Often homemade, sturdy stone boats were used to haul never-ending crops of stone from farm fields.
Dennis McGrew’s completely restored stone boat.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A letter to the editor from Clyde Eide, Bryan, Texas, in the August 2017 issue of Farm Collector asked for information on the stone boats once used on the farm. Readers of Farm Collector responded with vivid memories of the simple device that signaled a backbreaking and relentless job: picking rocks and stones out of farm fields and hauling them away. We share those memories here:
A letter to the editor in the August 2017 issue of Farm Collector on the topic of stone boats caused me to reflect on a lifetime of “picking stones.” I grew up in southwest Michigan and by choice have retired in the same area. Whether the glaciers deposited light sand or heavy clay, one thing they left behind on our gently rolling landscape was an abundance of rocks.
And whether you call them stones or rocks (Webster defines rock as a large mass of stone and stone as mineral matter of indeterminate size or shape), they are more than a nuisance to farmers. Stone damage to implements has been a serious problem since the first crude wooden implement was put into the ground. Not only did our early settlers have to clear timber from much of the virgin lands, they also endeavored to eliminate the rocks.
With variation in size, removing rocks from tillable acreage can present several challenges. Those that can be lifted by one or two men can be removed to a cart or trailer. Larger ones required the use of a skid or stone boat. These were often homemade in various forms. Most were formed of wooden planks, usually mounted across a pair of wide, substantial runners similar to a work sleigh. Some had a turned-up nose to prevent digging into the ground while dragging across the field. Use of a stone boat was, of course, dependent on whether you could get the stone rolled onto the boat and keep it there while old Dobbin drags it off the field. The only alternative, short of a stick of dynamite, was to dig a large hole next to the rock and roll it in hoping to never see it again.
This discussion begs the need to remember that it is in the course of annual freezing and thawing that new “crops” of rocks are continually pushed to the surface. If one chooses to bury rocks, the rocks must be placed below the frost line and well out of reach of modern deep tillage chisel plows that have added to an influx of surface rocks in recent decades.
Once rocks have been picked up from the field, disposition often becomes a dilemma. Many are piled in nearby woodlots or in the nearest fencerow. Anyone who has experienced piling rocks in a fencerow or at the end of the field knows that Mother Nature quickly takes over. Brush and trees grow around these impromptu piles, quickly robbing the farmer of tillable acreage.
Some farmers faced with a rock too big to move with horses choose to start the next pile of rocks around the big one. Soon trees are growing out of the rock pile and each year you farm farther around it. The 100-acre centennial farm I own had 18 such piles on it when I took over 25 years ago. My uncle farmed with horses well into the 1950s. When he finally did get a couple tractors, he wouldn’t get near a tree limb for fear of scratching his tractor! Some piles had grown out 75 yards around that original rock “too big to move.” I buried some rocks nearly the size of the D-8 Cat I had working for me!
Stones do have many positive applications. Indigenous Indians not only formed stones into weapons, they also used them to make tools to process food and start fires. Landscaping with natural stone has become quite popular. Today we see large stones placed in corners of commercial properties and parking lots. Everyone in suburbia wants a few “pretty” rocks around their flower bed or at the front curb, but they want you to deliver them. Would they offer to come help pick them out of the field?
Many years ago, farmers placed large stones, often with a unique geo-stripe, in line with the property fence line or to mark a critical corner. Stacks of fieldstone were also used to fence in livestock. Early barn foundations and homes were made of mortar and fieldstone. Huge crushers are used to grind rocks used in roadbeds and as aggregate for concrete.
Getting back to the stone boat. As shown in the ad for Moore Plow & Implement Co., some companies manufactured iron “noses” allowing farmers to fashion their own “boat” to a size that fit their needs. The photo shows one in my collection that is probably of optimum length (4 feet) for a large stone. This must have been a common width (30 inches), as a generic version in my collection is also of similar design – probably for a 2-horse team, at minimum, as even plowed ground would create a lot of resistance under the weight of a large stone. Ingenious farmers made do with what they had. As a youth, I remember farmers using car hoods from the 1940s to skid stones off the field.
It was always a relief to see the spring crops pop up in the fields, as it meant Dad could no longer send us out to trudge across the field “picking rocks!” Today manufacturers build machines that will pick rocks like potatoes. But one thing is for sure: Next year a few new ones will show up.
