Hand Fork Has Long History as Essential Farm Tool

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A hand fork looms large in Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting, American Gothic.
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An Egyptian winnowing fork in use.
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Forks used in ice harvesting.
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An assortment of forks from a 1952 catalog issued by Lee Wholesale Hardware Co., Shreveport, La.

Among all the stories about various farm implements that appear in these pages, the hand tools that were (and still are, in some cases) essential to farming are rarely mentioned.

Hand forks of different styles fall into this category and include those for pitching hay, straw, ear corn and silage, along with those for digging up and throwing manure and root crops such as potatoes. Then there are forks for spading gardens, those used in ice harvests and I’m sure others for specific purposes.

Earliest forks carved from saplings

Forks for gathering and pitching hay and grain have been around since antiquity and originally were made of wood with the handle and two or three tines carved from a stout sapling with the branches located just right.

Three- or four-tined forks were also fashioned from a stout piece of wood split at one end and the tines thus formed were sharpened, spread and held in place by hardwood spreaders riveted between them. The handle just above the juncture of the split was wrapped tightly with leather or wire to keep the split from growing. In some areas, these homemade, wooden forks were used into the 20th century.

Winnowing the good from the bad

For centuries, grain was threshed by first spreading it on a smooth, hard surface, then trampling it with horses or oxen, or by dragging a toothed sled (called a tribulum by the Romans) over it or, later, by beating the stalks with flails. The long stalks were then raked away and winnowing forks, shovels or baskets were used to throw the grain, chaff and other debris into the air so the heavier grain kernels could fall back onto the threshing floor while the lighter material was blown away by the wind.

Winnowing rakes were made of wood, with a straight back and four to eight wooden teeth set fairly close together. Winnowing forks are mentioned several times in the Bible, usually in the context of God separating the good people from the bad, as in Jeremiah 15:7, which reads: “I will winnow them with a winnowing fork at the city gates of the land. I will bring bereavement and destruction on my people, for they have not changed their ways.” (A few Bible versions refer to a fan or shovel instead of a fork).

Strengthened by iron

It’s unknown when metal was first used to build forks, but it was probably during the 18th century, when local blacksmiths began to fasten metal tips to wooden fork tines and hammered the entire set of tines out of wrought iron. These were attached to wooden handles of ash or hickory, as they still are today.

An undocumented story from John Deere’s history tells us that the young blacksmith, while still in Vermont during the early 1830s, made pitchforks that became famous throughout the area because the tines were polished “until they slipped in and out of the hay like needles.”

Handles customized to user and the job

The length of the wooden fork handle was determined by what the fork was to be used for, as well as the size of the person using the fork. A large, strong man might want a longer handle than a shorter person, while forks used for pitching grain bundles or hay onto high wagon loads or stacks might have longer handles than those used to feed a separator.

Men who fed the thresher had to take care to hold onto their pitchforks. As one old thresherman observed, “They’re hard on concave teeth, and the separator didn’t digest them too well.”

Tines varied by task

The number of tines and their curvature also vary according to use. A fork for pitching grain bundles usually has two or three tines and a nearly straight handle so the bundle will leave the fork cleanly and not hang up when thrown. Hay forks usually have three or four tines with a little more handle curvature to hold a large amount of loose hay. In the northwest, where a lot of grain was cut with headers and stacked before threshing, four-prong pitchforks were used because of the short straw.

Manure forks have four to six tines set closer together in order to hold the looser material. Of course personal preference entered into it too. I’ve known farmers who had a favorite fork (usually carefully marked with their initials) that was used for everything regardless of the number of tines, and they would be highly upset if someone else picked it up to use in a group setting such as threshing.

As straw is lighter than hay or grain, straw forks usually had four tines spread farther apart so they would hold more. On the western Pennsylvania farm where I grew up during the 1940s, we had four-tined manure forks, but three-tined pitchforks were used for hay, straw and grain bundles.

Forks designed to do no harm

There are also forks for digging potatoes and other root crops. An 1824 Farmer’s Guide tells us that, “In gathering potatoes, it is said that one man can throw out of a hill, with a four-pronged metal fork, as many (potatoes) as five or six farm hands can pick up and throw.” 

The typical potato fork has a short handle with a D-type grip and a square back so the foot can be used to force it into the ground. The four to six tines are usually not round, but triangular and flat on top, with blunt tips so any tuber they encounter underground will be pushed aside instead of being impaled. Spading forks are made very much like potato forks, except the tines are wider and flatter and are sharper to penetrate hard ground.

Farmers who fed silage used silage forks with short handles with a D-type grip and a dozen or more tines in the same general shape as a large scoop shovel. Similar forks were used for ear corn and coal.

In the days before refrigeration, the harvest of ice from lakes and rivers was a big business with its own set of tools. While not used for pitching the ice around, three-pronged ice forks with iron tines (and probably a 6-foot iron handle with a ring at the end) were used to maneuver floating ice cakes onto an ice house elevator. A splitting fork was similar, but it had two or three wide, heavy tines and was used to break through partly sawn joints between ice cakes. FC

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 email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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