Thursday, August 25, 2011

Early Farming & Farm Tools From Days Gone By

"Let us not forget that the cultivation of the earth is the most important labor of man.  When tillage begins,  other arts will follow.  The farmers,  therefore,  are the founders of civilization." 
Daniel Webster

Preparing the land
Every-so-often I receive an e-mail asking if I have any information on early farming tools.  I have some but not as much as I'd like to have.  I'd like to present here a  *very*  basic overview of some of the information I have on the subject.  Most of the photos were taken at The Henry Ford Museum.
I suppose this could be a sort of beginner's guide.
I am continuously adding to this posting so make sure you check back every-so-often.
Let's start with the beginning of the planting season for the farmer,  the manure spreader: 
I cannot think of a worse job in the farmer’s year than spreading manure over acres and acres of land.
This spreader is from 1905...
...and is designed to spread the,  um,  crap, far and wide in a much 
shorter span of time than the old way of standing on a cart and 
shoveling it off.

Next up comes the plow,  which to me,  is most important since without it very little would grow.  The plow breaks up and turns over the soil to make it smoother for planting.  It is one of the oldest of farming tools.
There are numerous types of plows but the most popular seemed to be the various mold-board plows.  The mold-board is the part that lifts and turns the dirt.  The earlier mold-boards were made of wood,  but by the mid-to-late 19th century cast iron or steel became the chosen style.
The plow pictured here is from 1775 and is made of wood.

1880s plowing with a metal plow - - - 
Yes...that's me looking determined to do it right for my first time out plowing behind a 
team of horses.  What a thrill it was to have that opportunity.  The Firestone Farm 
workers told me I didn't do bad at all,  especially considering it was something I've 
never done before.  I was even welcomed into the  "very small group of people who 
actually done this"  club by one of the hands!  Yep---this was a major highlight in my 
living history 'career.'

Here is a video of a plow in action  (taken in the fall in preparation for fall planting)

Henry Ford once commented that children knew more about wars than about harrows,  even though harrows did more to build this country than wars.  It was after plowing that the farmer would use the harrow to further spread and even out the dirt for planting.
This particular horse-drawn harrow was known as the spike-tooth 
harrow and was built in the late 19th century. 
The spiked-tooth harrow.

 Here is a video clip of a disc harrow in action:

For hundreds of years,  farmers sowed grain by hand;  shouldering a bag of seed,  the farmer walked up and down the tilled field, fingering the seeds from side to side.  As a 19th century farmer said,  "On spring-plowed fields it was heavy traveling for the man who carried grain and sowed by hand.  Of course,  it was heavy work,  even traveling over fall-plowed ground,  with the grain hung over the shoulders,  and the steady swing of the right arm throwing the grain as the right foot advanced,  and dipping the hand into the bag for another cast of grain as the left foot advanced." 
But the sowing process and outcome was frustrating at best.  There is an old proverb that I recall hearing in my youth from my own farming grandfather that best describes the planting of seeds:
One for the mouse, 
one for the crow, 
one to rot, 
and one to grow.
It was Jethro Tull,  an English agriculturalist,  who is credited with inventing the first practical seed drill back in 1701,  allowing farmers to plant their crop much easier and more uniform.
Then in Wisconsin in 1860,  brothers George and Daniel Van Brunt patented a design for a combination drill and cultivator that was pulled by a team of horses.  This was an immediate success and gained in popularity throughout the early 1860's.  By the end of the Civil War the Van Brunt Company was producing 1300 grain drills a year.

This next old-time farming tool is the horse-drawn corn planter.  It was a two man job to work this piece of equipment,  one man to drive the horses and the other to work the seed dropping lever.
This corn planter is from 1875.
This one-horse grain drill,  from around 1870,  distributed seeds quickly and evenly and then covered them over.  A vast improvement over spreading the seeds by hand.
Just a little bit better than digging a hole in the ground with a pole 
to plant by hand like in the older days,  eh?

This 1880s farmer looks to be using a horse-drawn grain drill,  which 
distributed seeds quickly and evenly and then covered them over.  Grain drills 
were a  vast improvement over spreading the seeds by hand.

Summer haying
For the farmer,  later June and into July are the times for haying.  The alfalfa,  clover,  and timothy hay mixture reaches its knee-high height about now,  and just as the clover and alfalfa plants begin to flower,  it's time to cut the hay.  Whether by hand with a scythe or,  in the later decades of the 19th century,  the horse-drawn hay mower,  the farmer headed to the hay field.
The old saying,  "Make hay while the sun shines,"  is very true,  for there was around a three week window from start to finish to make hay.  So if the day was sunny and warm,  what was cut in the morning could be raked by mid-afternoon.
Then came the tedious task of  "making hay."  Using a pitch fork,  the hay would be piled into four-foot high and wide stacks,  and these bundles would be carefully constructed so they would shed rain and stand up to strong wind.
After a day or two of drying in the field,  these bunches would then be hauled to the barn by hay wagon to be unloaded and stored.
A wagon filled with hay...
There was always the danger of spontaneous combustion should the hay contain moisture,  so drying it out properly was of great importance.
The hay was nearly always stored on the second floor of the barn,  making it easier to drop it down to the bottom as needed.
Haying season would stretch into late July,  allowing a week or two to catch up on chores that had been overlooked.  For instance,  even though farmers would mend their fences before the planting season,  the wood barriers always needed attention.  This could very well include new fence posts along with the labor of digging post holes,  which was a very difficult task.

One of the most well-known early farm and household tools that is rarely used in the U.S.  today is the scythe.  Considered in our modern times as an accessory for horror movies or Hallowe'en costumes  (the Grim Reaper or the 4th of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse comes to mind),  this all important tool was used for cutting  (or reaping)  grain,  stalks,  grass and other crops.
Scythes...they have not changed much at all from the 
18th through the 20th century.
And here is the scythe  "at work"


The grass sickle below was typically used for harvesting cereal crops or cutting grass for hay.  The inside of the curve is the cutting edge, and is serrated.  The farm-hand swings the blade against the base of the crop,  cutting through the stems with a sawing action.
Grass sickle from about 1850

 The following is another grass-cutting implement,  the Grass Hook.  However,  instead of dragging it across the grass in sharp strokes as the scythe,  the grass hook is swung back and forth.
The grass hook
As you can see,  the grass hook does its job well.

Now here is a very important time-saving device:  the cotton gin.  The  "modern"  version of the cotton gin was invented by Eli Whitney back in 1793,  which mechanized the cleaning of cotton.  Cotton had formerly required considerable labor to clean and separate the fibers from the seeds;  the cotton gin revolutionized the process.  Mr.  Whitney introduced a set of teeth in his cotton gin to comb out the cotton and separate the seeds.
His invention changed society in more ways than one might imagine -
According to the Eli Whitney Museum site:
Whitney   (who died in 1825)  could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse.  The most significant of these was the growth of slavery.  While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds,  it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton.  In fact,  the opposite occurred.  Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor.  In 1790 there were six slave states;  in 1860 there were 15.  From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808,  Southerners imported 80,000 Africans.  By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.
The invention of the cotton gin is frequently cited as one of the 
ultimate causes of the American Civil War.
 The cotton gin pictured here is not Eli Whitney's but,  rather,  one 
from 1820 and was significantly improved over Whitney's.

Well,  here's a handy tool that no farmer of 1840 should've been without:  an all-in-one cotton gin,  carding,  and spinning machine.
The ginning mechanism removed the seeds from the cotton while the carding and spinning mechanisms spun the cotton fibers into thread and wound them onto bobbins.

Fall harvest
The harvesting of the crops that our ancestors cared for over the spring and summer was,  perhaps,  the most important and arduous job one could have.  Similar to what was written under the colonial part of this post,  another of the most laborious of the harvest tasks was to thresh the grain.  As discussed earlier,  up through the the later part of the 18th century and well into the 19th century for many,  threshing grain was done by way of flails.  As the thresher swung the handle,  the flail whipped down and pounded the wheat heads,  shaking the seeds  (or kernels)  free.  Soon the kernels and husks  (or chaff)  lay in heaps on the floor.  Now the wheat  (kernels)  needed to be separated from the chaff  (the useless part)  by way of winnowing.  To remind you what winnowing is,  this is where the farmer and his family and hired helpers would use winnowing baskets or trays onto which they would shovel the mixture of kernels and chaff.  The filled tray or basket would then be shook up and down and side to side and the light chaff was lifted by the wind and blown away,  leaving the grain.
At the end of the day everyone in the barn was choking on dust but the farmer now had clean grain to take to the gristmill.

