Ever wonder how small grains were harvested
6,000 years ago, or how corn was bundled to be hand-tied for
shocks, or how our ancestors bored tapered holes for barrel bungs
without power drills? Answers to those questions and more can be
found at the Pennsylvania State University’s Pasto Agriculture
Museum near State College, where Museum Curator Dr. Darwin G.
Braund will show you the tools of the time.
“Everything in our museum is both B.C. and B.E.,” Braund
explains with a smile, as he demonstrates how an antiquated,
one-horse treadmill can supply power to a stationary threshing
machine. “Before computers, and before electricity or engines, we
are all about muscle power here.” All joking aside, the museum’s
oldest pieces are about 6,000 years old. “We have the remains of
three clay sickles that were collected in what is now Iraq,” Braund
says. “They date to about 4000 B.C. (before Christ), and were
likely used to harvest small grains by members of the Ubaid
cultural group that lived in southern Mesopotamia at the time.”
It is hard to imagine cutting grain with a clay sickle, much
less that the pieces survived to the present day, but it should
come as no surprise that even ancient people searched for an easier
way to harvest crops. “Agriculture has played a big part in human
civilization,” Braund says. “We have come pretty far in 6,000
years.” And while most of the museum’s more-than-850 pieces are
from a time much closer to the present than to clay sickles, they
collectively form a portal through which the work of living in the
past can be clearly understood. “With our current technologies and
social structure, people are more separated from their agrarian
roots than ever before,” Braund explains. “One of the Pasto Ag
Museum’s goals is to help bridge that gap.”
Food from the farm
There’s no doubt that life is easier today, perhaps even too
easy. One look at the Pasto Ag Museum’s meat processing exhibit and
it quickly becomes clear that having sausage for breakfast 100
years ago wasn’t as easy as heading off to the grocery store the
night before. Rather, the process would have begun months earlier
by raising a slaughter hog, or at least bartering for one.
Butchering and processing that hog into breakfast sausage and other
valuable food items was a hands-on process that made use of many
specialized tools. For example, right after killing, the hog was
dipped in a caldron of scalding water to loosen the bristles from
the hide. The hide was subsequently scraped to remove the bristles.
What do you use to scrape a scalded hog carcass? A hog scraper, of
course. The Pasto Ag Museum has quite a collection of those once
ubiquitous homestead tools.
With meat processing well underway, some cuts went into brine,
some into the smokehouse, and some went into a container to be later
chopped, seasoned, and stuffed into salt-preserved sections of the
hog’s intestines to make sausage. The museum’s meat processing
collection includes a number of wooden, iron, and steel sausage
presses, and iron or steel chopping and grinding tools — all of
them hand-powered. One primitive hand-cranked sausage press,
fabricated almost entirely from walnut, uses an ingenious capstan
with sheave reduction to winch the plunger into the device’s
The fat and fatty scraps produced during butchering were tossed
into a large kettle to render out the lard. Rendering is the
process of melting the fat and separating it from the meat so that
it will store without spoiling. Not surprisingly, the Pasto Ag
Museum has caldrons, lard presses (used to press the water from the
fat and to form it into blocks), and skimmers used to remove the
cracklings from the melted fat. Cracklings were a treat prized then
as now, but 100 years ago they weren’t available in a bag at the
The museum’s food-producing collection includes apple butter
kettles with integral paddle-shaped stirrers, butter churns, cheese
presses, cream separators, home-sized milk coolers, egg graders and
many other artifacts related to the processing of animal or plant
products into everyday food stuffs.
Labor of Necessity if not of Love
While some folks still make their own apple butter or cheese
today, Braund points out that not too many years ago, people were
more intimately involved in the production of their food, and they
did it all without electricity or petroleum power of any kind. But
it still required a great deal of power to make it happen.
The most ready source of power on the early American farm was
human power, and plenty of stories are told of the physical
hardship a family member’s departure or passing imposed. Human
power was important enough that the likelihood of easy and
plentiful births, in addition to native physical strength, were
often major considerations when young men considered potential
wives. Marriage most certainly was for love, but it was for labor
The Pasto Ag Museum celebrates the continuing human quest to do
more with less labor, but in an archaic time-frame. For example,
early cultivators of small grains just threw seed onto the ground,
but it was not an efficient method, nor did it result in a terribly
even stand. One of the earliest seeding developments was the
broadcast seeder that relied on a fluted spinner beneath a seed
reservoir to cast seed out in a predictable pattern as the planter
walked across the field. While most broadcast seeders used a hand
crank and small gearbox to activate the spinner, a different design
existed. The Pasto Ag Museum has a primitive version of this device
that uses a wooden spinner powered by the sawing of a bow, much
like that of a violin. The bowstring, looped over the spinner’s
shaft, causes the shaft to turn as the bow is worked.
When it was time to harvest, small grains were cut with sickles
and scythes, raked into bundles with wooden rakes, and hand-tied.
Later, cradle scythes were used to cut and collect the grain in
bundles in a single operation. Hand- or leg-powered corn knives
were used to cut standing corn, and it might be laid on a shocking
horse before being tied with the help of a corn shock cinch. Small
grains were threshed with hand flails and cleaned by tossing the
mix into the air, catching the grain as the wind blew the chaff
away; corn was husked and shelled with hand-held hooks and
Step a little further toward the present and the hand-cleaning
or -shelling of grain is carried out with the help of human-powered
machines such as hand-cranked corn shellers and fanning mills. The
Pasto Ag Museum’s collection includes fine examples of these tools,
and many others that point the way to using animals as engines.
