Carpenter-Turned-Manufacturer Refines Early Corn Planter

George W. Brown's corn planter made the laborious task of planting corn easier.


| July 2014



an ad for the corn planter

The Brown factory complex in Galesburg, Ill., in 1882.

Illustration courtesy Sam Moore

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.