The History of the Harrow


| 3/30/2017 2:00:00 PM


Tags: Looking Back, Sam Moore,

Sam MooreBack in the day when every farmer worth his salt believed that a well-tilled field was essential to growing a good crop, a harrow was an essential implement. First the ground would be plowed, and then the turned furrows were worked down with a couple of passes with a disc harrow that sliced up clods and did the initial smoothing. Lastly a harrow, an open frame with several rows of either spike or spring teeth and sometimes called a smoothing, or drag harrow, was run over the field until the soil was in good tilth for planting.

When seeds were commonly sowed by broadcasting, or scattering them evenly on the field, rather than by drilling them into the soil, a harrow was used to cover the seeds. After the planted seeds and the weeds were just peeking through the ground, a spike tooth harrow was commonly run over the field. The tender young weeds would be uprooted, while the deeper rooted crop plants would survive.

Harrows are mentioned in the Bible and are as ancient as the plow. The first such implements were nothing more than a carefully selected tree trunk or limb with protruding branches, that scratched the soil when pulled along by hand or behind an animal. England's Parliament felt it necessary, in 1664, to abolish “as being cruel and injurious to the animals,” the practice of tying, with a rawhide cord, the brushy limb of a tree to a horse's tail for use as a harrow.

Early American farmers made an A-harrow that consisted of timbers (or a forked log), through which wooden or iron pegs were driven. Especially useful on just cleared fields that often were full of stumps and rocks, the A-harrow was strong and would slide around obstructions rather than get caught on them. By the 1850s, square harrows, made of wood with wrought or cast iron teeth were popular. However, the iron teeth often snapped off when a rock or other obstruction was struck. Finally, after the War Between the States, manufacturers began to use steel teeth and iron frames, and added levers to change the angle of the teeth. These spike tooth harrows changed very little from then on.

Of course, the way a harrow is usually used requires the operator to walk either behind, or to one side of the machine. These many miles of walking in soft, mellow soil is very tiresome. Not only that, but harrows don’t do much good in heavy, wet soil, so the ground is usually dry. An old Zane Grey book, titled The Desert of Wheat, gives an account of a man harrowing with four horses in a Washington wheat field. “Driving west, he faced a wind laden with dust as dry as powder. At every sheeted cloud, whipping back from the hoofs of the horses and the steel spikes of the harrow, he had to bat his eyes to keep from being blinded. The smell of dust clogged his nostrils. As soon as he began to sweat under the hot sun the dust caked his face, itching, stinging, burning. There was dust between his teeth.”

To make things a little easier on the harrow operator, ingenious inventors began to patent wheeled, or sulky harrows, where the harrow itself was suspended under a frame that was supported by two wheels. None of these devices seems to have caught on, probably because they were heavy, awkward and, undoubtedly expensive. However, lightweight riding attachments were developed that had some success. Some of these have survived and occasionally one is seen in a suburban lawn as an ornament.