A History of Corn: Hand-held Corn Planters and Checkrows

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.

| December 2003

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.

Planting corn sowed the seeds for farming innovations

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.

Indian lessons

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.