Fourteen-year-old Parke Miller went in search of a 4-H project and came home with an 1870s Union two-row corn planter badly in need of repair. Now, he has a museum-quality planter, and he's on the lookout for a vintage plow to restore as well.
Parke, now 15, and his parents, Brad and Monica Miller, of Williamsburg, Iowa, purchased the Union planter in August 2000 at an auction near Norway, Iowa.
'There were three of us bidding,' Parke says, 'and after the bidding was all done, it cost us $210.'
They took the planter home, photographed it from every angle 'so we could put it back together easier' - and started to research its history.
'We found out it was made by James Selby and Co. out of Peoria, Ill., and dated to the mid- to late-1800s.'
Parke researched over the Internet and checked a reference book on antique tractors. 'The search on the Internet was not a lot of help,' he recalled. 'There were more offers of people wanting to buy it than those who knew anything about it.'
But an Illinois seat collector who wanted pictures of Parke's planter's original round, wooden seat suggested he contact the Peoria Historical Society, which proved very helpful. Also, the Peoria Public Library offered to contact an agricultural historian, who shared what he knew about James Selby & Co.
In the end, Parke discovered that hundreds of two-row corn planters were made in the mid- to late-1800s. Each was slightly different from the next, and because so many were made and it was so long ago, finding information today is not an easy task.
James Selby & Co., he learned, operated in the Peoria area until 1886, when Selby retired. After that, his firm was renamed the Union Corn Planter Company, and in 1904, renamed again, to the Union Corn Planter Works, which it was called until it closed in 1920.
In his research, Parke also discovered corn was planted first by hand. The field was marked to get straight rows, and then the farmer walked the fields, planting seeds by hand. 'This took a long time, and people were always looking for ways to improve the planting,' he said. 'During the 1840s, planters were beginning to be made that were pulled by a single horse.'
Two-row planters like his Union first appeared about 1865. 'It took a man on the back seat (handling the horses) and a young boy in the front to operate it; the boy would use the handle to move the plates inside the planter boxes, which would drop a seed into the ground.. This was thought of as extreme, to have two people running a corn planter, so they weren't around for very long.
'A new planter was then designed that used one person to run it. A 'checking wire' was developed with knots in it, and it would be stretched across the field. When the planter would go across the knots, it would 'trip' the mechanical parts to let a seed fall to the ground. The knots did not always trip the release of the seed, so a hand planter still would be used to go out into the field to fill any missed spots.'
Back then, Parke said, it was more important for a farmer to have straight rows than to have evenly planted ones. 'It was a matter of pride,' he said, 'and this pride goes for a long time. Even today, a crooked row of corn is noticed by all.'
From 1880 to 1890, the corn planter was improved by many manufacturers and ultimately took a form that endured for some 50 years. Many of the planters of that time even used the same wheels and frame setup, so it was hard to tell many of them apart.
Applying elbow grease
Once the research phase was finished, Parke began the actual restoration work on his planter. 'Because of the age of it, I was afraid of breaking pieces when I took them apart,' Parke said. 'My dad helped me take some pieces off because the bolts would snap easily, and other items were just hard to remove. When we purchased the planter, it had one handle that had been remade but did not fit in the slot, and one of the cross-pieces in the back had weathered badly, so we had both remade.'
Filling nail holes that weren't needed and replacing bolts that weren't from that era was next. 'Most bolts today are in a hexagon shape, so it was hard to find square-headed bolts, but my grandpa had some he'd bought at farm sales,' Parke said.
Next, he started to strip the wood down, sand some areas and repair broken parts. While striping the wood, he could see an orange color in the grain and some green in other areas, like the wheels. With help from his parents, he traced the pin striping to make patterns. It was orange on the spokes and black on the boxes and side rails of the frame. Later, they found out that the original colors were similar to an Allis-Chalmers orange with dark green.
The hand painting on the wheels and lids was very fine. 'I don't understand how they did that back then,' Parke said. 'We used pin-striping tape to edge it all on the wheel spokes, and then painted in between the stripes.'
On all the wooden parts, he said, 'it is very important when you begin striping that you do it slowly if you want to restore the original look. A lot of information can be found under all those layers of paint.'
Parke sanded each wooden piece by hand and because they were so dry, he coated them with linseed oil before painting each with from three to five coats of paint. The tongue needed a little filler, he said, but otherwise was in pretty good shape.
When he and his parents found the planter's original instructions for the plates under one of the lids, they carefully took them off and put them in a clear envelope, which they reattached to the lid after the project was finished.
The cast iron seat, which had 'James Selby & Co.' and 'Union' on it, turned out to be the most valuable piece on the planter. Parke said one person offered to buy it for more than they'd paid for the whole planter. To clean it, he used a wire brush on a die grinder.
Spray painting savvy
To make it easier to spray paint bolt heads, he put them into a cardboard box. Larger metal pieces were hung from the clothesline, and masking tape was used to edge the shoes before painting them, so black paint didn't get on the freshly painted orange areas.
'When spray painting,' Parke said, 'you should use many light coats instead of a few heavy ones. If you put it on too heavy and get in a hurry, it will cause 'runs' in your paint.'
'Putting the planter back together was like a puzzle sometimes,' according to Parke, 'and without those pictures, it would have been really hard. It was fun to see it start to look like a planter again. I didn't realize at the time we bought it how many pieces there would be to make it all work.'
He said he and his dad tried to be very careful not to scratch the paint when they tightened the bolts for the last time, so they didn't have much touch-up to do.
Once they'd finished the reassembly, they began putting the pin-striping back on the wheels, measuring and marking first where all the bends and points were to be. 'Then we laid the striping tape out kind of like 'connect the-dots,'' Parke said. 'They aren't all identical, but I doubt when they did them by hand they were exactly alike on each spoke either.'
He calculated he and his folks spent about 200 hours on the project. By talking to so many different people, and taking the planter apart and putting it back together again, he learned how all the levers and plates worked.
He and his folks also took a trip last summer to Mount Pleasant, Iowa, for the Old Threshers Reunion, where they saw different types of machinery from the same time period as the planter -including a very similar planter.
Parke said he couldn't imagine how long it would take to plant a field of corn with the old Union. 'Someone told me that it would have taken all day to plant what is now easily done in an hour.'
He said researching and restoring his planter was one of the most interesting 4-H projects he had ever done. It earned him blue ribbons at the Iowa County Fair and at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines last year. Also, he won a $300 second place prize in a special competition sponsored by the K i n z e Manufacturing Co. at the county fair. The Kinze contest aims to encourage metal-working, fabricating, welding and ag mechanics skills.
The project also proved to be a bridge builder between Parke and a few members of 'the older generation.'.'Parke formed whole new relationships with older people,' his mother says. 'He went through more changes than that planter did.'
Now, the 15-year-old is working on an Oliver 66 tractor made in 1950. It is owned by another Williamsburg resident. 'We're redoing everything,' Parke said of the Oliver project.
Since the state fair last August, his restored planter has been on display at Kinze Manufacturing, off Exit 216 at Williamsburg, where it no longer has to face the ravages of the weather.
Kinze, owned by Jon Kinzenbaw, manufactures modern corn planters and grain carts. Parke's vintage planter shares space on a showroom balcony alongside some of Kinzenbaw's own antique planters.
'Parke's planter struck a note here because we build planters - that's 90 percent of what we do,' Kinzenbaw noted, 'and Parke's planter really was well done.' FC
Parke Miller, a freshman at Williamsburg (Iowa) High School, can be contacted at 306 W. Oak, Williamsburg, IA 52361; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.