Steam Plowing on the Western Prairies

| 11/7/2017 3:13:00 PM

Sam MooreDuring the 1870s, the old portable steam engines were being replaced by traction engines that could drag a thresher from place to place. Initially steered by a team of horses out front, it wasn't long before a chain and drum mechanism and a proper steering wheel eliminated the need for the horses.

In the vast expanses of the prairies, the native Buffalo grass made breaking the sod with horses an extremely difficult task and, even after the ground was broken, it was a huge job to plow it each year for the new crop. A 12-inch walking plow behind two horses was usually used in those days and in the book, Power and the Plow, written in 1911 by Edward A. Rumely and Lynn W. Ellis, they estimated that a man would have to walk 5,280 miles to plow a 640-acre section with a 12-inch plow. It's no wonder that the riding plow became so popular when it was introduced, even though it wasn't much faster.

Some men experimented with using the steam threshing engines to pull plows, but they weren't very successful. Of course, there were no large gang plows being made, so a string of 1- or 2-bottom horse plows was chained on behind. One man in the Dakota Territory in 1883 told of his first experience of plowing with a Frick engine:

"We labored under many disadvantages ... among which was scarcity of water, there being but few wells. With steam we found that fifteen acres could readily be turned in one day, using five 16-inch Casaday sulky plows."

The rigs were difficult to turn at the headlands and horse plows were too light to withstand the increased power of the engine. As stated, water was scarce, as was fuel, which was often straw gathered up from the field and carried on a wagon that ran beside the engine.

Another problem was that the engine wheels were usually driven by chains or multiple trains of gears. Chains were made of wrought iron and gears usually of cast iron. Under hard plowing conditions, the chains would break and brittle cast iron gears would lose teeth or break into pieces. In addition, traction engines of the day, designed to pull only themselves and a separator, had relatively narrow and small diameter drive wheels and would bog down easily in soft ground. They weren't that powerful either, since in those days of small, hand feed threshers, it required only 10 or 12 horsepower to run the machines.


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