Let's Talk Rusty Iron
The New Deere light-draft gang plow's land wheel.
Someone recently asked about the difference between a sulky and a gang plow, which isn’t an unreasonable question. With so many plow designs made by literally dozens of manufacturers throughout the years, it’s easy to be confused. So listen up, students, here’s the skinny on sulky and gang plows.
The number of plowshares distinguishes a sulky plow from a gang plow. Any single-bottom riding plow is called a sulky plow. Two-way riding plows with only one bottom in use at a time are also known as sulky plows. Riding or walking plows with two or more bottoms are called gang plows.
The progression from sulky plows to gang plows took hundreds of years. Old engravings show that Europeans used wheeled plows as far back as the Middle Ages. However, the plows required the plowman to walk behind the device and to control it with one or two handles. Until the middle of the 19th century, American farmers relied on the ol’ tried-and-true walking plow. American-made, two-horse walking plows had either a 10- or a 12-inch bottom, while a 14-inch plow was standard for a three-horse team.
By the 1840s, ingenuity led to the addition of wheels and a seat so the plowman could ride the plow, but most farmers considered the plow itself a large-enough load for the horses. A riding plow was also more expensive than a walker, and many farmers felt they couldn’t afford to take the “lazy man’s way” and buy a riding plow. Yet, when settlers moved west and encountered vast expanses of unfilled land on the Great Plains, the old single-bottom walking plow seemed woefully inadequate.
During the 1860s, several inventors patented wheeled riding plows. The huge farms of Minnesota and the Dakotas were desperate for something better than a one-bottom walking plow and were quick to adopt 14- and 16-inch riding sulky plows, often having dozens of them in the field at the same time.
Probably during the 1870s, additional bottoms were added to riding plows, which were then called gang plows.
While gang plows may have as many as four bottoms, the two- and three-bottom versions were the most popular. Not all gang plows were ridden, however. Some required the operator to walk behind the plow, especially the lightweight walking plows with multiple 8-inch bottoms, which were popular in orchards and vineyards.
Wheeled riding plows, whether sulky or gang, typically have one large wheel that runs on the unplowed ground – known as the land wheel – as well as a smaller furrow wheel that runs in the bottom of the plowed furrow.
The land wheel is usually placed directly opposite the plow bottom to help counteract side thrust as the share and moldboard slice through the soil. Some riding plows have a smaller rear furrow wheel that runs behind the bottom in the plowed furrow. Most frameless sulky plows have either a long landside or a rolling landside in place of the rear furrow wheel.
The low-lift, or frameless sulky plow, is a single-bottom riding plow with wheels and axles attached directly to the beam. The popular McCormick-Deering Little Chief and Oliver No. 11 sulky plow, as well as the modern sulkies made by Pioneer and White Horse Machine, are examples of the frameless design.
The beam is raised on the land and front furrow wheel axles by a lever, while the rear furrow wheel, if there is one, is mounted directly on the beam and is held in a forward position by a spring that allows it to caster during turns. Many low-lift plows have a long landside or a rolling landside in place of a rear wheel. Some frameless plows are designed to run without a tongue, with steering accomplished by a hand-steered, front-furrow wheel.
The high-lift, or framed sulky plow, has a frame with three attached wheels. The beam is raised and lowered within this frame, usually by means of a foot lift. The height of the bottom can be adjusted in relation to the rear furrow wheel.
A tongue is also used, attached to the front furrow wheel and to a steering rod on the rear furrow wheel. This feature allows the action of the tongue to steer the plow in turns. The International Harvester Co.’s Diamond plow and the New Deere plows are examples of high-lift models.
The two-way riding plow, which turns all furrows in the same direction, is also considered a sulky plow because only one bottom is in use at a time. This ability is ideal when plowing irregular or hilly fields or in irrigated land where dead furrows interfere with the proper water flow.
The two-way plow has both a right- and a left-hand bottom on the same carriage or frame, and when used alternately, allows all furrows to be thrown in the same direction. With a two-way plow, the operator can begin at one side of the field and plow back and forth without making a back-furrow ridge or leaving much of a dead furrow. These plows can also be used as regular right- or left-hand sulkies for plowing around a field.
Two-way sulky plows use a horizontal hitch, which provides for automatic shifting of the evener clevis to the front of the working beam by means of a roller moving on a horizontal draft bar. When one of the beams is in its lowered, working position, the front of that beam is ahead of its raised counterpart. This causes the roller on the evener clevis to move along the horizontal draft bar, automatically placing the point of hitch in line with the working beam.
All horse-drawn walking or riding plows with two or more bottoms are gang plows. Riding gang plows can be either frameless, low-lift or the framed high-lift style, although most are the latter, including the modern version built by Pioneer Equipment Inc.
In the early days, multiple-bottom plows intended for use with tractors or steam engines were called tractor or engine gang plows.
To get around the extra cost of a sulky plow, some manufacturers sold an attachment consisting of wheels, axles, levers and a seat, along with the necessary clamps, to convert a walking plow into “a satisfactory two-wheeled sulky” as one old catalog put it.
So the next time someone asks about sulky and gang plows, just tell them that it’s all about the bottoms: one for sulky plows, and more than one used simultaneously for gang plows. FCSam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.