Some time ago, someone asked me what the correct term is to describe plows that can be used to throw all the furrows one way. I’d never thought much about it but realized that I’d always thought of the walking plows, on which the bottom swiveled, as “hillside” plows, while the riding or tractor plows that had both right- and left-hand bottoms were “two-way” plows.
Fields with steep hills were the primary reason for the development of plows that could throw all the furrows the same direction whether coming or going. In plowing around a field with a conventional plow, half of the furrows must always be thrown uphill, a feat that’s difficult to accomplish in thick sod on a stiff grade. When a hillside or two-way plow is used, one can plow back and forth on the same side of the field and turn all the furrows downhill.
Such plows were handy as well for plowing small, irregularly shaped fields whether or not they were hilly. In addition, in areas where the land had to be kept perfectly flat due to irrigation, these plows eliminated dead and back furrows in the center of the field that might impede the flow of water.
Early development in England
One-way plows, as they’re sometimes known there, were first developed during the latter part of the 18th century in Great Britain, where they were also called “turn wrest” plows. The Kentish turn wrest was a heavy, wooden affair, with two large wheels out front. A thick wooden block underneath had a sharp iron point at the front and a long, wooden moldboard that could be moved from one side of the block to the other.
Later British one-way plows had a bottom at each end of a V-shaped beam, facing each other. The center of the beam was supported on a two-wheeled carriage so that when one bottom was in the ground, its opposite number stuck up into the air. When the operator reached the furrow end, he unhitched the horses, turned them around and hitched to the opposite end of the plow for the return trip.
There were handles (which the British call stilts) at each end as well, and the plow was drawn from the wheeled carriage in the center. Called “balance ploughs,” multiple-bottom plows of this type were used with the steam and cable ploughing system popular in Great Britain for many years.
First patent for a hillside plow
The earliest U.S. patent I found for a “Side-Hill” plow was issued June 11, 1829, to P. and B. Altenderfer. The written description for this patent is missing, but the drawing shows what appears to be cast iron, double back-to-back moldboards and points attached to a short beam beneath the main wooden beam. This short beam was apparently turned 180 degrees at the end of each furrow, which put the opposite moldboard and point into position for the return trip.
Probably the first patent for the hillside plows with which we’re familiar today was issued to Isaac Teeter of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 3, 1838. This plow has a lever between the handles that had to be moved to unlock a hook in an eyebolt on the moldboard. The hook was removed from the eyebolt, the plow was lifted by the handles, and the moldboard was swung underneath the plow to the new position and hooked into place, after which the lever was moved to lock the hook in position.
By 1840, the arrow-shaped moldboard and share that was used on later plows had been patented and the spring-loaded, hooked latch was perfected by 1850.
The moldboard and share of such hillside plows form a symmetrical point that resembles an arrowhead with a broad shank. When the bottom is in one position, the opposite cutting edge of the share forms the shin, and vice versa. The moldboard is slightly curved longitudinally, but has no twist.
The moldboard and share swivel beneath the plow on their long axis and are held in either right or left position by a spring-loaded latch. The beam and handles are attached to a narrow shoe in the center of the plow, which rides on the furrow bottom, supports the plow and acts as a landside regardless of which way the moldboard and share are flipped.
Releasing the latch
In operation, when the plowman reaches the furrow end, he releases the latch with a kick from his foot and lifts up on the handles to raise the bottom clear of the ground. The bottom swings down and, as the plow is turned for the return trip down the furrow, it rolls over and is latched into place.
Some hillside plows were available with a clevis that could be shifted sideways by a lever between the handles, while on some wooden-beamed versions, the rear of the beam was moved sideways by a lever. This allowed the slight difference in line of draft between the bottom being in the right or left position to be compensated for.
Hanging knife coulters were often used with hillside plows, although some were available with a jointer that was automatically shifted into the proper position when the bottom was swiveled.
Knowing which is which
While undoubtedly local usage varied from place to place, I did some research among my collection of manufacturers’ catalogs to see what they called the things. Most plow makers called the walking plows with a reversible bottom “hillside” plows, although some used the term “reversible hillside,” while still others called them “swivel” plows. No one seems to have called the things “two-way” plows.
The history of sulky-type two-way plows is much harder to trace. I’ve looked at scores of old patents and have been able to find only one, from 1869: a strange-looking wheeled frame that could — so the inventor said — be used with one or more plows, or “two plows, one right and the other left, (that) can be employed in sidehill plowing.”
Anyway, the two-way sulky plow was certainly developed during the mid-1800s and most plow manufacturers offered them. These plows were always called two-way sulky plows, although in one old Oliver catalog they were referred to as “reversible” sulky plows.
So, if you call the walking reversible plows “hillside” plows, and the wheeled versions with both right- and left-hand bottoms “two-way” plows, you can’t go wrong. 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. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.