Let’s Talk Rusty Iron

1 / 6
Above: The Father of the Modern Plow, Jethro Wood.Patent and portrait from Jethro Wood, Inventor of the Modern Plow, by Frank Gilbert published in 1882 by Rhodes & McClure, Chicago, Ill.
2 / 6
3 / 6
Above: Facsimile of Jethro Wood’s patent drawings for his 1819 plow, showing the replaceable plow share, indicated by the letter “B.” The plow very much resembles walking plows built during the 19th century and into the 1940s. Similar walking plows are still being built by Pioneer Equipment of Dalton, Ohio, for today’s horse farmer.
4 / 6
Left: A colonial plow with a wooden moldboard and a wrought iron point. These plows would barely turn a shallow furrow and wore out quickly.
5 / 6
Above: Charles Newbold’s one-piece wrought iron plow from 1797. The entire bottom had to be replaced when the point wore out, and farmers believed the iron poisoned the soil.Both plows from Land of Plenty, published by the Farm Equipment Institute of Chicago in 1950.
6 / 6
Above: A modern Pioneer walking plow behind a form of draft power common in Jethro Wood’s day. The oxen are Milking Shorthorn cattle named Lewis and Clark and are owned by Tillers International of Scotts, Mich.

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.”

Finally, Wood convinced one of his neighbors to try the thing,
and a large crowd gathered to see the plow fail. The farmer
selected a field studded with stones. “To their astonishment and
Wood’s satisfaction, it went around the field, running easily and
smoothly, and turning up the most perfect furrow which had ever
been seen.” The farmer deliberately guided the plow against large
rocks, but the plow merely jumped out of the ground and slid around
or over the rocks without damage. It was also found that the draft
was so much less that two horses could do the work that had
previously required “a yoke of oxen and a span of horses.” Wood was
vindicated, and Jefferson sent him a congratulatory letter.
Unfortunately, by the time the plow was proven to be superior to
others then on the market, Wood was broke.

Wood had proven his plow to be superior, and other plow
manufacturers immediately began to copy it. Patent laws in the
early days of the United States were not strong, so there was very
little protection for inventors such as Wood. The patent expired in
1833, but Wood persuaded Congress to extend it for 14 years.

Wood was in debt, but he seemed to be more worried about
establishing his rights as inventor and patentee than in building
and selling plows. He spent his last years in fruitless efforts to
maintain his rights against what he considered to be, and what
undoubtedly were, patent infringements. Wood died penniless in
1836, leaving his large family with no means of support.

Wood’s oldest son, Benjamin, took up the struggle to “wrest
justice from the unwilling hand of the law.” He traveled to
Washington and lobbied Congress through several sessions to
strengthen patent protection laws. Several powerful Congressmen had
known Wood and were familiar with his plow. They took up Benjamin’s
cause and important changes to the patent laws were enacted.

Back in New York, Benjamin hired William H. Seward as his
attorney and went to court. Most implement manufacturers were now
selling cast iron plows similar to Wood’s, and they opposed
Benjamin with all the legal talent they could muster. At one point
toward the end of the trial, when the manufacturers feared that
Wood was going to win, one of the plow makers tried to get him
thrown into jail for unpaid debts.

The younger Wood, however, had been tipped off, and he jumped on
his horse and rode hard for the Albany courthouse, 150 miles away.
Right after his arrival in Albany, in late 1845, the trial started
up again and the court finally ruled in Wood’s favor. From then on,
plow makers had to pay the Wood heirs a royalty on every plow
made.

This was great news for Benjamin and his siblings, but the
patent would again soon expire, so off to Washington Benjamin went
to secure another extension. Unfortunately, he died of a heart
attack before accomplishing anything, and the patent died as
well.

When the estates of Jethro and Benjamin Wood were settled, less
than $550 had been realized from the patent. The four surviving
Wood daughters got nothing and, in 1848, the two youngest went to
Washington to again petition Congress for relief. The Senate passed
a bill that would allow the heirs to collect 25 cents on every cast
iron plow built for the next seven years, but the bill was killed
in the House and the girls went home empty-handed.

Over the years, several more bills were passed by the Senate to
give the Wood heirs a sum of money, but all died in the House.
Finally, in 1870, both houses approved a bill that, in the words of
a contemporary report, “… offers relief to a very limited degree,
taking into consideration the important progress in this art
attained by Jethro Wood and the great benefits he conferred upon
the public. But the sum of $25,000, which it gives, will alleviate
at least the wants of his family, and show the gratitude of the
nation to one whose useful invention has added comfort and wealth
as well as honor to the people.”

Years of legal battles prevented Wood’s plow from gaining
commercial success, even though it was a viable product. John Deere
is famous because he built and sold plows, but because Jethro Wood
didn’t, no one has ever heard of him.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He
now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements
and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at:
letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment