From hand-sown corn growing to horse-drawn check planters.
Early illustration showing the “checkerboard” pattern created by a check planter.
Check, chee … check, chee … check, chee … That's the sound you might hear as the slide bar on a hand-check corn planter moves back and forth. Of course, if you are the one working the slide bar, you might hear a different sound. You might even make up your own sounds to the beat of the steady rhythm of the check bar.
When the first white settlers came to America, the natives introduced them to a new crop - corn - that could be consumed by both people and livestock. The natives also taught the settlers how to grow and use it. For more than 200 years after the Pilgrims came to America, corn was planted in the way the natives had taught. A farmer worked up a small area of soil with his hoe, dropped in seed and covered it with his foot.
As the corn grew, the farmer hoed the hill of corn to keep weeds at bay. Finally, he harvested the meager crop. Small plots of land the size of a large garden plot - perhaps an acre or two - were typical in that era.
As horse-drawn plows and tillage equipment were introduced, farmers could grow more corn for home use and livestock feed. However, planting methods remained nearly the same. Farmers planted using a dibble (a pointed implement used to make holes in the soil) or a hoe. An individual was capable of planting up to one acre of corn per day. Keeping weeds under control was a major problem. Using a hoe, a farmer would be hard-pressed to tend more than five acres of corn each season.
Weeds competed with corn for nutrients and water. Too many weeds meant lower yields. Usually, it took at least four hoeing sessions during the growing season to keep weeds from overtaking the field. The first hoeing was the most important because the weeds and corn were young and tender. It was easy to err and cut tender stalks of corn along with the weeds.
As the population moved west, more land became available for farming. Larger fields became the norm. From Ohio to Indiana to Illinois, farmers found fertile land with few rocks to impede cultivation. They raised more livestock, so they needed more fodder and grain. Corn production had to increase.
In the mid-1800s, farmers began using horse-drawn hoes (or cultivators). This certainly reduced the number of hours needed to tend the fields, but it presented other challenges. How to plant more acres to justify the cultivator's expense? How to get straight rows to use a cultivator? How to get weeds out from between the hills of corn?
Enterprising farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths worked together to design and fabricate early tools to increase planting speed. When the corn jobber (a handheld planter) was devised, it was not much quicker than using a hoe. It was used mostly to replant seeds in existing fields. Soon, a 2-row jobber was developed. But it was cumbersome to use and did little to increase the number of acres a man could plant. However, with a jobber, a farmer could space the plants far enough apart in rows to be able to hoe between the hills, even after first using a cultivator.
Never satisfied, farmers looked for faster and easier ways to plant their crops. First came a horse-drawn grain drill to sow oats and wheat. That brought about the idea for a horse-drawn planter. At first, that was a 1-row affair that dropped seeds in a row as the contraption was pulled along. Most farmers objected to the early horse-drawn planter. Even though a one-row cultivator could be used, someone still had to go to the field to hoe weeds from between the hills of corn.
Next came the 2-row hand-check corn planter. This was a great improvement, but it took two people to operate the machine: One to drive the team and one to drop the seed. The planter was usually a two-wheeled device with two furrow openers (or shoes).
First, to make sure the seeds were dropped at proper intervals, a drag-type row marker was pulled crosswise across the field. These markers were usually simple wood frames with two or three skids placed 40 inches apart. The row marker also had a long beam attached to the back of the drag to mark the return trip. The beam was long enough to mark between the center of the drag to the center of the return trip.
Next, the hand-check planter was used to plant the field lengthwise. As the planter shoe crossed the horizontal mark, the operator quickly moved the slide lever toward the planter box, then back. This operation dropped three to five grains of corn in each hill. When the field was planted, the crisscross pattern resembled a giant checkerboard. Perhaps that is how the name "check planter" came to be.
Joe Isler has three hand-check planters at his Creekdale Farm near Prospect, Ohio. They are in near mint condition. Jim has been collecting antique farm tools for more than 20 years, and his collection is still growing. "I've been watching farm auctions for years," he says. "If a decent piece comes up, I usually bring it home." Many of the pieces in his collection come by word of mouth. "People know I'm looking," he adds, "so they let me know when something good comes along."
Joe's planters include a Beedle & Kelly made in Troy, Ohio; an A.C. Evans manufactured in Springfield, Ohio; and the Sunrise, also manufactured by Evans. All are set at 40-inch rows, and all have wood spoke wheels with a concave metal rim to cover the corn and promote wheel life.
If the field had already been marked, Joe says, a farmer and his son (or helper) could plant perhaps five acres a day with one of these planters. At each end of the field, the farmer would stop the team, raise the planter, turn the team and lower the planter to planting depth to get ready to cross the field again. Meanwhile, the helper would get off his seat and move the marker to the opposite side of the planter for the return trip.
Hand-check corn planters were well accepted in the Midwest and were used for many years. However, as technology advanced, it was not long before a wire-check planter was developed. Planter wire was knotted at the same interval as the width of the planter. Instead of marking a field crosswise, a farmer had only to plant rows the length of the field. With the wire stretched properly across the field and the knotted wire running through the trip mechanism, a farmer could still plant corn in the checkerboard pattern, allowing two-way cultivation.
The old hand-check planters became one more implement the farmer no longer needed. Many were simply parked in a fencerow, where wood parts rotted away. A few were stored in barns and machinery sheds, just in case the wire-check planter broke down. Not many of those old planters survived, and even fewer are exhibited at shows. You might find one in an agricultural museum, but they are rare. Look especially in small, local historical museums in the Corn Belt.
If you find one at a show, chances are it will be on the edge of a tractor exhibit where equipment enthusiasts set up special exhibits. Keep looking. If you find one, ask the proud owner all about it. Take a picture; surprise your friends. See if they know what a hand-check planter is, and how it works!
James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. Email him at Jboblenz@aol.com