| January/February 1980

  • # Picture 01

  • # Picture 01

Dr. Spence is an Assistant Professor of History at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of several articles on foreign interests in the American mineral frontier. Joseph Fawkes' Steam Plow, 1858

The speaker was a tall, homely man, towering above his Milwaukee audience that September day in 1859. The crowd was predominantly rural, for the occasion was the annual fair sponsored by the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society. People elbowed closer as they listened, interested, yet little dreaming that the man before them would be elected President of the United States in slightly more than a year.

As befitted the event, Abraham Lincoln devoted much of his address to the farmer's peculiar problems, emphasizing especially the need for technological improvements. Animal power was becoming obsolete, he pointed out. 'The successful application of steam power to farm-work is a desideratum--especially a Steam Plow.' He had not actually seen steam yoked to turn the soil, he admitted, but he had read of such inventions and believed that effective machines for this purpose were highly important and not too far in the future. 'Our thanks, and something more substantial than thanks,' said Lincoln, 'are due to every man engaged in the effort to produce a successful steam plow.'1

By this time--September, 1859-- American agriculture was already well on the road to mechanization. Horse-drawn mowers and rakes were revolutionizing hay-making; grain drills were in wide use; the two-horse straddle-row cultivator was gaining general popularity; and the reaper was making a fortune for the man shrewd enough to establish his manufacturing plant in the bustling town of Chicago. These were all machines that had undergone a period of transition and experimentation and had proved themselves reliable and serviceable. The reaper, for example, had been in existence for a good twenty years when Lincoln made his Milwaukee address. It had won international awards; its presence at agricultural fairs was taken for granted. In 1855, McCormick's plant on the shores of Lake Michigan employed two hundred men and boys and turned out 2,500 machines that year.2

As Lincoln's comments indicated, cultivation by steam was yet in its infancy, if indeed it existed at all in the United States. Americans had experimented with steam plows of various types, but lagged far behind English inventors who had been working to harness the steam giant since the eighteenth century.3

American problems stemming from prairie turf, tough and stubborn as frontier life itself, were much more difficult to solve than those encountered in Britain where virgin soil was rare and farming was on a smaller scale. British steam plows did not adapt well;4 consequently many an American wrestled on his own with the knotty task of attempting to substitute steam for horse power in the furrow.


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