Bay Journal

Plows helped to turn the tide for agricultural civilizations

  • By Kent Mountford on July 01, 2004
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Late 18th century wooden moldboard plows are archived at the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster County, PA. The plow on left is viewed from behind the moldboard; for the plow on right, the moldboard facing and the clevis to which the draft animal is hitched is at the end of the long beam in the near  (Photo by Kent Mountford) This illustration (top right) shows how the hillside walking plow works during contour plowing: The dual moldboards function as a right– or left-handed plow depending on which direction the land slopes. The generic, wooden beam walking plow (top left) was used with a single draft animal, and shows t (Illustration by Kent Mountford) This sulky type gang plow (right) is raised by the plowman above the soil as the team turns at the end of a furrow. (Photo by Kent Mountford)

The plow, one of the earliest tools of human civilization, evolved from a simple hoe and replaced the back-breaking work of lifting the tool and chopping downward to till the soil.

Early plows were probably operated by two people, one guiding the tool while another pulled it, the latter eventually replaced by draft animals once they were domesticated.

Plows were used in Sumer, (present-day southern Iraq) about 5,000 years ago to help plant small grains such as barley and early wheat. With the advent of the plow, the labor of a few could sustain many.

Illustrations survive of what came to be known as a “scratch plow,” which did just that in the soil.

A nearly identical plow is shown in a tomb painting at Thebes in ancient Egypt a thousand years later. It depicts a curved wooden “horn“ or “share” penetrating the soil, bound by lashings at a constant angle to a beam pulled by two oxen and controlled by grips rising vertically in a “V” to the plowman’s hands. This was a difficult tool to control, and required its user to apply strength in an awkward position.

The Chinese used a human-pulled iron plow from the fourth to second century B.C. but the distance between Europe and the Far East was so great that it was never discovered by Europeans, who used a wooden plow through the Middle Ages. (The Chinese continued to advance this technology, and by the end of the Sung Dynasty in A.D.1279, were using draft animals to pull three-shared plows, not unlike modern implements.)

The European Middle Ages included what climatologists call the Medieval Warm Period. European civilizations—and populations—expanded under the warmer, forgiving conditions. Agriculture, even with the primitive plow, expanded northward on the continent.

The honeymoon ended in the middle 1300s with the Little Ice Age, a period of colder winters that lasted until the middle 1800s.

The repercussions of this climatic upheaval included hunger, the plague and wars over declining resources throughout Europe and it is believed to be a driving force for the exploration of the New World.

The Chesapeake’s first settlers did not bring plows with them. These men, who were equipped for fortune and not hard work, expected to trade for food with the natives. Despite instructions from their English backers, they planted crops only reluctantly, and even then insufficiently to feed themselves.

The results were disastrous and nearly destroyed the colony. Agriculture came only as a distant last choice with John Rolfe’s introduction of tobacco as a cash crop.

The tobacco culture was quickly successful, but it did not require the plow, only the hoe. Even when the well-organized Calverts were resupplying their new Maryland Colony in the summer of 1634, their ship, the Arcke, carried 30 dozen hoes, but no plows.

Colonial historian Lorena Walsh and colleagues note that of 165 household estates in St Mary’s County in 1658-77, only 4 percent had plows.

Tobacco markets, always volatile, collapsed several times in the 17th and 18th centuries, and agriculture began to shift to grains, both to feed a growing population and for export. Raising grain requires a plow.

The plow was still very much the same as in antiquity, a wooden instrument that scored and broke, but did not turn the soil.

Further, the more abrasive the soil, the faster these plows wore out. By 1700, though, the scratch plow was modified into a “shovel plow” with a narrow, wrought iron point (the shovel) affixed to the piercing end or “share,” which met the soil rounded side forward. It cut a shallow furrow, with broken soil spilling to either side. The handles, nearly upright, forced the plowman to remain erect, a tiring position.

Plowing was described by a contemporary as “pretty much like dragging a cat by the tail.” Despite later advances, shovel plows were in wide use until the 1860s, and, one could still be bought from Sears Roebuck in 1902 for $1.95.

These “walking plows” were small enough to be pulled by one draft animal, often an ox. Equines were more versatile; one could hitch them to a carriage or saddle and ride them.

The mule was often a preferred alternative to the plow horse. Though reputed to be stubborn, “a mule,” said Coles Roberts, a fourth-generation farmer, “is more intelligent, and less fidgety. A horse will eat itself to death but not a mule.”

It remained for the Dutch to develop the mouldboard plow, in which a curved board behind the “share” caught and directed the soil to flow backward. This revolutionary improvement turned the soil rather than just breaking it: bringing the roots of weeds up into the sun to desiccate, while incorporating the green tops into the soil, leaving a clear surface for planting. Despite its usefulness, it was neither immediately nor widely adopted.

Meanwhile a convention developed where European plows turned furrows to the left while English plows and those in Western France turned to the right.

Early mouldboard plows were almost universally wooden structures carved to turn the soil. They rode on a flattened base called the landside, slightly hollowed from front to back, which developed suction and held the plow down in the soil. Share, mouldboard and landside were worn down in abrasive soil, and as they aged would loosen and break, requiring more and more difficult field repairs that lasted for shorter and shorter periods of use.

In 1720, drawing upon the Dutch innovation, Joseph Foljambe received the first English patent for an iron-sheathed mouldboard plow. This inaugurated a period between 1700 and 1850 when important changes were to define agriculture. Charles Newbold, a New Jersey farmer, designed an all-cast iron plow between 1790 and 1796. It was granted a U.S. patent in 1797.

Newbold’s idea was a great one, save two problems. If one hit a rock and broke off the brittle cast iron point of the share, the entire plow was put out of service—a surviving Newbold in the New York State Museum shows such damage. Secondly, many U.S. farmers—always conservative—resisted the introduction of the iron plow, believing that “the cast iron poisoned the land, impaired the fertility and promoted the growth of weeds.”

Newbold, then living in Wilmington DE, spent more than $40,000 promoting his design—a massive sum at the end of the 18th century—and almost gave up trying. Though not quite! In 1807, in a document witnessed by Robert Wharton, mayor of Philadelphia, he transferred the rights to his plow and authority to market it and its variations to C. Thomas Newbold, acting as his attorney in fact.

Another local New Jerseyan had watched Newbold’s development and went him one better, solving the breakage problem by casting the landside and mouldboard in separate pieces. Also, where the share entered the soil, he added a separate “coulter” which cut the soil first. This was strengthened by locking the front of the share with a shoe at its foot. Should Peacock’s “locking coulter” or any of the three pieces be broken, they could be replaced individually.

Incensed at the similarity to his own plow, Newbold sued Peacock, and eventually settled for a payment of $1,500.

Peacock went on developing his plow, patenting his version and the lock coulter in 1822. It was widely accepted and could be found in all of the surrounding states until 1850.

Meanwhile, two famous Americans also focused their energies on the plow: Daniel Webster and Thomas Jefferson.

Webster, the great orator, designed and built a plow but it was cumbersome and was not successful.

Jefferson believed that the nation’s principal strength lay in an agrarian economy. He had observed, while serving as a diplomat in France, that the late 18th century French famines had led to a revolution bringing down the monarchy. (These repeated crop failures were the result of the Little Ice Age temperatures that reached “50 degrees below the Fahrenheit freezing point [18 below zero]),” according to Jefferson.

The French told Jefferson that they would offer U.S. farmers a premium above the market for their wheat. During March, April and May of 1789, 21,000 barrels of U.S. flour came into French Atlantic ports. Jefferson commented, “We find it easier to make a hundred bushels of wheat than a thousand weight of tobacco, and they (the bushels of wheat) are worth more when made.”

Traveling through the French cities of Phalsbourg, Fenestrange and Nancy, Jefferson was struck by the clumsiness of French plows. His discourse on the subject included many calculations to determine the optimum shape for an improved mouldboard, which he first tested in wood.

Back in Virginia in December 1794, Jefferson sent his friend John Taylor a drawing of his final plans, and suggested that he trace on a piece of white paper and have a model made. Jefferson put this plow to work at Monticello until 1798 and found it extremely efficient.

The plow was later reproduced in iron. Typical of his enthusiasm, generosity to friends and poor business acumen, Jefferson considered a patent but failed to make a financial success of the invention. It appears, however, to have been aggressively adopted by his neighbors.

In 1808, Jefferson transmitted a refinement of his design to a Monsieur Sylvestre in France, for the benefit of the Society of the Seine.

The deep tillage could heavily erode the steep terrain of Jefferson’s plantations, though, and he discovered that contour plowing around the curvature of the hills, rather than cutting furrows straight down-slope toward neighboring streams greatly reduced erosion.

He wrote to Tristam Dalton in May 1817 about his son-in-law Col. T.M. Randolph’s development of this method, laying off the plow lines in advance using a (wooden) rafter to measure and strokes of a hoe to mark the contours.

Plowing across slope on hilly terrain put a severe strain on the plowman and Col. Randolph modified the plow, fusing two separate shares against their flat sides at a right angle.

Plowing one way with the sod thrown down slope around the hill to the end of a furrow, the plowman would flip over the plow bottom and head back in the other direction with that sod thrown down slope as well. This eventually developed into a widely used “hillside plow.”

