken at Case until well after World War II, putting them far behind the competition. When his branch managers and salesmen complained about the lack of updated equipment, Clausen would retort: “Don’t listen to what they want! Just tell ’em what you have to sell.”

Clausen stepped down as president in 1948, but by that time it was too late. During the early 1930s, Case had sold about one third of all tractors sold in the U.S. By 1950, that figure was less than ten percent.

So, it appears that, like their competitor International Harvester, Case was the victim of bad management and poor business decisions. It’s ironic that the remnants of both companies are now married as Case-IH under the vast umbrella of CNH Global.

– Sam Moore

Old-Time Threshing

Sam MooreAnd now, here are a couple of tales of old-time threshing that I lifted from the pages of a 1927 copy of The American Thresherman.

Three men, their clothes covered with black grease and dirt that told of their vocation as threshermen, drove their tired teams as they laboriously climbed the “Hog-back” that led into Sugar Tree Bend.

The darkness of night was closing over the greasy trio as they turned into the big bend of the Pecatonica River on this late October evening.

Big Chris Swanson was in the lead with his high tail Case separator and following him was Long Chris Norslie with the two-wheeled Dingee-Woodbury horse power. Bringing up the rear was Little Cooney Doring driving the trap wagon, loaded with the odds and ends of tumbling rods and sweeps, along with the straw carrier.

Eventually they reached a little clearing in which stood a cabin surrounded by a rail fence. In another enclosure were four small stacks of wheat and a log stable with a straw thatched roof. Inside the little home an evening meal was fixed and waiting to fill the stomachs of the tired, hungry men. The meal consisted of sizzling sow belly, potatoes boiled in their natural habiliments and corn dodgers, to be washed down with a combination beverage of coffee, toasted rye kernels and chicory.

By 4 the next morning, with the aid of the light from tallow candle lanterns, the men were setting and staking down the machinery that was to separate the golden wheat from the straw in the handbound bundles.

As the sun began to light the east, our little trio of threshermen got to work as the wheels began to hum. Across the valley surveyors could be seen staking out a new railroad which was later built.

The railroad is still there, but the cabins, the straw sheds and the old threshing machines are gone, disappeared forever.

Most of these old threshermen are gone too, sleeping the eternal sleep. A few are left who walk with halting steps and speak with faltering lips. Thus have passed some of the finest and most picturesque pioneers that our great country has ever known.

The above story was written by Frank W. Doring, son of one of the threshermen mentioned in the story, the piece is titled In Wisconsin Fifty Years Ago.

In the same issue, in the Women’s Department, is the following story titled: Cooking for a Western Crew.

Somewhere in the wheat region of eastern Washington, is a place called Badger’s Pocket. I used to wonder why, but during my time there as a cook for a threshing crew, I learned the reason.

My little daughter and I were on a cook wagon which either followed or preceded a Case thresher and steam engine around that country for about 50 days.

The cook wagon was drawn by two steady old mules driven by an old man of Scandinavian descent who helped me set up when we landed at a new “set.” We rose at 4 a.m. and it was around 10 p.m. before I retired, but I did not feel tired, as the air of that hot dry climate seemed exhilarating after living all my life on the coast.

One afternoon the thresher started for a new setting, but it was dusk before my cook house finally got started. I had baked several berry pies for the noon meal the next day and on our way through a stretch of sand we got off the road. One wheel went into a badger hole, causing the wagon to give a sudden lurch. My pies were loosed from their moorings and all but one fell on the floor. I was upset but the driver said, “I couldn’t help it. A badger hole.”

We then got down into a coulee and the mules couldn’t pull the wagon out. The driver hung a lantern high on the cook house to serve as a beacon. The crew came back to find us and were guided by the lantern.

After getting the cook house upon the road again and catching up with the thresher, the men were told about the loss of the pies. But they only laughed as they were too glad to see us to be very grouchy.

I then fixed coffee and sandwiches and it was after midnight before we were finally settled close to the thresher.

Those boys would not have left their “eats” out on the plain all night, even if they had to hunt till dawn. Neither would they have left their cook and her little girl. They were fine to us; I cooked good meals, and they surely appreciated it and showed it in their acts.

Flora Jackson, Elma, Washington.

Those were the Good Old Days, when men were men, and the women were just as tough.

