A Pioneering Steam Plow

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Use of steam to propel farm machinery was being encouraged by a
young speaker named Abraham Lincoln at the Wisconsin State Fair in
1859, at the same time that a young inventor named Joseph Fawkes
was developing a steam plow in Pennsylvania.

Fawkes’s story has been told before but we enjoy spinning
the yarn again because of the vision of the man, and the massive
size of his engine.

Lincoln, in 1859 not yet a nominee for the presidency, showed
the wisdom which he applied to many other matters, when he spoke in
Wisconsin to say that animal power was no longer sufficient for
farm work. He said he had heard of steam machines to plow, but had
not seen any, but thought that they were on the way. ‘Our
thanks, and something more than our thanks,’ he said, ‘are
due to every man engaged in the effort to produce a successful
steam plow.’

Some machines had been patented and were in use, relying on
horses primarily, such as mowers and rakes; Cyrus McCormick’s
reaper was welcomed wherever farmers could buy it. The idea of the
use of steam was appealing, and numerous inventors had a go at it
for pulling plows, but none had come up with anything that lasted.
Obed Hussey, who has lost out to McCormick in the race to win the
reaper market, also tried his hand at a plow device but failed.

Fawkes had a small machine shop at his home town of Christiana,
in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He made three attempts to design
a steam plow, one a small model, one a working model, and the third
the engine for which he was granted a patent in 1858. This was
described as 18 feet long with a weight of nearly ten tons. It had
a large driving drum at the rear and two steering wheels in front,
and as the illustration shows, the driver stood to steer it. Plows
at the rear could be raised or lowered. Having shown it first at
the Lancaster County Fair in 1858, Fawkes went on to the Illinois
State Fair to try to win a prize of $5,000 for a steam farm engine.
During the trials, Fawkes’ ‘Lancaster’ engine made what
a newspaper called ‘the first furrow turned by steam’ on
the prairie. The committee called for further trials to be held
later, but those trials ended inconclusively because of soggy
ground. Meanwhile Fawkes collected honors, awards and medals
elsewhere. At the Illinois Fair in Free-port, the engine ran around
the track with a group of men and women seated on the carriage and
a band playing in a wagon it pulled.

Tests were adjudged to show the engine could plow an acre in 24
minutes, or 25 acres in a working day. Fawkes insisted that steam
could do the job more cheaply than animal power, and time proved
him correct. He made many changes in machines, with various
improvements, in his continuous effort to produce the practical
answer to the problem. In January 1860 he received a gold medal
from the United States Agricultural Society, with a letter of
praise from his fellow Lancaster Countian, President James

Fawkes never did realize his dream in full, even though his
inventions are listed in all the leading accounts of the
development of steam power for farm use. He moved west from
Pennsylvania, eventually on to California where he was more
successful in cultivating fruit, until his death in 1892.

Sources for this story are an article fay Professor Clark C.
Spence in Pennsylvania History magazine, October 1958, and an issue
of the Rural New Yorker in which a drawing of the
‘Lancaster’ appeared October 30, 1858

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