I believe it remains a source of pride for a farmer to have his land as clear as possible of rocks. It’s kind of like planting a straight row, the neighbors will envy. I once had a chat with an elderly neighbor across our line fence. We were both in our fields picking up rocks and he observed how he had been doing that since he was 5 or 6 years old. I agreed. He noted that there were still just as many rocks in that field as there had been 85 years earlier. But to put a positive spin on it, he pointed out that every one he had picked up was no longer out there!
– Dennis McGrew, Lawrence, Michigan
Most of the farms around here had stone boats. Ours were mostly made of whatever scrap lumber was around. The runners were 2x6. We hauled everything on them.
We also had a log skipper that was just a short heavy frame with runners. We used it to skid logs out of the woods. You would chain the butt end of a log onto the skipper and tow it with a tractor or a horse.
Our stone boats were pulled by a chain or cable. Some of the neighbors had boats with a solid tongue and steel straps on the runners. We sometimes used an old car hood to haul stones out of a field. Our last stone boat rotted away years ago when I started using a loader to move big stones.
– Dale Reimold, Fredonia, Pennsylvania
Clyde Eide’s query in the August 2017 issue gave me a reason to dig out my stone boat. It had been hidden for about 25 years behind some military vehicles at the Miracle of America Museum at Polson, Montana, which is at the outlet end of Flathead Lake and about 70 miles south of Glacier National Park.
My grandparents homesteaded in this area in 1910 and specialized in growing certified seed potatoes. I grew up picking plenty of rock, and when we used a boat, it was one that dad had made from the back of an old combine.
My stone boat (or “drag”) was made by Hussey Mfg. Co., North Berwick, Maine. Stamped metal tags are welded on each of the skid ends. I don’t know why mine has two ends. The total length is about 8 feet. As you can see from the drawing for U.S. patent no. 1,055,328, only one upturned steel end was needed. The farmer could buy just the end and bolt his own planks on it. Hussey felt that if they made things more affordable, both in initial cost and in freight, they would ultimately sell more items.
The stenciled lettering on the oak planks says Northland, but other lettering may have long since worn off. Research has netted no further information, but I’m guessing another entrepreneur bought ends, attached oak planks and sold finished boats or drags. The Northland name does not appear to tie in with the Hussey Co. Launched 180 years ago, Hussey Plow Co. has produced plows, manhole covers, cast iron sled shoes, portable buzz or cord wood saw rigs and more. In recent years, the company has specialized in production of theater and bleacher seats.
– Gil Mangels, Polson, Montana, (406) 883-6804.
We had a stone boat on our farm at Sand Creek south of Bruno, Minnesota, in the 1940s. Ours had a large cast iron front section with 2x12’s bolted on. There were openings between the planks. The operator drove an iron bar in the ground. The boat then moved forward to unload the stone.
In the spring of 1950, during the flood, our road washed out and there was a big hole in front of our farm. We used the stone boat to haul rock to fill it. We had plenty of rocks on our farm. We pulled the boat with a team of horses or our 1917 Fordson. That stone boat was sold at our farm auction in the spring of 1952.
On my brother’s farm in the Skagit Valley, Washington, we had a bale sled used in haying. It was made out of 2x12 planks and pulled behind the baler. When the stacker made a big enough stack, he drove an iron bar in the ground between the planks. As the baler pulled ahead, the sled slid out from under the stack. This was in the 1970s and ’80s.
– Jim Jensen, Campo, California
Stone boats were very common in our area due to the task of clearing rocks from our fields. The ground in Maine is very rocky. Hussey Mfg. Co., Berwick, Maine, built stone boats and plows. I have a plow and stone boat that were made by Hussey.
– William Ellis, Farmingdale, Maine
In my younger days, I put in a good many hours every year with a stone boat. Not everybody used them, as a good deal of farms were not stony, and some farmers just left the stones in the field.
All we had was an old Farmall H that my father bought new in 1943 during the war. Our farm was stony. After the field was plowed, there would be numerous stones 2 to 4 inches thick by 1 to 3 feet in diameter. These were put on the stone boat by brute strength. Maybe a crowbar was applied for leverage.
The boat was loaded 2 to 2-1/2 feet high, depending on the size and shape of stones. Then we set off to the woods to unload rock. There, the stone was usually stacked on edge for space. This could involve maybe two days of hard work.
Stone boats came in different shapes and sizes. Ours was 40 inches wide by 6 feet long. It was made of 2x6 hardwood planks on the deck with two runners underneath of 3x4 size with 4-inch wagon tire irons straightened out and bolted through the runners. The planks curved at the front. Ours was encased with 1-1/2- to 2-inch angle iron 1/4-inch thick all the way around to protect the deck.
