Chemical-Free Weed Control: Cable Weeder Did the Job in the 1930s

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Weeder patented by Melvin M. Simpson, Sidney, Neb., July 19, 1938: "This invention relates to a weeder and has for its principal object, the provision of a highly efficient weeding machine which, when drawn over plowed or cultivated land, will engage and pull the weeds out by the roots and leave them uprooted on the surface to dry out."
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Side view of the weeder on display at the Little Village Farm museum. Because the cable drum rotates at a slower speed than the machine travels, each cable is caused to descend into the ground and drag below the surface with a rake-like action, causing roots to wrap around the cable.
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Deteriorated wood boxing on the weeder drum was replaced. Note the multitude of holes available for cables.
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The weeder's drive arrangement. Note two different types of chain. The implement has no clutch to take it out of gear.
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Detail of nuts used to tension cables. Even after more than 70 years, the cables remain tight and have no rust, indicating use of copper in the steel.
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Ken Frank loading a large breaking plow on the author's trailer.
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The weeder's tail wheel. Holes in the bracket may have allowed installation of a seat. Springs allowed flexing on each side on uneven terrain.

Rimbey, Alberta, Canada, is a long way from Sidney, Neb., so allow me to explain this as we go along.

Ken Frank, an International Harvester collector who happens to be a friend of mine, lives near Rimbey, some 1,300 miles from my home in South Dakota. Last spring, I found a very nice 1939 F-20 he just “had” to have, so I made a trip up from southeastern South Dakota to deliver it. While I was there, we were walking around in his old iron pile, where interesting things sometimes turn up. Ken pointed out a pile of cast iron and angle iron hidden in tall grass and asked if I knew what it was.

I had no idea. He said it was a cable weeder, unusual in its own right but more so on account of the fact that it was about 14 feet long, instead of the normal 6-foot length for such implements. He felt we should have it for our museum, and since I was going home with an empty trailer, we loaded it up (along with a 24-inch breaking plow).

Arriving home a few days before the Granite Thresherman’s Show opened, I went to work on the weeder. My neighbor, Shorty Elsinger, happened by and observed that since we are both 28 years past 40 we should be able to do strange things now and then. We set to work removing all the old wooden boxings, making new ones and putting it all back together again. Some of the square-headed bolts needed a little help to make them release but all were re-used. Three days after leaving Canada, the weeder went to a show.

A cable weeder is, as the name implies, a system using cables stretched tighter than fiddle strings to dislodge small weeds in fallow ground, similar in effect to a rod weeder. As the ground-driven drum rotates, weeds are dislodged just under the surface of the ground by cables and removed by their roots. This is important in wheat country where, years ago, ground was left fallow for a year and weed control was done mechanically rather than with herbicides, as is common today.

Depth control is simple: just raise or lower the rear wheel. The unit is pulled by a ring hooked to three rods coming from the frame. The ring was hooked either to a tractor or horses. Each half of the weeder is independent, allowing the advantage of length while still having flexibility for uneven terrain. A couple of holes in a casting behind the tail wheel suggest use of a seat bracket.

I mentioned our “find” to Bill Lee, who works with exhibits at the South Dakota Agriculture Museum in Brookings. Later in the week I saw him at the Granite show, where he gave me a copy of the patent for the device, filed by M.M. Simpson, Sidney, Neb., on Dec. 31, 1936. This weeder had covered a lot of ground in 70 years. So it goes. FC

Jim and Joan Lacey operate Little Village Farm, a museum of farm collectibles housed in 10 buildings at their home near Dell Rapids, S.D. Contact them at (605) 428-5979.
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