Early Garden Tilling and Cultivating Tools

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A “wiggle-tail” crop cultivator from the 1897 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog.
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Man-weight farm and garden tilling tools, from an 1897 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog.

Early-day travelers crossing the Great Plains said they could travel for days and never see a weed, only tall grass waving in the wind. The first settlers who plowed the virgin sod said weeds showed up thick after the first plowing. Whatever brought the weeds – probably the wind – that obnoxious growth threatened the very survival of early settlers.

At first, the only weapon against weeds was a garden hoe. Operating the hoe was hot, hard and tedious. That could be the reason the West was settled quickly, as young boys left home early to escape the hoe and young girls married early for the same reason.

Common sense tells us the younger a weed is attacked, the easier it is to eradicate. This theory motivated countless cultivating tools with points, harrow teeth, sweeps, knives and discs designed to uproot and eliminate the crop’s enemy.

Some early crop cultivators were called “man-weight” plows. They used only a man’s brute strength and awkwardness as a power source. They were great for garden tilling, but much too slow and tiring for fieldwork. Next came single-row, walk-behind cultivators pulled by a single horse. Later, go-devils and ridge-busters using teams of horses came along, knifing ridges, adding dirt to plants and leveling the field all in one pass while riding on sled-type runners.

A unique two-middle cultivator called a wiggle-tail then came onto the market. This machine had wheels, straddled a crop row and cleaned the middles to each side. It used two horses or mules and best of all, the operator could ride instead of walking behind and trying to guide the machine.

The two gangs of discs, sweeps or knives used to cut the weeds were moveable. If the crop row was a bit crooked, the operator could push the gangs left or right with his feet to follow the crooked row and save plowing up the crop. This sideways movement somehow became known as a wiggle-tail cultivator.

I have one of these machines in my collection, and have sat in the seat and pushed the gangs from side to side. I suspect if you rode this contraption all day, while sitting in the hot sun on an iron seat, pushing right and left continuously, at the end of the day your tail would probably be too tired to wiggle. So the machine is aptly named.

Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. His wife, Ruth, collects antique dolls, is secretary/treasurer of the Devil’s Rope Museum and the Old Route 66 Association of Texas, and, according to Delbert, “Queen Mother of the local Red Hat club.” The two share authorship of this column, and Ruth is the able photographer. Contact them at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net

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