A strop 4 inches wide by 3/8 inches thick ran the full length of the stone boat for a hitch, with approximately 18 inches of chain to the drawbar. Dad said originally the pull straps didn’t go the full length, but it would pull out from the boat on hard pull.
It was hard and heavy work but my father and I didn’t mind. We dumped stone in five or six spots, probably several hundred tons per spot. Some stones were too heavy to load, so Father would take a sledgehammer and break the rock in two pieces for loading. Sometimes we would get the boat loaded so heavy that the old Model H could not pull the load up the hill (our farm had steep ground).
I have an antique New Holland stone crusher. I used it to break up smaller stones for use on the farm road. The crusher was hand-feed only; 2-1/2 tons per hour. Not every farmer used a stone boat, as it was tough, heavy work.
– Eldon Nash, Mainesburg, Pennsylvania
When I was growing up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, we hauled rocks on what my grandpap called a mud boat – about the same thing as a stone boat but with a different name.
My grandpap and pappy built it out of rough sawed 2x12 white oak planks. It had oak 4x4’s bolted on top of the planks, front, back and one across the center for added strength, and one down each side. The front of the 2x12’s were sawed on a 45-degree angle to keep it from digging in quite as bad. I remember we always loaded it heavy on the rear for the same reason.
It wasn’t curved up in front like the one pictured in the August issue. A couple of heavy flat straps, salvaged from some old piece of equipment, had been bent into a U-shape at the blacksmith shop and bolted to the front of the sled as hooks for pull chains.
Every field on the farm had at least one rocky spot, and when Pappy was plowing with the old 9N Ford, Grandpap and I would pick and pile rocks. When the rocks were eventually all piled, Grandpap would hitch his team to the mud boat and we would haul rocks.
The team of blacks, Buckshot and Dodi, were the last horses on the farm, and they stayed around until they died of old age. I don’t know why Grandpap chose to keep this pair. He said they ran off when they were young, and spent the rest of their lives waiting for a chance to do it again. They were so crazy that my sister and I weren’t allowed in the barn lot if the horses were there, but after getting them hitched to the mud boat, Grandpap would say, “We’re all right now, Cap. They can’t run in loose dirt when they’re pulling a load of rocks.”
– Alan Easley, Columbia, Missouri
The stone boat is a very valuable piece of equipment here in Hillsdale County, Michigan. My father, Clarence Petrie, ran a sawmill and farmed. He had a method of sawing planks with 8 or so inches on one end turned up, similar to the stone boat shown in the illustration in the August 2017 issue. When bolted with a cross plank front and back and with a large hole in the front to fit a chain, it could be pulled through plowed ground to pick up stones. I spent many hours picking up stones with one of these.
You could also purchase a cast iron nose or head that could be bolted to straight planks for the same purpose. My neighbor, Oliver Richards, has one; the boards have long since rotted away.
Our farm has an abandoned railroad grade running between the home farm and an adjoining farm. My brother Jim and I, while picking stones, could pull the stone boat alongside the 10- to 12-foot embankment and with a little finesse, the stone boat would slide sideways down the hill and we had an empty boat!
We often pastured the cows in the back farm. If a cow had a calf, usually as far back as she could get, my brother and I would take the stone boat with the old John Deere B and load the calf on the boat. One of us would stay on the boat, holding the calf, and the other would drive the load to the barn, usually with the mother following behind and talking to us.
– Bill Petrie, Jonesville, Michigan
I grew up on a farm in northern North Dakota near the small town of Rugby, close to the Canadian border. Our stone boat was made from 8-foot logs with 2x6 planks attached. The size was about 6 feet by 7-8 feet long. It had a chain in front that could be used to hook to either an evener on the team of horses, or, by using a clevis, you could attach it to a tractor hitch.
We did not have many rocks on our farm so the name stone boat was really a misnomer for us. In the winter, I remember Dad pulling the stone boat into the barn where we had 10 dairy cows, cleaning out the gutter onto it and then pulling it out to the field with horses or the tractor to empty it.
I have one memory of it being used to take my brother to school when snow blocked the roads. He went to a country school 2 miles south of the farm. My parents wrapped him up in robes and blankets and off they went. I can still remember seeing them going down the road and wishing that I could have gone with them. By the time I went to school, noting that exciting ever happened. Besides, we sold the horses.
In general, our stone boat was used as a kind of pickup to haul items around the farm. It was hard to ride as there was nothing to hang onto.
– Keith Bullock, Lake Worth, Florida