Let's Talk Rusty Iron

'Father of the Modern Plow'

| May 2005

Jethro Wood faced battles on the field and in the courtroom

Agricultural methods today are drastically different than those used 50 or 100 years ago. In these days of no-till and minimum till, it's difficult to remember that the moldboard plow once reigned supreme. The plow was the basic primary tillage tool and farmers were judged by the straightness of their furrows and the cleanliness of their plowing. Plowing loosened, inverted and aerated the soil, controlled weeds and insects, and turned under vegetation and manure to rot, adding to the organic matter in the soil.

The first plow was nothing more than a forked tree limb, with the end of one fork sharpened. Later, the sharpened end was reinforced with a flint, bronze or iron point. In the 17th century, the Dutch developed a plow with a curved, wooden moldboard reinforced with an iron point and cutting edge, two handles and a coulter.

During the 1700s, English inventors improved the primitive plows of the day, while in America, farmers themselves, or the village blacksmith, made wooden plows similar to the European versions. Thomas Jefferson and Daniel Webster made improved wooden moldboard plows for use on their own farms, but these didn't become popular with other farmers. In 1797, Charles Newbold patented a plow with a solid wrought-iron bottom, but farmers, believing the iron poisoned the soil, refused to use the plow. Also, as it was cast in one piece, the whole plow bottom had to be replaced when the point wore down.

The hero of our story, Jethro Wood, called by some "The Father of the Modern Plow," was born in Dartmouth, Mass., on March 16, 1774. His father was a prosperous farmer and Wood was given a good education. One story from his childhood survives: "When only a few years old, he moulded a little plow from metal, which he obtained by melting a pewter cup. Then, cutting the buckles from a set of braces, he made a miniature harness with which he fastened the family cat to his tiny plow, and endeavored to drive her about the flower-garden." No one recorded how the cat felt about the experiment, but Wood received a "good old-fashioned whipping."

Wood later lived on a large farm in Cayuga County, N.Y., where he "whittled away, day after day," trying to hit upon the exact shape he wanted for his plow's moldboard. His neighbors thought he was "mad on the subject," and called him the "whittling Yankee." Wood carved various moldboard shapes out of "large oblong potatoes," and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the subject of plows. A patent was issued to Wood in 1814, but that plow wasn't satisfactory. After five more years of whittling, Wood patented his final design on Sept. 1, 1819. The new plow was light and strong, and the cast iron parts were held together by lugs and locking pieces, doing away with many bolts and much weight, complexity and expense. It was the first plow in which the parts most exposed to wear could be renewed in the field by the substitution of new parts.

Wood began to manufacture his plows, spending a large part of his fortune in the process. However, his neighbors called the device "Jethro's folly," and all agreed that it would never work. Even though the old superstition that cast iron would poison the soil was no longer widely believed, many farmers were sure that a plow made of cast iron would be brittle and break easily, saying: "You might as well attempt to turn up the earth with a glass plowshare."