Hand Fork Has Long History as Essential Farm Tool

Hand forks came in many different varieties, including hay forks, manure forks, potato forks and ice forks.


| February 2017



america gothic

A hand fork looms large in Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting, American Gothic.

Painting by Grant Wood

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.