– Sam Moore

Woodcut of a Case Eclipse separator

This 1878 woodcut shows the Case Eclipse “high-tailed” separator “eclipsing” all others in the universe. (Courtesy of the J.I. Case Co., Racine, Wis.)

Revisiting the Tongue Truck

Sam MooreI wonder how many of today’s farmers, if asked whether they knew what a tongue truck was, would answer yes. In the days of real horse power these farm implement accessories were common on most farms.

Tongue trucks were often used, not only with horse-drawn mowers and grain binders, but with disc harrows, corn planters, corn binders, potato diggers and even dump rakes. Most two-wheeled, horse-drawn machines are designed with the seat sticking out behind the axle, thus allowing the operator’s weight and the law of leverage to help offset the weight of the implement on the horse’s shoulders. Tongue trucks are also used to lessen this weight on the horses, but they have other important benefits as well.

Many of these implements require a specific and constant position in relation to the ground in order to do their best work. Once the machine is adjusted properly, a tongue truck that supports the front of the machine, maintains this critical operating position without regard to the natural movement of the team. A tongue truck also eliminates the variations in implement operating position caused by different sized teams, while the length of the traces, as well as the adjustment of the breast straps, can best be made to suit the load, without worrying about any effect on the implement’s optimum operating position.

On some implements with stiff poles, particularly those with considerable side draft, such as corn and grain binders and mowing machines, the use of a tongue truck eliminates the sore shoulders caused by the whipping of the tongue against the horses.

A tongue on a disc harrow makes discing very hard on the horses, due to the twisting and bucking of the implement which whips the pole against the team almost constantly. For this reason, disc harrows can be equipped with a tongue truck, thus relieving the team of neck weight and any side draft, as well as eliminating the necessity for the team to pry the machine around when turning. On a disc harrow, a front truck is often used without a tongue and the evener is attached to a clevis that steers the truck wheels. However, a tongue attached to the truck gives the team much more leverage for turning the disc at the corners.

Deering grain binder

A Deering grain binder with a tongue truck.

As can be seen from the attached illustrations, the tongue truck is bolted to the front end of a stub tongue so it supports the front of the implement. The pole is then attached to the truck in such a manner that it steers the wheels and guides the implement as the team turns. The eveners usually are attached directly to the truck itself, and the pole is used only to steer the device.

The tongue truck ordinarily consists of two 15 to 20-inch, steel wheels set fairly close together on a flexible frame that allows the wheels and axle to pivot horizontally as well as to swivel to the right or left. The horizontal pivot feature allows the wheels to follow the ground and keeps the truck steady and the implement tracking properly.

An important benefit of a tongue truck on a hay or grain cutting machine, such as a mower or a grain binder, is that the steerable truck allows easier square turns and full swaths at the corners.

Some seed planting implements where planting depth is critical, such as the John Deere No. 999 corn planter could be furnished with a single wheeled front truck. In this arrangement, the front wheel supports the front of the planter and the tongue is free to pivot up and down while the team negotiates uneven ground. This not only assures that the planter stays level for uniform planting depth and check pattern, but relieves the horses of neck weight as well The front planter wheel is mounted as a caster, allowing it to follow the machine as it is steered by the team.

This reminds me of a story, I think I may have told before.

An acquaintance named Melvin once told me of an experience he had as a young boy on his father’s farm. The father had been an active farmer until being badly enough injured in an accident that he gave up farming and went into a business where he needed a truck. He bought a used, early 1940s Ford 1-ton pickup that the family always referred to as “the ton truck.”

The father then advertised the no-longer-needed farm machinery, which included a grain binder, for sale. One day a farmer came to look at the grain binder, which led to Melvin’s embarrassing interlude. Melvin’s father wasn’t home but the boy, feeling quite important, undertook to show the machine to the prospective buyer. After a careful examination of the binder and a lot of questions, which Melvin endeavored to answer, the farmer, who intended to use the machine with horses, asked, “Do you have a tongue truck?”

Melvin had never heard of a tongue truck and heard the question as, “Do you have a ton truck?” “Yes!” He answered, and proudly led the way to a shed where he pointed to the Ford. After a bit of confusion on both sides, it turned out there was no tongue truck for the binder and the disappointed buyer left empty handed.

– Sam Moore

John Deere corn planter

A Deere 999 corn planter with a tongue truck.