A History of Corn: Corn Planters and the Corn Belt’s Check-row Revolution

Farmers' use of the check-row wire planter in the large fields of the Corn Belt.

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Courtesy Sam Moore
The result of check-row planting

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a series about planting, cultivating and harvesting corn, and focuses on mechanical check-row planters. Click here to read part one, or here to read part two.

Looking out at the flying leaves and spitting snow here in Ohio, it’s difficult to think of spring planting. However, to continue the corn theme for one more month, here’s the story of planting corn in check rows, a method used in most of the Corn Belt until herbicides replaced mechanical weed control.

In western Pennsylvania where I grew up, corn was drilled in 42-inch rows and not check-rowed. The average width of a horse was 42 inches, and a horse had to fit between the rows of corn to pull a cultivator, so the rows were planted 42 inches apart. We originally used a horse-drawn John Deere 919 two-row planter. Later, we cut off the planter’s long tongue and pulled it with a Ford-Ferguson tractor. Ultimately, the planter was converted again for use with a three-point hitch.

Sam discovers danger lurks in the cornfield

I was probably 4 or 5 years old the spring Dad nearly killed me. He was planting corn with a John Deere 919 drill-type planter and a team of horses in the 7-acre field just over the hill from our barn, with my Granddad Moore (who we kids called Nandad) and me as keen observers.

The two-row planter was equipped with a marker on each side to scratch a line in the dirt. This line guided the driver so the next two rows were the correct distance from those preceding them.

Each marker consisted of a steel disc on the end of a 4-foot-long steel pole that was hinged to each side of the planter. Levers, at the rear and just below the driver’s seat, raised and lowered each marker. When the planter reached the end of the field, the driver raised the marker that had been down, turned his team 180 degrees to head back along the newly marked path for the next two rows and released the opposite marker lever, allowing that arm and disc to fall.

On this day, Dad reached the edge of the field, raised the right marker and swung the team around. As he started back into the field, he dropped the left marker and — there I was! The falling disc caught me right across the center of the top of my head from left to right. The blood started to flow immediately, and I screamed and headed for home as fast as I could run, with Nandad doing his best to keep up.

Mom heard me coming, but when she saw the blood streaming down my face, she fainted. My aunt and Grandma Moore patched me up — no stitches in those days of course. To this day, I still have a scar and a dent across the top of my head.

Check-row planters put corn fields on the straight-and-narrow

Although corn drilling was a popular planting method in the eastern U.S., Corn Belt farmers, with their much larger farms, needed a machine to plant the seeds in checkered patterns so the corn hills could be cross-cultivated. Eastern farmers planted much smaller amounts of corn, and the weeds could be kept in check by frequent cultivation – as well as hand hoeing. But with the huge acreages of corn in the Midwest, a faster, more efficient method of weed eradication was essential.

Check-row planting allowed for cross-cultivation. That necessity led to many inventions before the Civil War. One of the most successful inventions, described in last month’s issue of Farm Collector, was a two-row corn planter that included a separate seat for a second person — usually a young boy — to ride and trip the seed-dropping mechanism each time the planter shoes crossed pre-marked lines.

Other planters were designed so the driver tripped the seed dropper himself, requiring only one person instead of two. I read about one farmer who didn’t want to pre-mark his fields with a row marker, so he tied a rag on the planter wheel. Every time the rag hit the ground, he tripped the planter and dropped a hill of seeds. The rag idea went further when someone stretched a knotted cord across the field and then manually dropped the seeds each time a knot appeared, thus eliminating the need for a pre-marked field.

At first, the knots only signaled the operator to manually drop the seeds. By 1860, the knots in the rope were used to mechanically trip the seed droppers, allowing the operator to concentrate on driving in a straight line. Unfortunately, rope stretched when dry, and shrank when wet. It also broke easily, and the knots wore rapidly with repeated use. Thus, the knotted rope wasn’t a perfect technique.

Literally hundreds of patents were issued during the last half of the 19th century for check row planter mechanisms, check-lines and the knots or buttons that tripped the planter. Eventually, cord or rope, or chain and jointed rods were abandoned in favor of heavy-knotted wire, which became a Corn Belt standard by the 1870s.

There was a price to be paid for those neat, checkerboard-like corn fields, since check-row planting required more time than drill planting. First, the wire was stretched across the field and staked. Then, at the end of each row — after the planter was turned and put in position for the return trip across the field — the wire was removed from the stake, thrown over to a new position, staked behind the planter and replaced into the check head. Finally, the check wire was gathered up after the field was finished (click here to see a related article about check-wire planters).

Whew, what a lot of hassle! John Deere books instructed farmers to ‘whip’ the wire, moving at least 50 buttons or about 11 rods (16 feet or so), over to its new location at each end of the field. I once read about a man who claimed his father could ‘whip’ 80 rods (1/4 mile) of check wire in his younger days — a truly heroic feat for any farmer.

If there were an obstruction — such as a tree in the middle of the field — it was handled in the following way. The farmer would plant to the tree, then walk to the far end of the field and pull the stake to slacken the wire. Then he walked back to the planter, disconnected the wire at a convenient button, pulled the two ends to the opposite side of the tree and rejoined the wire. Next, he walked back to the end of the field, reset the stake into its hole and adjusted the tension. Finally, the farmer drove the team around the tree, put the wire back into the trip forks and resumed planting, giving the team a nice rest. Photos of check-planted corn fields reveal a pretty sight, especially because cultivating fields in two directions leaves the rows clean and free of weeds.

The check-row corn planter has gone the way of the threshing machine and the farm horse, replaced by six-, eight-and 12-row — and even larger — planters that usually drill 30-inch rows, often with very little soil preparation. Check-rowed corn was the victim of chemical weed control, as well as corn pickers and combines, which work much better when the corn is planted in continuous rows rather than clumps of three or four stalks.

In a few more years, hardly anyone alive will remember what it was like to slowly ride across a field behind a good horse team, feeling the warm spring sun on the shoulders and listening to the rhythmic click of the planter, while watching the crows discover that the creosote-based Crow-Tox with which the seed corn had been treated makes it taste awful. At least there’s a few handsome check-row planters left in private collections to bring back those memories of yesteryear. FC

Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

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