Increasing the Yield

One-row fertilizer distributors could have made a world of difference on Ozark farms, but were beyond the reach of many.

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Ron McGinnis
The Fair Grove Agricultural Machinery Museum’s collection of fertilizer distributors (left to right) includes units built by Cole Mfg. Co., Charlotte, N.C.; John Blue Co., Huntsville, Ala.; McCormick-Deering, Chicago, Ill.; and the Dow-Law, Charleston, S.C.

Among the items on display at the Agricultural Museum owned and operated by the Fair Grove (Missouri) Historical & Preservation Society are four ground-driven fertilizer distributors ranging in age from 90 to 140 years old.

In their day, the distributors were pulled down one row at a time by a horse or mule. The implement’s single wheel made a furrow in the soil. Granulated fertilizer dribbled out of its hopper into that crevice before it was covered by a pair of 2-inch shovels. This “side-dressing” was done to increase growth a few weeks before harvest.

The implement’s operator guided the distributor with rear-mounted wooden handles while also controlling the pulling animal. Leather lines were tied together before looping them over the driver’s shoulders. Most of the draft animals had been doing that job long enough to stay between the rows without instructions.

To keep them from nibbling leaves, the draft animals often wore wire muzzles. A “gee” (right) or “haw” (left) hollered at the end of each row told the horse or mule which direction it should turn before entering the next row. When the supper bell rang, the animal headed toward the barn.

Guano sets the stage for ammonia production

Farmers have used manure (animal dung, both fresh and dry) to replenish fields for thousands of years. Guano (feces from bats and birds) became an additional way to increase crop yield during the early 1840s. This high concentration of nitrogen and phosphorus had been gathering in caves and at nesting sites since the beginning of time.

Seabird droppings derived from a fish diet was up to 200 feet deep on several of the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru. By using forced labor, this natural product was commercially mined; tons of it was shipped to England, Germany, France and the U.S.

By 1880, all of the world’s guano deposits had been mined out. In the process of making money, man had decreased populations of some species of bats and birds to the point of extinction. Increased demand for fertilizer was met when huge deposits of nitrates and phosphates were found on land.

In the early 1900s, German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a chemical process to create ammonia. That led to large-scale production of synthetic fertilizer. For his research into ammonia production processes, Haber won a Nobel prize in 1920. In 1932, Bosch and Frederick Bergius won a Nobel Prize for their contributions to the invention and development of chemical high-pressure methods used in production of ammonia.

“Wish I’d had one of these”

Most small-scale farmers in the Missouri Ozarks, where the historical society’s distributors were found, would have considered the implement to be an outlandish expense. One was offered for sale at $7 (the equivalent of $189 today) in a 1912 John Deere catalog.

Joe Felin helped his father commercially raise and can tomatoes near Marshfield, Missouri, in the 1940s and ’50s. “I never saw a fertilizer distributor,” he says. “We side-dressed tomato plants with a small cup and a bucket. Sometimes we spread it with our hands. Side-dressing was more productive and efficient than broadcasting.”

Other Ozark old-timers agreed that they had never seen or heard of fertilizer distributors. Their process, learned from Dad and Grandpa, was to cover the field with manure, which gave it lots of organic nutrition. Then they used two-row, horse-drawn corn planters with fertilizer hoppers to plant seeds a few inches apart, along with the correct amount of store-bought fertilizer, before the seeds were covered. No more fertilizer was added as the plants grew to maturity.

Charley Buckner is a life-long Fair Grove farmer. “Grandpa told me that plowing the ground made moisture rise during dry weather,” he says. “So that meant plenty of work for an old mule and me. We ran a double-shovel close enough to turn corn plants on their roots.” He laughs, then adds, “Grandpa could tell when I rode on the plow instead of walking behind it, because the dirt was a little deeper there. Couldn’t get away with much around Grandpa.”

“Wish I’d had one of these when I was in Tennessee,” says Eddie Williams, who now lives near Strafford, Missouri. “It would have been great to fertilize cotton or tobbacky.”

As a youngster, this author scraped, scooped and pitched manure out of chicken houses, hog sheds and cow barns into a manure spreader that scattered it over fields. He mucked horse stalls, grubbed under rabbit hutches with a hoe and cleaned-up after sheep before hauling it all off to the garden with a wheelbarrow. Pouring fertilizer out of a sack into a nice little distributor and letting a mule pull it between rows seems like a lot easier way to get a crop to grow. FC

Fair Grove museum display shows evolution of early fertilizer distributors

The Fair Grove Agricultural Machinery Museum’s collection of fertilizer distributors reflects a manufacturing span of about 70 years. The oldest piece dates to roughly 1880; the newest to 1940.

Dating to about 1940, the distributor built by Cole Mfg. Co. was built in Charlotte, North Carolina. It has a 15-inch front-mounted cast iron wheel; cogs on the wheel’s outer rim bump against the hopper to actuate a flow of fertilizer. At the drive wheel’s center is a gear that is operated by a lever on the implement’s right handle. This starts and stops the flow of fertilizer, and stops and starts a loose-ended shaft that pivots inside the distributor’s circular galvanized metal hopper to break fertilizer clumps into granules. Two shovels at the implement’s rear cover the row.

The John Blue unit, built in Huntsville, Alabama, in about 1920, has a 16-inch rear-mounted cast iron wheel. Several circular rows on nubs on the wheel’s right side interact with a gear at the rear end of a half-inch shaft. It drives an auger beneath the distributor’s rectangular sheet metal hopper that breaks clumps of fertilizer into granules.
The McCormick-Deering (IHC) distributor was built in Chicago in about 1930. It has a 15-inch rear-mounted cast iron wheel. Protruding cogs on the wheel’s right side connect with a metal bumper that shakes fertilizer from a rectangular wooden hopper. A lever mounted on the implement’s right handle controls the flow of granulated fertilizer.

The Dow-Law guano distributor, built in Charleston, South Carolina, between 1870 and 1880, was recently donated to the museum by Jerry Tracy of Fair Grove. It has a front-mounted 15-inch solid wood wheel that is wedged from the center to the wheel’s outer edge to cut furrows in the dirt as the implement moves forward.
An iron tire nailed to the wheel’s outer edge keeps it from wearing out. Rotating off-center at the wheel’s left axle end is a wooden pitman rod that connects to an iron shaft that operates a 3-pronged iron mechanism inside of the distributor’s rectangular wooden hopper to break up clumps of fertilizer. Mounted at the hopper’s rear board is a lever to control granule flow. A home-made wooden peg keeps it from slipping out of place. – Dan Manning

The Fair Grove Historical & Preservation Society owns and operates Wommack Mill, the miller’s log home and the Agricultural Museum at the southeast corner of Old Mill Road and Main Street in Fair Grove’s historic downtown district. For information on group tours of the mill and museum, call (417) 894-4960.

If you have a horse-drawn fertilizer distributor, please contact Dan Manning, P.O. Box 115, Fair Grove, MO 65648 or by email at Photographer Ron McGinnis’s work may be seen at his website.

America’s Rural Yesterday: Volume 1 Fieldwork has more than 100 photographs of field work back in the day including planting, tilling, harvesting and more by famed photographer J.C. Allen. Also included are photos of horses, mules, oxen, vintage tractors, and stream engines that provided the power back when rural life was the norm. This title is available at the Farm Collector store or by calling (866) 624-9388. Item #7554.

  • Updated on May 4, 2021
  • Originally Published on May 1, 2021
Tagged with: agricultural history, fertilizer distributors
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