A flail is an agricultural tool used for threshing to separate grains from their husks.
It is usually made from two or more large sticks attached by a short chain or strip of leather;  one stick is held and swung,  causing the other to strike a pile of grain,  loosening the husks.  The precise dimensions and shape of flails were determined by generations of farmers to suit the particular grain they were harvesting.
Flail from the mid-1800’s.
With a flail,  one man could thresh 7 bushels of wheat,  8 of rye,  15 of barley,  18 of oats,  or 20 of buckwheat in a day.
The flail remained the principal method of threshing until the mid-19th century,  when mechanical threshers became widespread.
Here I am as a colonial farmer,  threshing the grain.

Of course,  after threshing,  raking needs to be done with 
a three-prong rake

From the year of 1840 we have a small threshing machine.  As with the flail,  threshing was the process by which grains,  like wheat and oats,  were removed from the rest of the plant...without  the manual-labored flail.
Threshing machines mechanically knocked the grain off the straw 
instead of the hand-held flail,  which was a device that took much 
more time and effort.
~This photo of the Moss Family Threshing Bee was taken in the 
late 19th century right in my hometown of Eastpointe,  
Michigan.  The farmhouse is still in owned by the descendants~
By the late 19th century there were steam powered threshing machines,  at a much greater cost of course.  Since most farmers could not afford to purchase a thresher,  a group of farmers would pool together and the thresher's owner would visit each farm and thresh...for a price.
A 1904 Westinghouse Threshing Machine
Here is a first-hand account of what it was like on the farm during threshing during the later part of the 19th century:
Farm living is the life for me...
"Later in the week when the threshing crew arrived,  it was bedlam.  The enormous ungainly machine clanked up the lane,  pulled into the field by a team of six mules.  The steam engine was fired up with a clatter you could hear all of the way up at the big house and seemed to shake the shingles on its roof.  Men were feeding the sheaves into its hungry maw,  while more men were filling bags with the stream of kernels it disgorged,  tying them,  loading the wagons and driving them,  heavy,  to the granary,  where still another crew was waiting to unload and stack the bulging sacks.
Harriet recruited women to help her in the kitchen.  An enormous breakfast and an equally large noontime dinner had to be produced.  I rolled up my sleeves to do my share.  The kitchen and summer kitchen throbbed with heat from the cook stoves.  Dishes clattered.  Hurrying bodies bumped into one another as we carried platters to and fro.  By evening every muscle was screaming  ‘no-no-more,’  aware the ordeal would have to begin again at dawn the following day.
And then it was over.  The threshing crew moved on to the next farm,  the extra hands paid off.  There was quiet and satisfaction of knowing we had made a good crop."
But,  here is how Mr. Wilder,  from Laura Ingalls Wilder's wonderful book,  Farmer Boy,  felt about the new-fangled threshing machine:
The threshing machine  "is a lazy man's way to thresh.  Haste makes waste,  but a lazy man'd rather get his work done fast than do it himself.  That machine chews up the straw till it's not fit to feed stock,  and it scatters grain around and wastes it.  All's it saves is time,  and what good is time with nothing to do?"  (From Laura Ingalls Wilder Farmer Boy
Yeah,  give me the flail any time over the machine!


The farm wagon was of utmost importance in transporting the harvest to market.  This high-sided wagon was used mainly for shucked corn.
1880s farm wagon
TheCorn-sheller shown here is from around 1860.
The corn-sheller certainly saved an enormous amount of time and labor.  The spiked disk was turned by a hand crank while an ear of corn was pressed against the spikes.  Shelled kernels dropped into a container,  and,  the empty cob was tossed aside.  Next,  the picker wheel was enclosed in a housing which channeled the ear through the machine,  greatly speeding up the process.  Cobs and kernels fell to the bottom together in these early machines,  requiring extra work to separate the two after shelling.  This problem was remedied in the 1840's by a design which expelled the cob out the side of the machine while the kernels dropped out the bottom.

