Cultivators are quickly fading from the modern agricultural scene, but the rich history of design and innovation behind these vintage implements, which date to the 1850s, isn’t likely to be uprooted anytime soon.
Yankton, South Dakota, draft horse enthusiast Alan Sorensen has acquired several vintage cultivators over the last 40 years that help illustrate the varying designs and evolution of early cultivators. His collection – used in cultivating his annual corn crop with his Belgian team – includes a 1-row McCormick-Deering, 1-row New Century, 1-row Emerson disc cultivator, a 2-row Case cultivator and a 1-horse garden cultivator.
“At the time I brought these home, none of them had a lot of value,” Alan says. “I just wanted to use them with my Belgian teams.” The collection started in 1973 with the New Century cultivator similar to one Alan’s dad used as a boy.
“The seat can be flipped so you can either ride or walk behind it,” he says. The first horse-drawn cultivator he had used, it was a handful at the beginning. “You steer it with your feet,” he says, “which seemed difficult for me while I was driving my team, too.”
The New Century was produced by Roderick Lean Mfg. Co., Mansfield, Ohio. Founded in 1870, the company produced an extensive line of tillage implements. Promoted as “the original leverless cultivator,” the New Century remained in production even after Lean merged with others in 1930 to form Farm Tools, Inc.
Alan bought his McCormick-Deering piece from longtime friend Praben Lee (since deceased). Alan paid $40 for the cultivator. “It was much easier for me to operate than the New Century,” he says. “For the most part, it’s the one I take to the field each year.”
International Harvester did little in the way of making cultivators until about 1915, notes C.H. Wendel in American Farm Implements and Antiques. “However, its International No. 9 walking cultivator was an ultra-modern style for its time,” he adds, “with pipe beams, four shovels and spring-trip shanks.” Many of International’s cultivator designs were carried over from the Osborne line the company purchased, Wendell says.
Judging from photos and cultivator descriptions in Wendel’s 150 Years of International Harvester, Alan believes his McCormick-Deering cultivator is a No. 41 riding model manufactured in about 1919. It includes wooden pegs for tripping shanks when rocks or other obstacles were encountered.
“Literally dozens of shovels were available for every conceivable application (for this cultivator),” Wendel says. “In addition, several different plow gangs could be obtained for 4, 6 or 8 shovels.”
An Emerson disc cultivator was abandoned near a dilapidated building Alan helped dismantle in the 1980s. The owner was happy that someone was willing to remove it from the property.
“The Emerson is good for throwing dirt on vining weeds, like creeping jenny,” he says. “Weeds don’t plug this cultivator’s discs like they might if you used regular cultivator shanks. If it’s really dry, the discs can be taken off and the cultivator’s blades can be used to help avoid drying soil out even more.”
Emerson-Brantingham Co., Rockford, Illinois, dates to 1852. The company manufactured a full line of tillage equipment.
When Alan bought his 2-row Case cultivator at a 1970s auction, it was complete. The shanks, levers and springs, tongue and neck yoke were intact and the piece, which set him back $4, appeared to be in working condition.
J.I. Case began offering 2-row cultivators by 1908. Called “twin-row” cultivators, early models typically required three horses and were available with numerous attachments. As many as five horses could be hitched to a twin-row cultivator. A 1913 ad noted the cultivator’s impact on efficiency. Boosting one man’s output, the implement would help “to do its share in the solution of the farm labor problem.”
The ad described the cultivator’s features, which include just two levers to control gangs, with the depth controlled by gauge wheels. Row width was adjustable from 3 feet, 2 inches to 4 feet. “The hitch is placed in the center of the machine so the line of draft is always straight ahead,” the ad advised.
“My 2-row model was made after 1913,” Alan says. “I don’t know the exact year, but it has quite a few more adjustments and spring trips on the shanks. Some 2-row cultivators are made for three horses. This one requires four. One disadvantage of this 2-row is that the eveners sit so high that the line of draft is really high, which makes it harder for horses to pull.”
Recently, Alan restored a Jenny Lind cultivator named for a popular Swedish soprano who performed extensively in the U.S. in the 1800s. A cultivator like Alan’s was featured in the 1911 catalog produced by Pattee Plow Co., a Monmouth, Illinois, manufacturer of tillage implements.
John H. Pattee, Monmouth, operated a flourmill in the 1860s before shifting his interests to the manufacture of farm implements. By 1872, he had developed and patented the New Departure walking cultivator. The New Departure weighed less than other cultivators and allowed farmers to straddle or walk on either side of a crop row while cultivating. In 1875, Pattee, his brother, Henry, and their brother-in-law, Ithamar Pillsbury, formed Pattee Bros. & Co. Plow Co. In 1881, the company reorganized as Pattee Plow Co.
After buying the cultivator at an auction, Alan put a tongue and wooden handles on the piece. “The tongue was rotted off on the end so it was too short,” he says. “It takes a longer pole than many cultivator models.”
The handles on the Jenny Lind are offset, allowing the operator to walk either on either side of the row being cultivated. The cultivator’s shovels were long gone, but Alan had inventory of used shovels that fit. Through research, he identified the cultivator’s original color scheme. Alan has hitched his team to the cultivator, but he intends to reserve it as a display piece.
