By now most of this fall’s corn crop, estimated to be 90-plus million acres, should be in the ground. Much of it was probably planted with 12- to 36-row planters guided unerringly by GPS signals from orbiting satellites.
Two hundred years ago, corn was planted by hand, one hill at a time, a slow and laborious process that necessarily limited the acreage that could be sown. Of course inventors (as well as dreamers) were busy, with many, many patents for “seeders and planters” issued from 1799 to the mid-1850s, although none of those proved successful.
What Corn Belt farmers needed was a planter that would place three or four seeds in hills equidistant from each other in all directions, forming a “check” pattern with each hill at exact intersections of imaginary lines like those on a checkerboard. Such a pattern allowed corn to be cultivated in both directions, making weed control much easier.
However, help was on the way in the form of George W. Brown, an experienced carpenter who had also spent time as a farmer, as most men did in those days.
West to Illinois
George Washington Brown was born Oct. 29, 1815, near Clifton Park in Saratoga County in eastern New York. George’s father, Valentine, was a farmer. He died when his son was 2 or 3. After spending his early years on the farm, at age 14 the boy went to live with an older brother who was a carpenter. There George learned carpentry and joinery and then worked on both the Erie Canal and the railroad between Albany and Schenectady.
In 1835 Brown married Maria Turpening. A year later the young family “went west” in a wagon, ending up in Warren County in northwestern Illinois with, reportedly, just $28 in cash. The team of horses was traded for 80 acres of land and George turned to farming, although he continued to ply his carpentry skills. One account says he built many houses for his neighbors; another says farmers from miles around brought their mostly wooden implements to Brown for repair.
During these years he also tinkered in his shop, creating devices that made farm life a little easier, including a cultivator and an improved churn. He apparently puzzled over the corn-sowing problem as well. His first effort combined a seed hopper, a mechanical device for dropping the corn, a shovel plow to open a trench and a log rolling behind to cover the seed. After further improvements, in 1853 Brown was awarded a patent for a machine that he had used successfully the previous two years.
Brown made 12 planters in 1853, 100 in 1854 and triple that the next year. Given the instinctive skepticism of farmers, the newfangled machines were a tough sell at first. Men who saw it at work allowed that it “would run very prettily through the field,” but would the mechanism damage the seed, and would the corn be planted in the proper place, at the correct depth, and would it be covered? Most importantly, would it grow?
Brown had to sell his farm and go heavily into debt to continue manufacture in nearby Galesburg, where he relocated in about 1855. Ten years after introducing the planter George Brown “did not consider himself worth a dollar.” Then came the War Between the States. With tens of thousands of men in uniform, labor became extremely scarce on the home front at the same time demand for grain to feed those soldiers skyrocketed. Suddenly, with the existence of the great armies depending upon wheat and corn, the old methods of harvesting wheat with a cradle scythe and flail, and that of planting each hill of corn individually with a hoe, became quite unattractive. Brown’s business took off, as did that of Cyrus McCormick.
Brown’s planter improvements included a curved iron shoe to open a trench for each row and two concave wheels, one directly behind each shoe, which not only carried most of the planter’s weight but served to cover the seeds in the trench as well. The dropping mechanism for both seed hoppers was operated by a single, central lever manipulated by an attendant riding on a small seat in front of the driver. The planter frame was hinged and a lever made it possible for the driver to raise and lower the planting shoes to clear obstacles or when turning at the ends of rows, and to adjust the depth of planting.
After the seedbed was prepared, a row marker was drawn across the field leaving marks in one direction only. When the entire field had been marked, the planter was driven at right angles across these marked lines. It was the duty of the attendant, usually a small boy, to operate the dropping lever each time a mark was reached by the planter’s opening shoes. The driver’s responsibility extended to raising and lowering the planter when necessary, along with driving straight and the proper distance from the last row planted so as to maintain the proper check pattern. He probably also had to occasionally kick the attendant when the lad nodded off or his attention wandered.
Evolution of the planter
Although George Brown didn’t invent them, row markers (as well as automatic check-row devices using a wire or rope stretched across the field with knots at regular intervals to actuate the droppers) were soon perfected. Brown patented a semi-rotating seed plate for the hopper bottom with openings of various sizes for various seeds, and during the 1870s Deere & Mansur further perfected the rotary plate principle, one that was used on planters well into the 1960s.
By the end of the Civil War, Brown was successful enough to eliminate his hired canvassers, who had traveled the country, demonstrating the planter and trying to entice farmers into buying, and replace them with a network of dealers. In 1880, the firm was reorganized as Geo. Brown & Co. with a capitalization of $300,000. By the time he died in 1895, George Brown was a wealthy man. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.