In 1837, a village blacksmith named John Deere
created a plow from a worn saw blade. Amazingly, the new design
resulted in a blade that sheared the soil cleanly and a moldboard
that laid new soil aside in long, neat ribbons. It was a great
improvement over previous plows where soil clung to the shares. By
1848, thousands of Deere’s plows were sold each year.
This simple, horse-drawn device consisted of a hooked beam, a
plow with a share and moldboard and two wooden handles. It was
called a “walking plow” (or “stubble plow”), because the operator
walked behind to steady and guide the plow. Though the furrow left
behind was small and narrow, it had a great impact on the history
of the West.
The economy of the young nation was based on horsepower, the
four-legged kind. Tilling the soil for food production was
absolutely necessary for survival. Farm equipment of the day was
crude and slow. Deere’s new plows, and those devised by others,
made breaking the virgin soils of the new land easier, thus helping
to provide the food and crops needed.
When settlers reached the Great Plains to find few building
materials available, they turned to the plow to cut ribbons of
grass sod to form the walls of soddies and dugouts. The freshly
stripped areas became gardens and fields.
Old-timers on the Plains recall plowing large parallel circles
around their homes, then carefully burning the grass between
furrows to protect against prairie fires, a threat in long, dry
spells and in winter.
In Kansas, during the late 1870s and 1880s, settlers plowed
parallel furrows and burned the middles. They then forced trail
herds carrying Texas Tick Fever to stay between the furrows when
passing through their area, protecting local herds. Riders
patrolled the furrows with rifles to enforce the rules.
Ranchers forging northward to Montana in search of new grazing
land found millions of acres with no fences and no materials with
which to build them. Newly passed state laws allowed a land owner
to plow a furrow along his property line and post signs designating
ownership, thereby creating legal boundaries.
A chapter recorded in early Texas Panhandle history tells of the
huge XIT Ranch establishing the small settlement of Grenada in
hopes of enticing the railroad to pass through town. With few
natural landmarks showing on the bare prairie, the small town was
difficult for travelers to find. Dave McBride, a local settler,
plowed a furrow 50 miles long from Grenada to Amarillo for
guidance. The furrow became a wagon road and later, a state
Seems I spent most of my young life sitting on a tractor
following an endless furrow left by the discs of a Krause one-way
plow. At wheat harvest time, we kept a tractor pulling a three-row
lister sitting near the combines in case fire broke out. A swift
pass in front of a wheat field fire leaving three wide black-land
furrows usually stopped the blaze in its tracks.
Let’s give a salute to the simple plow furrow, and its many uses
through the years.
– Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and
supervisor of the Devil’s Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him
at: Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164; e-mail: