Walking Plow Held Key to the Frontier
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 highway.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org