Van Brunt Grain Drills

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For centuries, small grains were sown by broadcasting, or scattering the seed by hand onto suitably prepared ground. After sowing, the field had to be harrowed to cover the seeds. This often resulted in seeds that were covered so deep that they were unable to grow, or that were barely, or not covered at all, and were easy prey for birds and rodents.

About 1801 Jethro Tull, a progressive English farmer, made a successful grain drill. A wheeled, 2-row machine, Tull’s contraption opened channels in the soil, dropped the seeds into the channels and then covered them. Essentially, those functions are identical to the ones performed by today’s grain drills. Although drills were slow to catch on, in part due to often violent opposition from British farm laborers who believed the machines would put them out of work, their use gradually spread.

In this country drills were virtually unheard of before 1840, but in 1841 Samuel and Moses Pennock of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, patented a 7-row machine. In North Carolina, Richard J. Gatling, who invented the Gatling gun, developed what he called Gatling’s Seed Planting Harrow during the 1840s and claimed that in actual field tests wheat sown broadcast by hand yielded 34 bushels per acre, while 42 bushels was the average for grain planted with his machine. Other American inventors got into the act and before the Civil War a force feed drill was developed.

During the mid-nineteenth century, there were billions of passenger pigeons in North America.  In 1854, a Wayne County, New York resident wrote: “There would be days and days when the air was alive with them, hardly a break occurring in the flocks for half a day at a time. Flocks stretched as far as a person could see, one tier above another.” The birds seemed to know that anytime they saw a man in a field scattering something it meant dinner was served, and they would descend on the fields in their millions and clean up virtually every grain.

The passenger pigeon’s prime nesting area was around the Great Lakes, and the State of Wisconsin got more than their share of the birds. It stands to reason, then, that two Wisconsin men, brothers George W. and Daniel C. Van Brunt, would have been pioneers in developing a successful grain drill that would prepare a series of furrows, or trenches in the soil, drop in a measured row of seeds, and then cover those seeds with an even layer of earth, all before the birds got to them.

In 1860, George Van Brunt carved a model of a force-feed device for a seeder out of a turnip, a design that later became known as the fluted force feed which is still used on non-air grain drills today. Van Brunt and his brother, Daniel, built seven seeders in their shop in Mayville, Wisconsin that year, but moved it six miles down the road to Horicon the next year. About this time, George left the firm, but Daniel persevered, patenting several improvements to his grain drill. By the end of the War Between the States (the Civil War, to Yankees), Van Brunt was a successful firm, and by 1910, was a major supplier of grain seeding machinery in the upper Midwest and the Plains states.

This success attracted the attention of C. C. Webber, a grandson of John Deere, and manager of Deere’s Minneapolis branch house. Apparently, International Harvester Company had tried to buy the Van Brunt Manufacturing Company during IH’s flurry of acquisitions in the years after its formation in 1902. Daniel Van Brunt had died in 1901, and his son Willard, who was then president, spurned Harvester’s advances. Deere & Company, however, made an offer that Van Brunt couldn’t refuse, and the two companies consolidated in June of 1911, with the factory remaining at Horicon under the existing management.

As many large farm machinery builders did, Deere took advantage of the name, reputation, and good will of their newly-acquired company. Thus, the new grain drills, broadcast seeders, and lime and fertilizer distributers, being sold through the various Deere branch houses all bore the name John Deere-Van Brunt. This was true until about the 1960s, when the Van Brunt name was dropped.  

The John Deere-Van Brunt drills of the era were painted as follows: Wood parts, such as grain and fertilizer boxes, foot boards, and tongues, red with yellow lettering and decorative striping and curlicues. Wheels would be yellow and all the steel and iron parts except for the disks and boots were green. Disks, boots, and covering chains were likely all black. These colors would have been used during the 1920s and up until World War Two. At sometime early in the war, Deere phased out red paint and used all green with yellow wheels and lettering. Decorative striping was abandoned at about the same time.

One sometimes sees a small John Deere-Van Brunt 5-disk drill which is a one-horse machine and is designed for seeding between rows of standing corn. An angled fender bar along each side of the drill turns aside leaning stalks, high weeds, or trash, while angled bars on the outside of each hand grip protect the operator’s hands from being cut by corn leaves. A sheet metal corn turner or shield could be attached to the front of the drill to keep from damaging standing corn stalks while planting between the rows.

The small, one-horse drills are nice collectibles and don’t take up a lot of space.

A 1928 catalog illustration of a John Deere-Van Brunt 5-row, one-horse drill with a fertilizer attachment and disc row openers.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
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