Alan’s small 1-horse cultivator (opposite page, bottom left) also serves as a yard display. It has no markings identifying manufacturer or age, but implements of this kind were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
S.L. Allen & Co., Philadelphia, manufactured cultivators like this in the 1890s. Known as the Planet Jr. line, the company’s implements often were made to convert to hillers or drills, cultivator or plow.
Alan has a full line of vintage items he uses to farm a few acres just outside Yankton. While two of his cultivators serve as display items, he rarely buys a piece he doesn’t intend to use.
“Even though I don’t use each implement every year, I like to have it in working condition, so if I need to hitch a team to it and go to the field, it’s ready,” he says. “Learning about the unique design and function of each piece, and the history behind it, has been just as rewarding as using the implements.” FC
England’s Jethro Tull is credited with introducing the practice of cultivating between crop rows and, in the 18th century, designing the first horse-drawn hoe. He devised the idea of cultivating after watching French and Italian vineyard growers hoe the ground between their vines as a way of managing weeds. On his own farm, Tull planted rows spaced widely enough that horses could draw his hoe without damaging plants.
In Farm Machinery and Farm Motors, published in 1908, author J. Brownlee Davidson traces the evolution of the cultivator. Tull’s cultivator, he says, was never a popular machine. Until 1860, he notes, country blacksmiths generally made the double shovels farmers used. He credits George Esterly of Whitewater, Wisconsin, with the first significant cultivator development, following award of an 1856 patent for a 2-horse straddle-row unit. “His was the first of the line of implements in the manufacture of which millions are now invested,” Davidson writes.
Cultivator classifications up to the early 1900s included single- and double-shovel cultivators, one-horse cultivators, 5- and 9-tooth cultivators, straddle-row cultivators, walking, tongue and tongueless, riding, combined, single-row, double-row and surface cultivators.
“The one-horse cultivator is used largely in gardening and for cultivating corn too high to be cultivated with the straddle-row cultivator,” Davidson says. “It may be provided with almost any number of teeth from five to 14. The teeth may vary from the harrow tooth designed for producing a very fine tilth, to the wide reversible shovels used on the 5-tooth cultivators. Also, a spring-tooth may be used similar to those on the spring-tooth harrow.”
Harlow Case Stahl is credited with conceiving the idea for a riding, double-gang cultivator that straddled a planted row. He created his first prototype in a small blacksmith shop. The cultivator was commercially available in 1878 through Ohio Cultivator Co., Columbus, Ohio.
Many farmers held the newfangled invention in disdain for some time, notes author C.H. Wendel in American Farm Implements and Antiques. “(They) contended that the horses had enough to do with pulling the cultivator,” he says, “much less giving the operator a ride.”
But more than a few saw its utility, and it soon passed the test of time. “(Stahl’s cultivator) is the first of the riding cultivators to be placed on the market and has been the standard for 30 years,” reports an article in the August 1911 issue of Implement Age. “On level ground, it is said that no other cultivator can be handled so easily and do such complete work.”
Davidson provided farmers with points to consider when selecting a cultivator. “The best cultivator shovels are made of soft-center steel,” he says. “They are made of almost any width and may be straight or twisted. The (cultivator’s) beam may be of wood, steel channel, flat bar or pipe.
“Seats are of two styles: the hammock and the straddle. The hammock seat is supported by the frame at each side and offers a good opportunity to guide the gangs with the feet. The straddle seat is more rigid, hence is well adapted to the treadle- or lever-guided cultivators.”
Pivotal tongues, expanding axles and row-width adjustments were common features of early cultivator design. Davidson recommends that cultivator wheels “should be high and provided with wide tires.” Wheel boxes made it possible to keep bearings well lubricated. Hitches with adjustments to suit various horse sizes were also available.
“The tongueless (cultivator) offers one advantage in requiring less room for turning,” Davidson writes. “It is essential that the team work very evenly to do good work.”
Motorized cultivators appeared in the 1920s. By 1930, tractor-mounted cultivators were in use on many farms. Today’s no-till practices often push old cultivators into the background, where they remain idle among the weeds. But each one tells a story. “Of the hundreds, perhaps thousands of cultivator manufacturers, Wendel says in American Farm Implements and Antiques, “every one would be a book in itself.”
Early farm equipment manufacturers used images of a comely lass in promotional pieces, but that was as far as any association between cast iron and the gentle sex went – at least until the 1850s, when a Swedish opera singer took the U.S. by storm.
Jenny Lind – “the Swedish nightingale” – was among the first celebrities to convert fame into fortune. Admired for her wholesome character, Lind was perceived as the very embodiment of fine womanhood.
Jenny Lind mania in the U.S. resulted in a veritable wave of endorsements, some authorized, most not. In addition to the Pattee cultivator, furniture, melon, candy, snuffboxes, figurines, clothing, pianos, home products, stoves, cigars, locomotives and even sausages were sold under her name.
–Farm Collector staff
For more information: Alan Sorensen, 2310 Willowdale Rd., Yankton, SD 57078; (605) 660-0379; or via email.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment.
Contact her via email.