Steam Plowing on the Western Prairies

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During 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.

The first real use of steam traction for plowing was in the vast wheat fields of California, Washington and Oregon, where giant Holt and Best engines were used.

By the turn of the century, threshers had grown in size, and had sprouted self-feeders, grain weighers, and wind stackers, all of which necessitated larger and more powerful steam engines. Manufacturers began to turn out engines intended for plowing, with stronger steel gears and axles, larger fuel bunkers and water tanks, and larger and wider drive wheels, with lugs adapted for traction in soft ground. Special engine gang plows were being built as well, some with steam cylinders to lift the bottoms.

As might be imagined, the bigger, and more powerful engines cost considerably more than before. Prices ranged from $3,000 to $4,000 for one of the new improved plowing engines. That was more than most farmers had paid for their farms and was out of reach for all but large farmers, or custom farming operators.

During the first decade of the 20th century, custom steam plowing rigs swarmed over the prairie. A Dakota newspaperman wrote in 1908: “Where a year ago the coyote and jackrabbit were undisturbed…great traction engines are plowing up whole townships daily.”

Many of the engines were equipped with locomotive headlights and plowed all night. A record may have been set near Albion, Wyoming in 1911, when a 40 hp Reeves engine, with sixteen bottoms and two grain drills behind, plowed and planted 65 acres in one long day.

Running the big steam plowing rigs wasn’t cheap either. One Minnesota man with a 40 hp Avery engine pulling 12 bottoms, charged $4.00 per acre. His daily expenses were:

One engineer: $5.00
One fireman: $3.00
One tank man: $4.00
Two blacksmiths: $8.00
Two plow men: $4.00
One cook: $3.00
Oil & grease: $2.00
Board for the crew: $4.50
Fuel: $6.00
Repairs, plowshares, depreciation, etc.: $8.00

Total cost per day: $47.50

So, just to meet expenses the rig had to plow at least 12 acres every day. Getting stuck, breakdowns, or rainy weather all made the life of a custom plowman no bed of roses.

It was an impressive sight, however. Folks came from miles around to watch the big rigs move ponderously across the prairie, while gulping every day some 70 barrels of water and a ton and a half of coal and puffing out great clouds of black smoke. Behind the engine, 10 to 16 gleaming plow bottoms sliced through the soil, leaving long, even furrows, a mile or more in length, in its wake.

Two decades was about all the longer it lasted, though. Fuel and water for the engines was too expensive and hard to come by. By 1920, most plowing was being done by gasoline or kerosene tractors. Steam hung on for a while, and in dwindling numbers, as power for threshing, but by the time World War II rolled around, most steam engines were quietly rusting in the fencerows.

The scrap drives during the war eliminated the majority of these engines and today only a few are to be seen puffing away at steam shows around the country.

– Sam Moore

A big Nichols & Shepard engine pulling a 10-bottom plow and two 8-foot single discs on the Alberta prairie in 1900. The engine appears to be 20-75 or a 25-90 double-cylinder model. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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