Cultivating corn, one row at a time

article image
An International Harvester No. 4 cultivator from the early 1920s.

Decades ago, responsibility for cultivating corn one row at a time came early in a farm boy’s life. My brother, Dudley, and I were 10 or so when we first took the field with Tom and Mary, Dad’s team of aging plodders, who weren’t likely to bolt with us and plow up a quarter mile of corn in a circle.

Even after Dad got a 2-row cultivator attached to our John Deere tractor I still took a turn rattling down the bumpy lane with a high, iron-wheeled rig. Trailing in the dust were the harness reins that were tied in a knot behind my back.

I thought cultivating was one of the nicer farm jobs. Often the sun was shining as the metal wheels clanked and grated over small stones in the road leading to the field gate. Tom and Mary were usually in a good mood. Towing a 1-row cultivator was effortless compared to other heavy chores that could leave festering sores under the horse collars. I rode with my legs dangling down from the iron seat. In the field, I’d put my feet in metal stirrups that, along with the curved oak handles, helped guide the two sets of polished steel shovels that turned the earth.

In a good year, the corn was dark green and becoming sturdy on small, finger-sized stalks. The harrowing had been done, breaking up clods of dirt and lightly rolling down just enough soil to discourage the tiny emerging weeds.

Now the weeds that survived the harrowing were growing fast. It was fun to press down with feet and hands on the shovel bars and watch the blades send a cascade of damp loam over the weeds. Looking backward down the row, the deep green of the corn shone brightly against the dusky earth.

Price of distraction

That always brought a satisfied smile until I turned back with a jerk, knowing the snapping noise was the untended shovels cutting roots and toppling corn. I often got off and knelt in the row, patting up a mound of earth to support each stalk whose future I had damaged. Even with a firm grip on the handles and a steady foot in each stirrup the shovels followed a wavering path down the row and sometimes, despite my efforts, would dive under a stalk and topple it. A trimmed, forked stick tied on the frame of the cultivator let me reach back and straighten a stalk without leaving the seat.

So the morning passed serenely with only one small irritation. I shook my head in dismay at the unhappy view of Tom and Mary’s destructive dance at the end of each row. The shovel beams were lifted and hung on metal hooks as Tom and Mary methodically turned to start a new row. It was as if they’d gone to ballet school and learned the rough skill of placing each large foot directly down on a stalk of corn at each step. Sometimes they varied the routine by swinging those bucket feet along an end row in a sweeping motion so that three or four loud pops of the brittle stalks meant a real dent in the harvest.

I despaired of saving any of the end rows no matter how hard I tried to steer the old team to where they might step occasionally in an open space. It made no difference. I could only sit in frustration as Tom and Mary calmly turned in their own way, paying no attention to the demolition occurring under their feet.

Creeping jenny

I liked to watch the shovels turn up the earth in curling shards until we came to a patch of “creeping jenny,” a tough, crawling vine that suffocated young corn. It clogged and wrapped the shovels in aggravating bunches until I had to get down and claw it loose and fling it away. A few yards on and the mass of vine was there again, often binding in a rope-like connection between the shovels, then pulling down the row of corn with successive “pops” that sounded like small firecrackers.

In my time, unable to eradicate creeping jenny, we lived with it or survived it. The stuff was an unnecessary and persistent evil. When the young corn was thin on a clay hillside, it was easy to see the tangled green carpet of “jenny” spreading wide, looking for trouble.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed studying the narrow bank of freshly plowed cornrows. It was satisfying to contribute, even in a small way, to the making of a crop. And it was a small way. The speed and range of tractor cultivators soon sent my old 1-row to the weed patch, under the trees and into retirement.

I miss that kind of work. It was so close to the soil that the plowshares often threw dirt onto my shoe tops. Bigger machines were coming, and farm life would get less personal. But I still look back on that time with affection, and wonder whether it was just youth that made it seem so good. FC

Dale Geise is a retired educator who grew up on a farm near Underwood in southwest Iowa. Contact him at 1051 X Ave., Boone, Iowa 50036; (515) 292-5533;

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment