The Steam Plow in America

Pursued for decades, the quest for a workable steam plow was ultimately abandoned with the successful development of the steam traction engine.

| March/April 2003

By the mid-1800s, the prospect of a steam plow had created more than a little excitement in agricultural, industrial and social circles. The power of steam was self-evident, and it seemed clear that the person who successfully harnessed and combined the power of steam with the utility of the plow would fundamentally alter the agricultural landscape.

As early as 1833, Edmund C. Bellinger, Barnwell, S.C., sketched out a plan for a cable operated steam plow very similar in approach to the steam-powered cable plows that became popular in England and Germany toward the end of the 19th century. In 1855 Obed Hussey, better known for his reaper design patented in 1833, demonstrated his own steam plow. Hussey worked on the design of his plow for at least a few years, but failed to bring it to market. Richard Gatling, the inventor of the Gatling Gun, worked on the development of a successful steam plow, receiving a patent in 1857 for a steam-powered plow that was to be pulled by a team of oxen.

In 1858 Joseph W. Fawkes of Lancaster County, Pa., exhibited his steam plow in Illinois, first in Decatur and then at the state fair in Centralia. His efforts met with at least some level of success, and the following year Fawkes returned to Illinois with a new model, the Lancaster. He went to Moline, Ill., bought eight John Deere plows, bolted them together and used them in his winning demonstration in Chicago against James Waters of Detroit and John Van Doren of Chicago in the famous Illinois State Agricultural Society contest of 1859.

That same year, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society at the Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee, Wis.. Lincoln talked about the steam plow, about what he thought it I should be like and the impact on American agriculture that would follow its development. In an oft-quoted speech, Lincoln told the assembled crowd that, "The successful application of steam-power to farm work is a desideratum - especially a steam plow. It is not enough that a machine operated by steam will really plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done by animal power. It must do all the work as well, and cheaper, or more rapidly, so as to get through more perfectly in season; or in some way afford an advantage over plowing with animals, else it is no success."

Working out of a shop in Pacheco, Calif., Philander H. Standish completed his first steam plow, the Mayflower, in 1867. Standish tested and experimented with his plow on various terrains and soils, and his steam plow won awards at the Mechanics' Institute Fair in San Francisco in 1868 and 1869. Standish won medals and recognition (his design was patented in the U.S., England, France and Russia), and he attracted the attention of O.C. Coffin, a miller in Contra Costa County, Calif., who saw promise in Standish's plow. In 1870 Coffin teamed with Standish, agreeing to finance the building of a second plow in Boston, Mass.

Following the formation of a partnership between Coffin and Standish, Standish went to Boston to engineer and supervise the building of the Sonoma, a steam plow similar to the one he had made in California. The completed plow was shipped to New Orleans early in 1871, where it was tested on a tract of cotton and cane land at the Poydras Plantation. The plantation's owner, General John Davidson, was apparently favorably impressed; he supposedly asked Standish to build a special plow for use at his Poydras Plantation. Unfortunately, fate dealt cruelly with Standish's career, as Davidson was killed in a railway accident before arrangements had been completed for the new plow. Further complications and discouragements caused Standish to interrupt his work on the steam plow, and in 1872 he moved to Jefferson City, Mo., where he went into the chain manufacturing business after perfecting a chain-making machine. Standish evidently continued testing his ideas, never completely abandoning his dream of perfecting a steam plow, but never concluding the work successfully.