In today’s environment of no-till planting and chemical weed control, no one thinks about the job of cultivating row crops, which was, at one time, very important. When I was a kid on the farm, Dad wanted the corn and potatoes cultivated at least three times during the early summer. The final cultivation, done just before the corn got so high the cultivator would knock it down, was called “laying the corn by.”
International Harvester Co. pioneered the concept of the tricycle tractor design for cultivating with their Farmall, which was introduced on Feb. 20, 1923. However, Fordson tractors were everywhere, and their light weight, high speed and small size made them ideal machines (except for the lack of turning brakes) for cultivating.
Of course, Henry Ford refused to build any implements to go with his tractors, believing that farmers could just hook on to the horse-drawn machines they already had in their sheds and become power farmers. A Fordson owner could hook a one- or two-row horse-drawn cultivator offset behind the tractor, and I’m sure many did, but implement manufacturers were quick to recognize an opportunity, and cultivator attachments for the Fordson were built by Moline (Illinois) Implement Co., Oliver Chilled Plow Co. (South Bend, Indiana) and probably others.
Were any sold?
These conversion kits changed the squat and narrow-tread four-wheel Fordson tractor into a wide-track machine capable of straddling and cultivating two standard 42-inch corn rows.
I’ve never seen the Oliver-built version, but in his Oliver Hart-Parr book, Charlie Wendel has two pictures of the Fordson-mounted, two-row cultivator made by Oliver. The Fordson’s front axle is removed and a frame is mounted under the front of the tractor. This frame, to which the two-row cultivator is bolted, extends 2 or 3 feet out in front of the radiator.
The drawing shows, in black, the parts that were included with the Moline attachment. From a 1928 Bateman Bros. Inc. catalog.
The tractor’s front wheels are mounted on the outer ends of the cultivator frame and the steering drag link is extended forward to permit normal steering. Rods run back on either side of the tractor to hand levers that raise and lower the cultivator gangs, while axle extensions widen the rear wheels. From the photos, the Oliver cultivator appears to be a sturdy, well-designed outfit, although it would be a bear to put on and take off and it’s unknown if any were sold.
The missing link of power cultivating
The Moline Two-Row cultivating attachment for the Fordson was advertised in the 1928 Bateman Bros. catalog as being “Driven, guided and operated from the tractor seat.” The ad declared that, “This implement solves the ‘power farming’ problem, for it provides the missing link of ‘power cultivating.’ It has 21-inch clearance and can be said to lay corn by.”
The catalog goes on to say that the unit “consists of extension axles to replace the regular Fordson axles, special fenders, fore truck, and the gangs with their operating levers. Each of the two front gangs is operated by a lever, while the entire gang behind is controlled by one master lever. Two shanks follow each wheel to prevent leaving packed tracks. The entire attachment adds only 415 pounds to the weight of the tractor. Turning is easy – in the same radius as the Fordson in ordinary use.
“The changeover to install the attachment is not difficult and when the tractor is wanted for plowing again, the gangs and beams are removed and the wheels are pushed in, sliding along the extension axle, which is not removed, but left in place, permanently.
“The machine has been thoroughly tried out over the past three years and has demonstrated itself to be practical, economical and a tremendous cost-saver to the farmer.”
The cost of the Moline cultivator, which could be adjusted for 34- to 42-inch rows, and with pin-break shanks, 5-1/2-inch shovels and quick detachable points, was $175 (roughly $2,583 today). Spring-trip shanks, which eliminated the bother of whittling a new hardwood pin every time a rock was struck, added $10 to the price, while the wide fenders cost $25 extra.
In Ford Trucks Since 1905, a book by James K. Wagner that also includes great information on Ford tractors, a Fordson equipped with a two-row rig is identified as an Imperial cultivator, but it appears almost identical to the Moline unit.
A Fordson tractor sales booklet from the early 1930s featured the “Improved Fordson” built in Cork, Ireland. One of the pictures shows a man in a straw hat, cultivating cabbage in Texas with a four-row cultivating unit. The picture isn’t real clear, but the rig shows a wide, square cultivator beam attached just in front of the radiator and supported on the outer ends by small, castered, steel wheels.
The tractor’s front axle and wheels have been removed and a single steel wheel in a cast fork is mounted in the center and in front of the cultivator frame. Hand-lift levers are evident, but the process of extending the rear wheels remains unclear. The cultivator rig isn’t identified, but it looks nothing like either the Oliver or the Moline units.
Setting the stage for progress
I doubt that these cultivating attachments were very popular, although they probably worked. Most farmers of the day felt they could afford only one tractor and they needed their machines for plowing and other fieldwork, for which the cultivator would have to be removed.
Replacing the heavy front axle and wheels and readjusting the rear wheel tread would have been hard and time-consuming work, in spite of what the advertising claimed. The sales brochure for the Moline unit implies that the single front wheel could be left in place for plowing, but the flimsy mounting would almost certainly have collapsed from bouncing across dead furrows. In addition, it would have been extremely difficult to steer in soft and muddy ground, especially after the wheel became a huge mud ball.
Even though these cultivating attachments may not have been very successful, they helped lay the groundwork for the complete farm mechanization that occurred during the next decade or two. FC
“With no wheel brakes, it wasn’t easy to turn the Fordson.”
The following account on cultivating with the Fordson, written by Robert J. Hayes, originally appeared in the May/June 1966 issue of Gas Engine Magazine:
“I am writing about the Fordson cultivator attachment. Dad bought one, used, in 1941 and we used the critter until he quit farming in the late ’40s. This was a ’29 Fordson with the Moline cultivator attachment. It also had a Wico HI tension magneto, which made for much easier starting.
“The tractor had no differential or wheel brakes, which made turning a beast of a job, especially on a hillside or rough clay ground. You would come skidding around, front wheel plowing up a furrow, then it digs in – clunk! Down with the clutch, hop off, run around and look. Yup, the front wheel has snapped that curving fork and is lying on its side under the oil pan. Oh well, at least it keeps the crank from digging in and bending and allows room to put the jack under and lift her up.
“I’ll say that mounting takes a lot of work since you had to take off the front wheels (complete with axle and wishbone), and then bolt on that heavy casting with the single small wheel, slide the back wheels to the end of the axle and bolt the cultivator on piece by piece. Turning at the ends was work: three levers to throw to lift separator front and rear gangs.
“The cultivator did good work and it was very easy to follow crooked rows. It worked close; if set right, it went in and did clean work. There were fenders with this cultivator but we did not use them for the reason that part of the cultivator attached to the wheel hub bolts resulting in the fact that the wheels would work loose on splines and tend to slide in or out. Did you ever lose a wheel when cultivating? Some fun getting the tractor up and everything back in place.”
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.