Early Plow Primer

From early plows made of wood to riding sulky plows

| October 2011

Early plows were made of wood, with cast iron components coming into use beginning in the 1820s. But farmers were suspicious of cast metal. Many refused to use plows built of such material, certain that the iron would poison the soil and actually encourage weed growth. By 1840, however, the tide had turned and nearly all plows contained cast iron parts. 

While cast iron did not poison the soil, neither did it work universally well in varying types of soil. The heavy, black soil found in the Midwest stuck to cast iron, forcing plowmen to stop frequently to clean soil from the plow. Steel plows were introduced to the market by the late 1830s.

At the same time, new foundry technology – “chilling” – made cast iron more conducive to effective plowing. At the foundry, an iron “chill” (some were water-cooled) was placed near the mold cavity. When iron was poured into the mold, the chill quickly absorbed heat from the iron, causing the object’s outer surfaces to cool more quickly than the interior. The process hardened or “chilled” the outer surface, making it very hard and also capable of acquiring the “land polish” required for scouring in black, sticky soil.

The next major innovation in plow design was the arrival of the sulky plow in the 1840s. A wheeled plow with one moldboard, the sulky was typically pulled by three horses. Although some embraced the improvement, more than a few farmers were resistant. Some balked at the price (sulky plows were more expensive than walking plows); others feared undue strain on their horses. And the riding sulky plow? It found little acceptance until the Civil War’s end, when many farmers returned home from war weakened and permanently injured. FC 


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