In this second part of his three-part series about the history of corn farming in the U.S., Sam Moore examines the slow evolution of hand-operated corn planters and the importance or row markers.
Editor's note: This is the second of three articles about planting, cultivating and harvesting corn, and focuses on the machinery and techniques developed for planting corn. Click here to read part one of the series, or here to read part three.
The story of corn as a modern-American staple begins with the machinery and methods devised to plant the ancient crop, which were challenges this nation's farmers faced from the beginning.
In colonial times, farmers learned that the biggest problem with corn was the huge amount of labor required to plant, cultivate and, especially, to harvest the crop. Captain John Smith wrote of the American Indians in 1609, 'The greatest labor they take is in planting corne.'
Squanto taught the settlers that corn would thrive if it were planted in rows and cleanly cultivated. That technique is still used today, although the rows are planted closer together, and the weeds are killed with herbicides rather than by hand or cultivator.
Although corn began as a tiny grass-like plant with ears less than an inch long, it was selectively bred by Native Americans and eventually became America's foremost crop because it out-yields just about any other grain. Modern hybrids commonly grow about two ears stalk, while a healthy, mature ear contains about 1,000 corn kernels -quite a return from one seed.
Early Americans were keen observers of native skills, and Thomas Harriot reported in 1588 that the American Indians first loosened the soil with wooden hoes. Then they used a wooden 'pecker' or dibble to dig a hole in which the planter placed four seeds - not touching - and finally covered them with soil. These 'hills' were planted in rows, 'each row spaced half a fathom or a yard from the last, and the holes in each row are the same distance apart,' Harriot wrote. Thus, those Virginia Native Americans were the actual inventors of 'checkrowed' corn.
The term 'checkrow' is derived from the checkerboard-like appearance of a corn field when viewed from above, with each corn hill planted exactly at the intersection of imaginary lines that cross at right angles the same distance apart. The practice made cross-cultivation possible, which assured better weed control.
For hundreds of years, Euro-American farmers planted corn using Native American techniques. Corn was planted by one person digging a hole with a hoe — or a dibble — followed by another farmer who dropped two, three, or four seeds into the hole before covering them with soil. About 1 acre of corn could be planted per day with this method. In 1856, a patent was granted for a hoe equipped with a seed canister on its shank. One man dug the hole, pulled a string that released the seed and then covered the hole with soil in a couple of motions. Another 1856 patent was for a foot-operated, dibble-type planter. Seed corn was carried in a backpack connected to the dibble by a tube. The dibble was strapped to the side of the operator's foot and, when the foot was stamped sharply on the ground, the point gouged a hole and the seeds were released. A quick kick or shuffle of the foot covered the seed, and the sower stepped forward to the next hill.
Many styles of mechanical hand planters were introduced during the late 1800s and early 1900s and became very popular. Some of these devices enabled farmers to plant about 2 acres per day instead of the single acre possible with other hand-planting methods. Those early planting tools can still be found at flea markets and antique stores, but often fetch high prices.
Farmers called these planters 'bill picks' — probably because the point that penetrated the soil opened like a bird's bill to release the seeds — as well as 'corn jabbers,' or 'corn jobbers.' One of these devices, patented in 1876, used an upright leg that supported the seed canister and a handle. A tube from the seed can connected to the two-piece point, which was hinged to a brace that extended to the front of the planter. The operator jammed the point into the ground and pushed forward on the handle. This forward-rocking motion caused the 'bill' to open and the seed to drop. The operator then lifted the tool from the ground, threw it forward to the next hill and scratched dirt over the seed with his foot as he stepped forward.
The corn planter commonly seen in antique stores today has two upright, flat boards, hinged together at the bottom by metal nose-pieces. A seed can was attached to one board, and handles were set on the top of both. To use, the handles were held apart, the nose stuck into the ground, and the handles were pushed together to open the bill and released the seed. Other variations existed, but all designs operated on the same principle.
Bill pick operators had to know where to stab the gadget in the ground to make nice, straight checkrows. Since most farmers took pride in arrow-straight furrows and rows, proper placement was an important consideration. As a result, row markers were patented to aid with the task. Some were the sled — or runner — type, while other row markers used wheels. Horses usually pulled markers across an entire field in one direction, and then again at right angles to the first pass. The sled's runners — or wheels in some cases — left a checkerboard pattern of lines in the soil as the marker passed across the field. Then the farmer planted hills where each line intersected. Many farmers used a homemade wooden two-, three-, or four-row frame that they pulled across the field by hand or behind a horse to mark hill location.
Devising a successful mechanical corn planter was a tough nut for early inventors to crack. The first problem early manufacturers faced was to construct a device that reliably measured the exact number of seeds required for each hill. The second problem was to design a machine that dropped those seeds at the desired distance apart so the rows could be cross-cultivated. Many devices were tested, but most failed because of poor design.
During the 1850s, several horse-drawn, walk-behind planters were patented that required the operator to raise and lower the handles or to squeeze a hand lever to drop a hill of seeds. Unfortunately, the operator was forced to simultaneously juggle a number of planter tasks. The farmer had to drive the horse or team in a straight line, keep the planter in line as well, watch for the next marker groove in the dirt and jerk up on the planter handles at just the right time. Clearly, planting corn with an early mechanical planter was no easy task.
Other planter inventors devised, with varying success, wheel-driven contraptions to drop the corn seeds at regular intervals, even though wheel slippage on loose or soft ground was always a problem. In 1864, George W. Brown introduced a planter with a second seat between the seed boxes where a small boy could sit. Checkrow lines were made with a marking sled in one direction only, and the planter was driven at right angles to these lines. The boy was responsible for pushing a lever whenever the planting shoes crossed one of these lines, which dropped the seeds. The method was very accurate, depending upon how carefully the marked lines were laid out, as well as the dropper boy's attention to detail.
After decades of experimentation, the well-known knotted-wire, two-row checkrow planter was introduced and remained a favorite throughout the Corn Belt until about 1950. As always, innovations led to bigger, more-successful harvests and further ensured that corn remained an American staple. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.
Back to part one: Beginnings and Tall Tales of Farming Corn in America or on to part three: Advances in Planting Technology