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.
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.
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.
Finally, several enterprising (or lazy) individuals rigged a seat on the straddle-row machines so the operator could ride. Then a problem arose: how to move the teeth into and out of each row without the operator's help? That problem was solved on some machines by leaving the wooden handles in place on either side of the seat so the operator could reach them and guide the plow blades.
Other designs included a foot stirrup to each gang so the perator could use his feet to steer the gangs. On still other machines, foot stirrups not only moved the gangs sideways, but also steered the cultivator wheels as well for really quick dodging. Some cultivators - appropriately called 'wiggle tails' - were designed so a slight swaying motion of the body swung the seat to one side or the other. This motion of the seat, in conjunction with the operator's feet on the gangs, provided the necessary side ways movement for the equipment.
Literally hundreds of one-row riding cultivator variations existed during that time. The equipment offered by just one manufacturer, B.F. Avery & Sons, included cultivators bearing such names as Joy Rider, Jack Rabbit, Bob White, Southern Queen, Avery Queen, Avery Leverless, Avery Pivot Axle, Majestic and Majestic Jr. Many more makers existed, some brands remembered and some long forgotten. These machines were designed to quickly and cleanly cultivate any row crop under any kind of soil condition.
In his 1870 report, the U.S. commissioner of agriculture wrote, 'Now, with a span of horses and one of our best riding cultivators, 15 acres can be accomplished, and this with almost as much ease and comfort as a day's journey in a buggy.' Ten acres would've been more accurate, but still impressive compared to the hoe.
Even with such 'ease and comfort,' however, the vast cornfields of the Midwest required bigger machines. Soon, two-row cultivators drawn by three or four horses were common. Little evidence exists that larger machines were developed until heavy-pulling tractors were widely used, but farmers undoubtedly experimented with four-row cultivators. Today, at least two manufacturers make four-row cultivators for use with horses, I&J Manufacturing, Gap, Pa., and Miller's Repair Shop, LaGrange, Ind.
During the first 25 years after the tractor's introduction, its greatest draw-back was the inability to plant and cultivate corn. Motor cultivators were developed by several manufacturers, but never caught on since they were single-purpose machines, and no farmer in those days was willing to spend the money to buy both a tractor and a motor cultivator. Even progressive farmers who used tractors for tillage and other heavy work had to keep a team or two of horses to help plant and cultivate corn.
Finally, in 1922, International Harvester Co. sent 17 new Farmall tractors to Texas, where they were successfully tested. The development of the Farmall system meant the motorization of every farm job requiring power -including cultivating - and truly revolutionized agriculture.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org