When Chris Moomaw fell for a decades-old line of farm and garden implements, he was drawn in by the technology of one century and the business strategy of another.
Riding herd over what he describes as “an unfocused collection” of small, crank-driven machines, Chris stumbled onto the Planet Jr. line of seeders, drills, and wheel hoes, and was fascinated by their mechanisms. He immediately shifted gears into building a collection of Planet Jr. pieces. “I’ve been interested in intricate linkages like what you see on these pieces for a long time,” he says.
But he hadn’t counted on discovery of a progressive business strategy literally decades ahead of its time. “(Company founder) S.L. Allen was very progressive,” he says. “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, he actively sought feedback from customers and used that to improve the product. The Planet Jr. line was constantly evolving. They really took pride in making products that were considered the best in the industry. If you look at the products manufactured by their competitors, they are primitive and awkward compared to Planet Jr. All that research paid off.”
Catalogs provide clues
Now a resident of Ridgefield, Ct., Chris grew up in rural southeast Pennsylvania. “The first powered vehicle I ever drove was a John Deere A,” he recalls, “helping bring in hay for a neighboring farmer.” The son of antique hounds, he was a regular tag-along on trips to country auctions. “I was familiar with the Planet Jr. name,” he says. “When I was a kid, my dad looked at several walk-behind garden tractors including Planet Jr., but he ended up buying a Gravely.”
While attending the gigantic flea market in Brimfield, Mass., some years ago, Chris happened on to a very nice original Planet Jr. No. 6 seeder built in 1915. “I had a rule about this stuff: Never pay more than $25,” he says. “I broke that rule in about five pieces.” Soon after he found another Planet Jr. in an antique shop. “That really got me into it,” he says. “These seeders were mysterious. They started finding me. Then I bought some online. I was building a collection, but I really didn’t know much about them. Then I started seeing catalogs for sale.”
Catalogs and other literature — including a book Allen’s daughter wrote about her father and his company — have given his collection true depth. “That kind of information has helped me learn when various models were introduced and when features were modified,” he says. “Once I started gathering up catalogs I was able to begin piecing it all together.” “Piece it together” is a bit of an understatement: Chris has developed a lengthy timeline detailing major developments in the company’s history — down to and including descriptions of company-issued wrenches — and happily shares that knowledge.
“Based on my now-expanded Planet Jr. knowledge, I’ve been reacting to some egregious claims or factoids by Planet Jr. sellers on eBay,” he says wryly. “Some have reacted positively, some negatively or not all, and one wrote, ‘You really need to get a life’!”
Targeting the small farmer
The Allen company first focused almost exclusively on the small farmer. Its earliest hand-pushed implements were compact, relatively light-weight devices easy for farmers to push yet nimble around delicate seedlings. From the beginning, the company also produced an ever-expanding line of 1- and 2-horse-drawn hoes and cultivators, which were constantly being improved. Later still, an engine-driven two-wheel garden tractor was introduced.
Taking aim in its early years at the one-horse farmer, Planet Jr. increasingly turned to home gardeners when horses began to be phased out of such farming operations. The company’s marketing efforts had always sought to educate consumers unfamiliar with such implements to the merits of the wheel hoe. Those who could step up to a mechanized garden tractor were shown the unit’s superiority to a four-legged beast of burden that required feed and shelter.
Planet Jr. rigs were as useful in the home garden as they were in large market gardens. “Campbell’s Soup was one of Planet Jr.’s biggest customers,” Chris says. “A Planet Jr. wheel hoe was said to increase by six times what one man could accomplish with a traditional hoe in one day.”
Chris’ collection includes a complete set of implements (cultivator teeth, hoes and rake) for the No. 4 seeder and No. 6 seeder. As evidence of carefully considered design, just one bolt is removed to take off the seeder and attach the tool frame in its place.
The Planet Jr. Fire Fly garden plow with a lawn mower-type single handle is a perfect example of the company’s unique blend of form and function. The plow remained in continuous production for more than 60 years. “They said that with that plow, you could cultivate and maintain a truck garden with just one implement,” Chris says.
Innovation is apparent throughout the line. “Daisy” wheels controlled spacing between seed drops. A lace-like pattern in the wheel rims was more than ornamental: It actually reinforced the wheel. Strategically placed tabs knocked clods of dirt from the wheels. A concave roller wheel created a crown over rows of newly planted seeds. “Planet Jr. never stopped innovating,” Chris says. FC
For more information:
– Chris Moomaw, P.O. Box 1014, Ridgefield, CT 06877; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Samuel L. Allen – Intimate Recollections & Letters, written and compiled by Elizabeth R. Allen; published by Franklin Printing Co., Philadelphia, 1920.
– For more on S.L. Allen, read S.L. Allen Fueled Planet Jr.'s Success from the May 2011 issue of Farm Collector.
The editor of Farm Collector, Leslie McManus is considering upgrading from a hoe to a wheel hoe when gardening this summer.