For ions the farmer had to reap his readied harvest physically by way of back-breaking labor.  Hand reaping is done by various means,  including plucking the ears of grains directly by hand or cutting the grain stalks with a sickle,  scythe,  or cradle.
Cyrus McCormick of Virginia was responsible for liberating farmers from this demanding and exhausting chore with his invention of the mechanical reaper in 1831.  It cut the standing grain and swept it into a platform from which it was raked off into piles by a man walking alongside.  It could harvest more grain than five men using the earlier tools.
McCormick moved to Chicago,  built a reaper factory,  and founded what eventually became the International Harvest Company.
The mechanical reaper shown here, from 1850,  is nearly 
identical to the one he had displayed at the London Crystal Palace 
in 1851.

Next we have a self-raking reaper.  Self-raking reapers were a step between reapers and binders,  cutting the grain and preparing it for hand binding and tying.  A rotating reel on this reaper drew the uncut grain into the cutting mechanism then deposited the cut grain onto the platform.  A rake regularly swept the platform depositing the cut grain on the ground.
This horse-powered self-raking reaper was built around 1876 by 
the D.S. Morgan and Company
Here is a 1876 Johnston self-raking reaper mower in action

Winter chores
Winter is a good time to cut and get up a year’s stock of firewood.  Farmers at this season have less work to perform and wood is easier loaded and drawn when there is good sleighing,  than in summer.   But remember one thing:  Don’t attempt to warm all creation,  by working hard to chop and haul fire-wood, and at the same time leave your dwelling so open that the cold wind will rush in on all sides.  By all means make your house comfortable.  Bank it up and have all of its walls tight with good non-conductors of heat.  While taking good care of those in-doors that can can talk, and tell their wants,  never forget the dumb brutes in your barn-yard and stables.  “The merciful man is merciful to his beast.” -- Editor, Genesee Farmer 
The winter months of January and February were considered the best time of year for woodcutting,  and the rising of the sun was often accompanied with the sound of an axe as fuel supplies were needed.  Wood chopping had a dual purpose in the wintertime:  it warmed the axeman as it was being chopped and warmed him again as it was burned for fuel.  The men spent long, hard days in the woods,  sometimes hiring out help to complete such a task.  They would cut and prepare specific firewood for the many needs such as for cooking,  warming,  and laundry.
The amount of wood needed was impressive:  in Colonial times,  before the improved efficiencies of the Rumford fireplace and later wood stoves,  farmers had to cut,  split and manage upwards of 40 cords of wood to keep their homes warm and their farms in operation.
Another example documents a family burning  “twenty seven cords,  two feet of wood”  between May 3,  1826 and May 4,  1827.   One impoverished woman mentioned that she endured a Boston winter on twelve cords of wood  “as we kept but one fire except on extraordinary occasions.” 
Until about 1870,  the most commonly used tool for processing wood was the American Pattern axe.   Axes were very efficient for felling and limbing trees,  but were not as good at splitting the trees into usable chunks of firewood.  For this purpose most wood cutters relied on splitting wedges and heavy wooden  “beetles”  or sledge hammers to split their wood.  Cross-cut saws were not often used for felling trees until the last quarter of the 19th century because they were initially not as efficient as axes and were much more expensive to purchase.
Benjamin Franklin developed his famous stove,  then called the  “Pennsylvania Fire-Place,”  as a tremendous advance in wood burning technology.  On being asked about the stove he had the following reply,  which is as relevant today as it was then:  "By the help of this saving invention our wood may grow as fast as we consume it,  and our posterity may warm themselves at a moderate rate,  without being obliged to fetch their fuel over the Atlantic."  The net effect on the lives of average Americans of this stove - and others invented in the 19th century - was dramatic.  By the 1850s the average northern farm required 60%  less firewood,  which meant that it required 15 cords worth of trees rather than the 40 of colonial times.
(The information here on firewood came directly from THIS site)

~~~   ~~~   ~~~

