The Sulky Plow

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"The Oliver": A step up from the walking plow.

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.

The depth of the furrow varied a great deal, too. Some plowmen wanted to turn over as much soil as they could in the belief that it gave a better seed bed. Others, like Dale Lewis, wanted to get the job done quick and knew four inches was sufficient to cover the weeds. Besides, he could get far more done in a day’s time. Dale was one of the first in his neighborhood to have a Fordson tractor, and how he delighted in whizzing along, turning over six acres a day, while I plodded along right next door with my Oliver, bragging about the two acres I did. Perhaps he was right: At least there seemed to be little difference in the height of his corn and ours when they grew across the fence row from each other.

The third wheel was a mite smaller than its mate, as it ran on the unplowed sod and had inch-long studs projecting from the rim. These were the ends of the spokes that were poked through the rim to give traction, and prevent the plow from being drug sideways by the draft of the load.

The moldboard was that curved, steel plate that had the shear attached to its bottom. This steel scour able moldboard was the secret that John Deere discovered. When he built his first steel moldboard plow, agriculture was changed forever.

At the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., there is a pre-John Deere plow, a prairie sod break (or “buster”) as it was called. While it had a steel point, the moldboard was of curved wood. It was a giant, 36-inch plow that must have required at least 20 oxen to pull it through the tough roots of the unbroken prairie. When that plow was used, weeds and tall grass were probably not well covered so they would decay, because the dirt hung up on the wooden moldboard and the operator had to stop often and scrape off the build-up by hand. That was the job John Deere eliminated.

The Oliver plow had a steel beam with  a horizontal hitch that allowed the triple tree to be shifted a mite to compensate for the width of the furrow being turned.

The hitch used on the Oliver was called a triple tree since three horses were needed to pull the load. It was an ingenious application of the laws of physics, as the three single trees were so spaced that each horse pulled his fair share of the load. Many people have never seen a double tree. Each horse had its own single tree to which the tugs were attached on this plow. These in turn were fastened to the names that were buckled around the leather collar so that the horse was actually pushing the load with his shoulders.

The team was controlled with two lines as the third horse was guided by a jockey stick attached to the center horse’s bridle. This was a three-foot long stick with a clip on either end that was snapped to the right bit rings of one horse and the left bit of another. When one horse turned, the other followed suit.

Along Muddy Creek, we have always been blessed (?) with an abundance of horse flies. The big black ones were easily the most blood-thirsty, and it was necessary to protect the horses as best possible with nets made from gunny sacks, or better yet, woven from the stems of hemp that grows so abundantly along the back waters.

It was common to use a corn knife to strip the leaves from the six-foot tall plants, then cut them and lay the bare stems out in the sun until they were partly dry and crisp. They were then pounded with a wooden mallet until the six-foot long strands separated and loosened so they could be pulled apart and woven into an effective fly net that would repel, annoy and disturb a good number of the flies.

Folks knew the plant was called “crazy weed,” as it made cattle wild when they ate it, but little did we realize that those leaves we were stripping off would some time in the future send many a smoker into a trance, or more likely, to jail. Our wild hemp is now called marijuana. You know, in my growing up days, we smoked. Heck, yes, we smoked. Cornsilk, grapevine and cubib, with potent medicine that was sold for the relief of sinus congestion. Eventually, some of us started rolling our own Run Jonnie Run or Bull Durham, and maybe when we could spare a dime, we’d splurge on some “tailor mades,” but not once do I remember anyone being so dumb as to smoke “loco” weed.

Oh, back to the plow. Since this is a riding plow, the operator has the luxury of riding all day, sitting in an iron basket with no springs. I have seen many a plowman walking behind his sulky plow to take the kinks out of his back. It was possible to somewhat soften the jolt by tying a cured sheepskin onto the seat. This made a very satisfactory cushion.

Laying off land by plowing a straight furrow both ways, and throwing the soil together is no small task, and is the proof of a good plowman. The National Plowing Contest originally matched skilled plowmen driving horse-drawn plows. They were sulky plows, just like the old Oliver I rode on Muddy Creek in my long ago youth. FC

The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

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