The millions of immigrants who came to America during the 19th century brought with them a variety of skills, experience and knowledge. There were carpenters, cabinet-makers, shopkeepers, coopers, gunsmiths, miners and factory workers. Thousands of the immigrants also had been farmers or field hands in their homelands. Shortly after arriving in America, those who could bought land to farm, some traveled farther west to establish homesteads, and others sought jobs on established farms. Immigrants from eastern Europe found the farming practices and implements used in America to be much the same as those in their native countries, and that horses and mules furnished the muscle to pull the implements the farmers trudged behind.
A changing landscape, here and abroad
In the 1860s, several events occurred simultaneously that changed farming in America. First, the United States was divided by a civil war. Farmers in the northern states were asked to increase crop and livestock production to feed a rapidly growing Union Army. Increased quantities of hay, oats and corn were also needed for the thousands of horses and mules acquired by the Union Army. Wool was purchased from farmers for uniforms, because cotton was not available in the quantity needed. And hides were bought to make leather for saddles and harnesses. As a result, northern farmers experienced a new and welcome prosperity.
At the same time, several months of poor growing weather in England, Ireland and France significantly reduced crop yields in those countries, creating a serious food shortage. Prior to the war, European companies bought grain and meat from America’s southern states, but that source of supply was cut off by the Union Navy’s blockade of southern ports. England and France turned to Canada and America’s northern states to buy large quantities of flour for their bakeries and tons of meat for their butcher shops.
Within a few months, though, American farmers found they could sell more products than they physically could produce. A manpower shortage further compounded the situation. Thousands of farmers lost the help of their sons and hired hands to enlistments in military service and, later, to a federally mandated draft.
During the Civil War years, farmers didn’t have the options for increasing crop production enjoyed by today’s farmers. There were no chemical fertilizers to stimulate yields or spray materials to control insects. If manure was used for fertility, it had to be spread over the fields from a wagon with a pitchfork. And there were no hybrid seeds. Farming additional acres wasn’t an option either, because of the manpower shortage.
Equipment manufacturers make their move
Farm equipment companies saw an opportunity in this situation. They could increase sales during this period of farm prosperity by manufacturing new horse-drawn implements that would make farmers more productive. The implement designers realized that a farmer seated on an implement could work more acres in a day than if the same farmer had to walk behind the implement from dawn to dusk.
The first riding implement was a row-crop corn cultivator introduced in 1862. Within a few years, seats also were mounted on spring-tooth cultivators, disc harrows, sickle bar mowers, corn planters, moldboard plows and grain drills. Many early horse-drawn implement seats were made of cast iron with holes provided for aeration and comfort. Some manufacturers, such as John Deere, even cast their trade names into the seats. The farm equipment industry later switched to seats made of sheet metal. It’s interesting to note that many implement seats manufactured in the late 1800s look almost identical to the seats used on tractors in the 1920s and 1930s. The method of attaching seats to the implements varied by manufacturer and implement. Many seats were mounted on long, rigid “U” or “I” beams; others were attached to pieces of flat steel to provide a springing action for added comfort over rough fields.
Farmers who replaced their walk-behind implements with ones on which they could ride learned that the extra draft caused by their weight alone often increased the horsepower requirement. Previously, a single team of horses or mules might have met their power needs, but now a three- or four-horse team might be required to pull the riding implement. There were exceptions. A single team could be used to pull a sulky plow with one 12-inch bottom in “light” soil, but certainly not a plow with a 14-inch bottom in sod or “heavy” soil. And, of course, when the 2-bottom riding gangplow came along, a four-horse team was usually needed.
Tractors bring end to an era
The riding implement era gradually came to an end in the late 1930s, when tractors rapidly replaced horses. However, during the early 1940s, it was still common to see farmers plowing knee-high corn with a team of horses and, in the winter, using horses to pull a manure spreader over snow-covered fields. At first, many farmers who bought a new tractor tried to use their old riding implements behind it. Manufacturers even provided specially designed hitches for that purpose. Farmers soon learned, however, that they could not fully utilize the power or speed of their tractors by using horse-drawn implements.
Farm equipment collectors have discovered dust- and cobweb-covered riding implements stored in the back corner of old machine sheds or rusting away in waist-deep weed patches. At antique farm tractor shows today, you occasionally find a beautifully restored horse-drawn 2-row riding corn planter on display, or a manure spreader with a front-mounted seat and new wood sides painted showroom fresh. Due to their age, riding implements are scarce, but worth the search. When the price is right, a collector should not overlook an opportunity to buy an early riding implement to restore and display. These implements are truly a part of history.
Throughout the early development of farm equipment, there have been changes considered to be real “breakthroughs.” Attaching a seat to a walk-behind implement is certainly one of them. It may not rank with the tractor replacing the horse, but it truly was a significant change when, nearly 150 years ago, the farm equipment industry said to the farmers of North America, “Please be seated.” FC
Ralph Hughes is retired from a 38-year career with Deere & Company. He joined the company in 1954 as a writer for The Furrow magazine, later worked as an advertising copywriter and was director of advertising at the time of his retirement.