I find old farming techniques and farm implements fascinating.  I like to think,  as Henry Ford did,  that tools such as what's shown here should be taught in school history lessons right along side the teaching of war and politics.  It's unfortunate that these implements of necessity,  and those who used them,  are just a passing footnote in American history.
In all actuality,  Laura Ingalls said it best in her great book,  Farmer Boy:
BOOM!  The cannons leaped backward,  the air was full of flying grass and weeds.  Everybody was exclaiming about what a loud noise they had made.
"That's the noise that made the Redcoats run!"  Mr.  Paddock said to Father.
"Maybe,"  Father said,  tugging his beard.  "But it was muskets that won the Revolution.  And don't forget it was axes and plows that made this country."
"That's so,  come to think of it,"  Mr.  Paddock said.
That night when they were going to the house with milk,  Almanzo asked Father:  "Father,  how was it axes and plows that made this country?  Didn't we fight England for it?"
"We fought for Independence,  son,"  Father said.  "It was farmers that took that country and made it America."
"How?"  Almanzo asked.
"Spaniards were soldiers that only wanted gold.  The French were fur traders,  wanting to make quick money.  And England was busy fighting wars.  But we were farmers,  son;  we wanted the land.  It was farmers that went over the mountains,  and cleared the land,  and settled it,  and farmed it,  and hung on to their farms.  It's the biggest country in the world,  and it was farmers who took all that country and made it America.  Don't you ever forget that."
A hay fork and a scythe

With that,  until next time,  see you in time.

For more on historical farming:
To learn about a year in the life of colonial farmers,  please click HERE
To read about some amazing books written by Eric Sloane about farming,  click HERE
Videos about historic farming,  from the Tudor period through the Edwardian era,  click HERE
Presentations I do on historic farm life,  click HERE
To read about ancient farming in the B.C. and early A.D. eras,  click HERE

~   ~   ~

I had a request to post where old farm tools and other farm life implements can be purchased.  Well,  since I am based in the metro-Detroit area of Michigan,  I can only show what I have relatively close to here.
About an hour and a half north of Detroit,  in a small town near Frankenmuth called Birch Run,  is a wonderful antique  "mall"  called  'Around the Farm.'  This is an amazing antique store packed to the rim of everything farm and country life in days of old,  dating roughly from the Victorian period through mid-20th century.
I  'stole'  the following pictures from their Facebook page,  for they have no actual web site at this time,  but I hope to get more pictures either from them or when I visit next time,  for they usually have nearly every hand-tool you see in this post,  plus many more.

Their number is 1-989-244-6056

The only other place, besides other antique stores,  that I have been able to purchase old farm implements has been from Ebay.

~   ~   ~


Unknown said...

I landed here by Googling "harrows" in search for a link or two to show people reading my blog what harrows are.

My blog is really new (posting old letters/photos found in a family homestead) so there won't be much, if any, traffic but I did want to share your wonderful blog with any potential readers that may come.

leGoog said...

it would help some people to know where they could sell and purchase tools from the past. would you consider adding that to your blog?

Historical Ken said...

I will need to research, but I know one place in particular - - check back in a while.

Unknown said...

I was recently hired to demo an old farm stead. There were 2 barns full of old horse and Mike drawn farming equipment the new owners told me to trash. I didn't though. I now own plows, planters, and a lot of just cool pieces. But one has me boggled. I can't find it anywhere trough research. It's a horse and Mike drawn 4 roll duster. It has printing on the front saying Martin Cyclone Duster Fitzgerald Ga. It's completely intact and the wheel turns still. When the wheel turns this baby is still throwing dust that was in it when I found it. I was hoping to get more information on this piece. I have nowhere to put any of these great historic pieces and was hoping to find owners. I just couldn't bear seeing them thrown to scrap.

Unknown said...

Have you found anything out about your piece? I also got one the same condition as yours.

Historical Ken said...

I'm sorry, Matt, I'm not sure of the piece you mean.

Alina Smith said...

You may not be able to do this, so check with your local area for a farm that will let you operate year-round. Source to know about Invest in Agriculture.