Jefferson sent Dalton “a bit of paper cut in the form of the double share, which being opened at the fold to a right angle will give an idea of its general principle.”

Jefferson’s farms, including Monticello, had been losing soil into Chesapeake rivers for years and these new methods resulted in substantial improvements: “Let me beseech you” Jefferson wrote to others, “to make a trial of this method.”

Had Jefferson made a commercial success of his invention, he might not have died in debt.

Where Jefferson failed, Jethro Wood of New York state succeeded. He adopted Jefferson’s mouldboard model and manufactured it with interchangeable cast iron parts and, in 1819, was awarded his own U.S. Patent.

Wood’s work did not go unnoticed. Edwin A. Stevens on the Hudson River at Hoboken, together with his brother Robert, used applied engineering in a four-year effort to refine the work of Jefferson and Wood.

The brothers tested plows as they were pulled through the soil with a dynamometer, which evaluated the actual forces necessary to plow with different designs. Their engineering skills were profitable and in 1870, the brothers endowed the much respected engineering school, Stevens Institute of Technology.

Even with improved plows, grain agriculture was still severely limited by the labor of its gathering: a line of men, working in teams, laboriously bent to hand-swept scythes as they slowly worked across the field reaping while others behind them gathered and carried off the cut stalks for threshing—the separation of the grain from straw and chaff.

A 22-year-old inventor, Cyrus Hall McCormick, gave the first public demonstration his mechanical reaper in July 1831 at the McCormick farm near Steele’s Tavern, VA. With its sickle bar cutter powered by wheels as the machine was towed, it felled the grain onto a curved platform where it was gathered by hand.

In 1851, the McCormick reaper was given an Award Council Medal by the Royal Commissioners of the Great World’s Fair at London. They said, in part, that the McCormick reaper’s contribution to society as a whole was “worth the whole cost of the exposition.”

The plow spread across the United States as settlers “sod-busted” westward. Soils west of the Chesapeake though, were very different in both in their geological origins and consistency. In the black, loamy Midwest farmland, wooden plows that had been successful on the East Coast failed to “scour,” that is free themselves of sticky adhering clumps of soil, thus increasing its cumbersomeness.

This was solved independently by two enterprising Illinois smithies, John Lane and John Deere who during the 1830s forged plow facings from the blade of a saw. The resilient, and polished steel surface behaved differently, shedding the clods. John Deere’s name is still enshrined on farm and landscape equipment.

These new plows were not indestructible, and a special anvil was developed so that when one was bent, it could be repaired, polished and sharpened without destroying its temper.

Reflecting their owners’ origins, walking plows in the East generally turned their furrows to the right, while in Pennsylvania, where farmers were heavily German, Amish and Mennonite, the left-turning plow of European tradition sold best. While most of the 70 varieties of plows in the 1902 Sears and Roebuck catalog were right-turning, there were a considerable number of left-turning plows as well. The last walking plow sold in in 1934 in Lancaster, PA, was left-turning.

The hand-steered plow was soon replaced by a sulky plow, which the plowman could ride and make adjustments to while under way.

A second mouldboard, in fact an entire plow “bottom” when added to the first, turned two furrows, but the draft (pulling force) increased so much that they were called “horse killers.” Using more than one horse increased power, and one horse was trained to be the lead horse.

The plowman turned his horses in the direction the furrow was cut, so a left-handed plow would be turned left with the lead horse inside, toward the core of the field.

This tradition continued when the same animals were hitched to a Conestoga wagon during the westward expansion. With the lead horse on the left, one kept to the right on a road, with the more disciplined lead horses passing next to each other. Some suggest this is why we drive on the right in North America.

More plow bottoms were added to increase the speed, creating a gang plow, which required the power of several horses.

These gang rigs became so complex that they gained wide acceptance only with the introduction of the mechanical tractor, which began shortly after the Civil War. One survivor on exhibit at Maryland’s Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum weighs 22 tons! The steam tractor was a massive machine, and not easily afforded on slim family farm budgets.

Gasoline-powered tractors came into wider use around 1920, positioning Chesapeake agriculture for the revolution in fertilization, crop yields and nitrogen reaching the Bay after World War II.

Twentieth century gang plow arrays of as many as 21 bottoms were in use by the mid-1990s and enabled farmers on large parcels to till 160 acres in 12 hours. In the Chesapeake, this trend was countered by a wide shift to no-till or low-till farming, and an accompanying reduction in the plow energy expended and sediment loss from the land.

Landside, coulter, share, mouldboard, the shape and sharpening process to obtain the right suction to penetrate the earth, sod, clay or loam most easily…the variations were almost as many as the kinds of soil.

Art as much as science melded into this industry, which has had a great impact on the Bay.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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