| May 2004

The Evolution Of Cultivating Equipment

Anyone who has ever raised a garden or taken care of a lawn knows that weeds are the enemy. Farmers have always waged a bitter war against invasive plants like ragweed, thistle, quack grass, morning glory, pig weed and others. Even with advancements in herbicides, farm equipment and planting techniques, the battle against weeds continues to this day.

Good farmers never allowed a weed to go to seed, not only in their fields and pastures, but along roadways and in ditches, as well. This required constant vigilance, and lots of hand pulling or hoe chopping. On most farms, kids learned to pull any weeds seen while wandering the farm. Today, of course, chemicals are the weapons of choice for fields, lawns and gardens and, to some extent, along roads and highways. Yet, those plant killers weren't always avail-able to farmers, and many equipment inventors tried to stem the tide of crop-choking weeds through the years.

Early weed removal

Until well into the 19th century, the hand hoe was the only tool for close cultivation of row crops such as corn. In 1638, a list of the farm tools considered necessary for a settler's family of six per-sons was published in colonial Massachusetts. The list included, 'five broad howes (and) five narrow howes.' My father and grandfather were firm believers in the hoe (see 'Tribute to the Man with the Hoe,' Farm Collector, June 2000) and we spent many hours hand hoeing - not only our large garden and strawberry patch, but field corn and potatoes, as well. I must admit, I did most of the hoeing under protest. I figured that, if it couldn't be done with a tractor, it didn't need doing.

During the early 1800s, in the main corn growing states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, a small, one-horse plow was often used for cultivating (when I was a kid, the old-timers always called it 'plowing' corn, while we always referred to the procedure as 'cultivating' corn). When the corn was 3 or 4 inches tall, the space between the rows was plowed by throwing the fur-rows away from the plants. In eight or 10 days, the check-rowed corn was plowed crosswise with the furrows thrown against the plants. In another two weeks, the operation was repeated in the other direction, and the crop was considered 'laid by,' or finished.

Walk-behind and shovel plows

By 1840, walk-behind, single-horse wooden cultivators with iron teeth came into use, along with the shovel plow - little more than a shovel blade attached to a wooden beam and pulled by a horse. Yet, by 1850, farmers used walk-behind, straddle-row cultivators in the fields. These machines were pulled by two horses and allowed the cultivation of both sides of a row in asingle pass, thus cutting cultivation time in half.

Two angled beams - each carrying two or three shovels, or 'teeth' - were attached to the cultivator frame so that the teeth ran on each side of the row. The combined cultivator beam and its attached teeth is called a gang. A wood-en plow handle was attached to the rear of each beam so the operator could sink the teeth into or away from the row of plants as he walked behind. This feature was useful for dodging corn plants that were out of line or for taking out a weed that was in the row between the hills.

Jim Kirby
8/19/2009 2:04:13 PM

I have a very early two horse drawn 4 row cultivator (8 prong), mfgd. by McCormick - Deering, year unknown. There is no serial # that I can find. I'm looking for the color scheme of this piece so that I can restore to original colors. Any help would be appreciated. Thanks