Digging Peanuts in the 1930s

Bob Harrell remembers harvesting peanuts with horse-drawn implements.

| October 2006

  • PeanutGrowers.jpg
    In the early years, peanut growers hooked a horse or mule to this offset two-in-one plow used to cultivate peanuts. Shown with the plow: peanut historian Robert Harrell.
  • MetalTines.jpg
    This shelf with metal tines, part of a vintage peanut picker, separated peanuts from vines.
  • PlasterSpreader.jpg
    This 2-row adjustable lime and plaster spreader was manufactured by the Ferguson Mfg. Co., Suffolk, Va.
  • Peanutdiggers.jpg
    Peanut diggers like this were hooked to a tractor, a huge step up from horse- and mule-drawn equipment.
  • RobertHarrell-1.jpg
    Many peanut farmers in Chowan County, N.C., used peanut pickers. Benthall Machine Co., Suffolk, Va., produced the Model F-7.
  • RobertHarrell.jpg
    Robert Harrell of Edenton, N.C., with a T-post (a pole with a crossbar at the bottom) that peanut farmers used years ago for stacking peanuts. The T-post kept the peanut vines off the ground and protected the vines from weather-related damage and disease.
  • RobertHarrell-2.jpg
    Hay balers like this were used at the beginning of the peanut era in Chowan County, N.C.
  • Harvestingpeanuts.jpg

  • LearningRide.jpg
    Robert Harrell, former executive director of the Albemarle Learning Center in Chowan County, N.C., tours two local students around in a cart pulled by a mule, one of the modes of enjoyable travel often used years ago by many northeast North Carolina farmers and their families.
    Photo courtesy of Robert Harrell and the Albemarle Learning Center

  • PeanutGrowers.jpg
  • MetalTines.jpg
  • PlasterSpreader.jpg
  • Peanutdiggers.jpg
  • RobertHarrell-1.jpg
  • RobertHarrell.jpg
  • RobertHarrell-2.jpg
  • Harvestingpeanuts.jpg
  • LearningRide.jpg

For many people today, farming with horse-drawn equipment is a quaint practice from the past. For Robert S. "Bob" Harrell, it's a way of life that should be preserved for future generations.

"The need to remember our history is always there, whether it's in farming, textiles or whatever," Bob says. "I don't think anybody can adequately understand and appreciate the present without some understanding of the past. We just really need to have some level of understanding of how it used to be if for no other reason (than to appreciate) how hard people used to work." 

Born in 1925 in Edenton, N.C., Bob spent his youth on the farm, lending a hand to the peanut operation run by his grandfather (Joseph M. Harrell) and his father (Rodney T. Harrell). Horses and mules provided much of the power on the 40-acre farm. It is a world that exists today only in memories, but they are clear and vivid in Bob's mind. 

Cultivating peanuts

The first piece of equipment Bob recalls his grandfather using was an offset two-in-one plow used to cultivate peanut vines. "As a boy, before I was old enough to handle a horse or mule myself, I would just - barefooted - fall in behind my granddaddy when he was plowing that old two-in-one," Bob says. "I would walk up and down, up and down the rows.



"The animal walked in the middle to the left of the peanut row," he continues, "and the farmer walked in the middle to the right of the row. It was offset so the cultivator was centered on top of the row of peanuts, but the handles were offset so that was possible. This was before the days of herbicides, so you had to cultivate peanuts at least once a week, depending on the weather, to keep the grass and weeds down. In spite of all that cultivating, usually in late summer you still had some weeds and grass in the peanuts. Then you had to go in with a weeding hoe and chop out weeds and grass by hand."

A lime and plaster spreader also came into play. The hopper, attached with handles and wheels, was pulled by a horse or mule. The spreader applied landplaster or lime to the peanut vines when they were about one-third to one-half matured. Landplaster delivered much-needed calcium and sulfur, reducing pod-rot disease and brightening hulls, the mark of a quality product.