Beasts of Burden
Humans have turned to their animal companions for food, power
and even shelter for thousands of years. For most of those years,
animal power was mainly used to carry or pull things, but more
recently the animal’s pulling power was converted to rotational or
reciprocating force, used to power implements much like the belt
pulley on a stationary engine or a tractor’s PTO. Marvelous
examples of two very different solutions to the problem of
capturing animal power for stationary work are displayed at the
museum: the treadmill and the sweep.
When folks think of churning butter, they typically envision
human-powered devices. However, one of the museum’s single-dasher
barrel churns is connected to a small treadmill through a lever and
fulcrum. Power was provided by sheep, goats, or dogs. “Most people
think of powering devices with belts,” Braund explains as he spins
the flywheel on the tiny treadmill. “In this case, the flywheel
acts as an eccentric to move a lever up and down through the
fulcrum.” And the end of the lever not attached to the flywheel is
attached to the churn’s dasher, which effectively mimics the human
motion of raising and lowering the dasher by hand. Some vintage
washing machines were powered the same way.
The museum’s larger Buckwalter-Champion single-horse treadmill,
manufactured by Schaeffer Merkel & Co. of Fleetwood, Pa., is
connected to a Model 313 stationary threshing machine of the same
manufacturer using a more conventional flat belt. The well-used but
wonderfully cared for treadmill even has a speed control governor
to help keep the flywheel spinning at a constant rpm, which was key
to threshing and cleaning the grain.
One of Braund’s most cherished horse-powered implements is a
Model OK Panama hay press dating to 1905. The device uses a
12-foot, two-horse or two-mule sweep to power the 16-foot-long
plunger. Essentially, mules were hitched to a long pole connected
to a hub that causes the baler’s plunger to reciprocate as the
animals walk in a circle around the hub. The sweep power has many
different designs, with and without gears, but all were used to
convert animal movement into either reciprocating or rotational
power. Braund says that in addition to the pair of mules, it took
at least four men to operate the baler — so humans still burned
plenty of calories making it work.
Other unusual animal-powered devices in the Pasto collection
include a number of horse-drawn forks. Heavy, two-pronged manure
forks were hitched to an animal and used in beef barns or feed lots
to break up and move the hard-pack manure. Forks for loading hay
into the mow also relied on the pulling power of animals. Complex
grapple-style hay hooks hang from the museum’s rafters, while more
conventional horse-pulled, hay-hoisting devices are displayed on
the wall. Wagons, reapers, sleighs, bobsleds and other horse-drawn
(or oxen-drawn) equipment round out the animal-power exhibits.
Among the most primitive animal-drawn implements at the museum
is a homemade field packer. Although the wooden framework on this
elegantly simple device is carefully fit and pegged, the rollers
themselves are obviously cut from pieces of tree trunk. An 1880s
one-horse, dump-style hay rake with beautifully formed tines and
decorative cast iron seat, and an early 1900s Yellow Jacket
horse-drawn potato sprayer built by the Field Force Pump Co. of
Elmira, N.Y., also stand out. The sprayer, with its
bull-wheel-powered pump, illustrates how animals were used for
motive force, as well as to provide power to the implement.
“Winter was an important time at the farm,” Braund says. “Ice
was needed to keep the evening’s milk cool overnight, and timber
needed to be harvested, but winter was fun too.” With that in mind,
Braund designed a special exhibit at the Pasto Ag Museum in 2004
called Winter on the Farm.
The exhibit’s centerpiece is a replica icehouse that Braund
constructed, complete with double walls and sawdust for insulation.
The icehouse was a focal point for early American farm life. It was
filled during the winter through a highly anticipated process that
began with harvesting the ice blocks, and ended with packing them
carefully into the structure, insulating them with sawdust. While
the ice served an important purpose on the dairy farm, the cold
truth of the icehouse is that it offered some relief from late
summer heat. Cold drinks and ice cream were impossible in August
without a well-packed icehouse.
Tools used for harvesting and hauling ice are broadly
represented at the museum. For instance, a horse-drawn ice scorer,
used to lay out a grid on the frozen lake, is displayed next to a
pair of horse-drawn ice plows. The ice plows made the first deep
cuts into the ice, using the scorer’s shallow groove as a guide.
Chisels, peaveys, pikes, axes, ice saws, ice tongs and other tools
used to free the blocks of ice and move them around are also part
of the museum’s collection.
Winter on the Farm is about much more than ice harvest. Braund’s
exhibit includes skates, children’s sleds, candle-making tools,
foot warmers, and stoves for heating and cooking. And no vintage
winter scene is complete without at least one light and fast
passenger sleigh. Braund had his own restored 1836 Albany Cutter on
display in 2004 along with a pair of beaver-hide driving gauntlets.
“I will probably take the sleigh home,” Braund says. “But most of
this stuff is a permanent part of our collection.”
Pointing the Way
The Pasto Agricultural Museum was formed in 1979 as a project of
the Agricultural Alumni Society of the Pennsylvania State
University at State College. In 1980, the museum facility was named
after Dr. Jerome K. Pasto, who took a special interest in
preserving Penn State’s collection of historic landmarks and
antique farm implements during his tenure as associate dean.
One important aspect of the Pasto Ag Museum’s collection is its
large number of original-condition pieces. “We are always on the
lookout for excellent original examples of very old tools,” Braund
The museum’s exhibits were loaned or donated by about 150
friends and Penn State alums, including Braund, who has been
curator for more than a decade. The facility is open during the
university-sponsored Ag Progress Days every August, and by
appointment from April 15-Oct. 15. FC
For more information: (814) 863-1383; e-mail:
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Pasto Agricultural Museum online.
Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance
writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996.
He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his
farm in East Andover, N.H.