Michigan man redefines notion of yard art with a display of old plows
“People come from all over to see this,” Elmer Schneider says. “One guy stopped while he was just driving by. He said he thought he was seeing things.” Elmer doesn’t give tours per se; he invites visitors to “help themselves” and roam through the display.
Elmer Schneider’s got it bad. What’s worse, he knows it. But he just can’t stop.
“Several years ago we were doing some landscaping,” he says. “I put an old plow out and some people told me it looked nice.” Reasoning that if a little is good, a lot is better, he continued to add plows to the display on his lawn just outside Chesaning, Mich.: a total of 458 over the next 17 years. “I was supposed to quit,” he says, rolling his eyes toward the farmhouse, “but I just got two more.”
“I think I have one from every brand ever made,” he says. The accuracy of that statement is open to debate but it seems entirely possible. “Some of these plows were made in Michigan,” he says. “A few are pretty rare and some are more than 100 years old. And every one of them has gone through my workshop.”
Indeed, each plow in the field sports a gleaming coat of paint and spotless shares. Some wheels are clad in accent tones; some wear the same shade as the plow. The palette suggests an amicable consortium of implement dealers: The relics are painted in uniform hues of red, green, orange, yellow, black and white.
When Elmer finds new specimens for his collection, they’re generally in pretty rough shape. “You should see some of the junk that was on those old plows,” he says. “I’ve found them with binder twine on them. They just used whatever they could find to hold them together.”
Wheels — the first part to sink into the ground when the plow is abandoned behind the barn — almost always have to be replaced. Elmer keeps an inventory of parts and has been known to fabricate hard-to-find pieces. “I’d bring in a plow to work on and the boys would say, ‘You’ll never get that fixed.’ Next day they’d come see what I’d done and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. That’s the same plow?’”
Every plow gets the once-over. “I power-wash them with hot water and paint them with implement paint. Some of them took a gallon and a half of paint,” he grumbles, “and some of that paint cost $100 a gallon. I probably have $500,000 in this if you figure the paint.”
Elmer’s plow display represents a span from about 1900 to the late 1930s. All have steel wheels but the similarities end there. “There’s a lot of difference in design,” he says. The display includes hillside plows, flip-over plows and some with long, narrow bottoms. “They claim those came out of Canada,” he says, “but I don’t know.”
Once the display was launched, it generated its own leads. Friends brought him plows and alerted him to prospects. Elmer put a few miles on the pickup chasing plows. “I’ve gone as far as 500 miles for a plow,” he admits.
After a period of trial and error, he’s settled on a system for the display. Following restoration, each plow is mounted atop a short pole. In the summer, the grass is trimmed around every last one. “The kids never much liked the weed whacking,” he says. Truth be told, Elmer’s not so keen on it himself. “I’ve bumped my head on plow handles a lot during weed whacking,” he says. Whether it’s the memory of summer’s toil or simply a matter of aesthetic preferences, he especially likes the view in winter. “They look really sharp when they’re about half-covered in snow,” he says.
Today, Elmer and his sons farm 4,000 acres in an operation substantially different from the farm he grew up on. “Dad had a walk-behind plow,” he says, “International, I think. I remember him plowing. I drove the horses when we loaded hay. He farmed 80 acres and milked cows by hand at three farms. In those days you had to work or you didn’t have shoes. Peas, lima beans, sweet corn — we picked all that by hand for a canning factory at Owosso.”
If he had it to do over again, Elmer says, he’d take a different tack with the display. “If I knew then what I know now, I don’t think I would do it again,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of money tied up in this; I should have been buying land.” But his argument lacks conviction, especially when he takes a long look at the display lit up at sunrise. “Well, it’s about history too,” he admits. “If I hadn’t saved them, they’d all have gone to the junkyard.” FC
For more information: Elmer Schneider, 18072 S. Corunna Rd., Chesaning, MI 48616.
Leslie McManus is the editor of Farm Collector. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Long a popular collectible, the horse-drawn plow is matched only by the windmill as an enduring icon of farm country. But don’t get wrapped up in trying to authenticate Americana like this piece located in the Image Gallery.
Plows can be hard to date, as many remained in production for decades. The Oliver No. 40, for instance, was manufactured from the late 1800s to the 1950s.
A wood beam does not necessarily help date the plow. Most plow manufacturers built models with wood beam and steel beam throughout their production runs. Often the beam material was simply a matter of personal preference.
The same can be said of left-hand and right-hand plows. Although both enjoyed wide use throughout the U.S., left-hand plows were often used east of the Mississippi and right-hand plows were more common west of the Mississippi. As a general rule, there is no particular rarity associated with either left-hand or right-hand plows: Most manufacturers produced plows in both versions.
What color should you paint your plow? Few color illustrations of plows exist. Disassemble the plow and look for traces of color in a protected area, such as the point where the beam attaches to the frog. Plows were most often painted in one color. Some manufacturers varnished plow handles and beams; others painted them.
— From Horse Drawn Plows, compiled by Alan C. King, 1999