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A Cut Above

Author Photo
By Jim Lacey | Oct 9, 2020

In the wooden unit, blades cradle the spud, which is set unit over a bucket. The user presses down, and the pieces appear below.

Many years ago, Bill Janklow, then governor of South Dakota, launched an effort aiming at getting abandoned farmsteads cleaned up. As part of the process, there was a focus on proper well abandonment. That is where we come in. Quite often, that involves digging out legs, removing windmills, towers and piping, and sealing the well properly. Inasmuch as my wife, Joan, had a good relationship with several farm management companies, we did many of these projects. In the process, we were allowed to look over abandoned sites and take what we wanted, as the remains were to be pushed into a hole, burned and buried.

The same unit, alternate (with a cracker tin in the background)

Two potato cutters (as well as several other interesting pieces now in our museum) came out of groves during that time. The wooden one was recently given to us. I cleaned up the duckbill-type cutter, preferring to leave the other as found and merely get it functional.

The green unit has an adjustable stop on the end of the cutting section, allowing the user to make large pieces on the stem end (there are typically fewer eyes on the stem end, so bigger pieces were needed). Also, depending on the variety – for instance, long and narrow, or short and fat – the cutter could be set accordingly.

Top: The green unit may be a Trexler. This side view shows the duckbill grate, and the pedal used to operate the unit. Middle: Spring-loaded “petals” center the potato over knives; note the adjustable plate on the end. Bottom: The green unit from the operator’s perspective.

Beneath the cutting section, a tine grate carried seed pieces to the bag. A vibrating action would sort out chips, which would not plant anyway. The blades on that and the rotary cutter are basically made from sharpened strapping band. Today, OSHA would most likely build a fence around a rotary cutter and not let anyone near it! One can easily imagine, years ago, a machine like this being fed by a small child, not knowing it could easily maim or kill him.

Top: Side view of the powered unit, with a potato entering the cutting area. Middle: Looking up inside at cutter’s knives, spud heading for them. Bottom: Potato in the cup; knives visible.

The unit has an 18:1 reduction on the machine already, plus, the speed needs to be reduced further ahead of that reduction to get down to a few rpm/minute, allowing adequate time to set the spuds on the cup in a relatively small window of opportunity, as it were. All in all, it was not an especially user-friendly device!

From the top: Cutting with a paring knife: first cut. Note the eye on the piece. It’s important to start at stem end! Rolling the potato away from you, cut again. The size of the pieces depends on number of eyes on the potato. Generally, there are more eyes on this end, so just split it.

The wooden unit is a model of simplicity itself. The blades are built like small cradles, centering the potato. The user would then push down, and cut pieces magically appear below. The only injury possible to the operator here would be self-induced. Hence, for the home gardener, this is faster than a paring knife.

As a family, we raised potatoes for about 100 years, getting out of the business in 1972, when the grocery chain we’d sold to folded. We raised about 50,000 bushels a year, processing them for the fresh market, hauling two semi loads a week in season to Sioux City, Iowa. We had several styles of mechanical cutters, one designed by my dad and me (which “read” the potato’s length and pushed it off into the correct cutting area), as well as several conventional foot-operated Hoovers, which were sold by Deere & Co. We had to cut a lot of spuds for seed.

Left: An Aspinwall potato cutter, circa 1898. Right: A Dowden potato cutter, circa 1890, manufactured by Dowden Mfg. Co., Prairie City, Iowa. Image courtesy Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements & Antiques, C. H. Wendel.

Paring knives were the tool of choice as well. Ours were worked down on a grinder until the blades were very thin and sharp. When growing seedstock, you would open a trench with the planter (leaving the covering discs off), and then, with a bag of potatoes and paring knife, you’d cut up individual potatoes, starting at the stem end. You’d drop pieces from each one in the trench, leave a space and cut another, leaving a space, until the crop was planted. This was called a tuber unit, so when checking the field for diseased plants, if one plant in the unit was bad, you pulled all of the plants from that potato. The idea was to get the seedstock as clean as you could. All in all, potatoes are still a lot of work to raise. So it goes. FC


Jim and Joan Lacey operate Little Village Farm, a museum of farm collectibles housed in 10 buildings at their home near Dell Rapids, S.D. Contact them at (605) 428-5979.

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