The Sulky Plow

Farm boys move from the walking plow to the sulky plow

| February 2000

At about age 12, like most farm boys of the pre-Kaiser war years, I graduated from the one-horse, one-mule walking plow to the more sophisticated sulky plow, or riding plow drawn by three horses. 

This was still a single-bottom plow, but it turned a 14- or even 16-inch furrow while being pulled by three horses, or mules, as the case might be.

The sulky plow got its name from its similarity to a racing cart. I must admit the comparison is remote, to say the least. The most widely sold "sulky" was built and sold by the Oliver Company, and was commonly called just that: "The Oliver."

It had a solid, dish-shaped rear furrow wheel just under the seat. This was hung on an "L" shaped spindle, and like the other two wheels, was equipped with an inch-wide cap filled with hard oil. The cap, after it was filled, was screwed on its base and "squirted" axle grease into the "boxen," as the bearing was called. After each round, or trip, the length of the field and back, while the team was "blowing" (getting their breath), the operator would twist each cap a half turn or so. After perhaps a dozen twists, the cup was refilled from a three-pound can that was carried in the tool box on the beam ahead of the lever, which raised or lowered the "bottom," as the whole share and moldboard assembly was called.

The most popular axle grease was made by Standard Oil, and the can had an embossed wheel design on the cover. The grease cups had to be filled every morning and at noon, or whenever the dirt had ground out the grease so the bare brass boxen and the steel axle were riding together and the friction created a distinct nerve-racking howl. I often wondered what kind of grease the pioneers used on the wheels of the Conestoga wagons.

The left front wheel was considerably larger than the rear solid one, and was mounted on a swivel so it could be turned to give the width of the furrow. When we speak of a 12-, 14-, or 16-inch plow, we are referring to the maximum width of the furrow. When the soil was "gumbo" or "tacky," it was often necessary to cut back on the load created by the width of the land being turned.