Innovations in Moldboard Plows

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: John Deere's steel plow wasn't the end of innovations in plow moldboards. Inventors had a variety of solutions for dealing with the sticky gumbo soil of Texas, including lubricated and heated plows.

| September 2008

We've all heard the story of John Deere and the plow moldboard he fashioned and polished from a broken steel saw blade. That innovation largely solved the problem of sticky prairie soils gumming up the iron plows that had worked so well in the East. Some soils, however, defeated even Deere's famed "singing plow."

In certain areas of the Southwest, particularly in Texas, there is a sticky "gumbo" (or black waxy soil) that, especially when wet, adhered to even the smoothest and shiniest steel moldboards. The mud soon built up to the point that the plow would not cut or turn a furrow and became impossible to keep in the ground. The gumbo had to be laboriously scraped off by hand and soon built up again.

I was familiar with slatted moldboards that offered less surface to which gumbo soil could stick, and I assumed that was the only solution to the problem. However, I was rooting around among a bunch of old plow patents the other day and found other solutions I'd never heard of, solutions that seem just a little fanciful.

The first is a patent issued May 18, 1875, to Francis Bell, Marshall, Texas. Bell's walking plow (see the Image Gallery) featured a thick, wooden moldboard with a series of deep holes drilled into the top edge. The moldboard was first soaked in oil, and then put back on the plow and the holes filled with oil. The oiled moldboard would, Bell said, "… allow the soil to slip over it, however sticky and waxy the soil may be, so that a furrow may be turned properly."

The lubricated moldboard was featured in several subsequent patents with both wooden and steel moldboard plows. One guy a couple of years later attached a reservoir to the back of a steel moldboard and drilled its face with small holes. He filled the reservoir with water and used a hand pump to "… supply water and air to the face of a moldboard to prevent the soil from adhering."

I'd love to hear the story of how this next method was first discovered. Someone found that the gumbo wouldn't stick to a heated moldboard. In March 1879, Argyle W. Tucker, Waxahachie, Texas, patented a plow with "a firebox, having a grate, a door and a draft-flue" attached to the rear of the moldboard. The idea was to build a fire in the firebox, "which heats the mold-board, which makes the earth slip more readily from the mold-board (making) the plow lighter of draft, and better work is accomplished."