Plowing in the Past: A Look at Early Farm Machinery

Man, Animal and Steam

During the 1800s farmers took everything from a simple hoe to a thresher "snorting black smoke" into Iowa fields in pursuit of better harvests. Machines were run by hand, by oxen or horses, and finally by steam engines. Farm machinery grew up with the state, whose farmers were always eager for anything that helped them get more work done.

The 19th century witnessed a revolution in farming technology. Just as machines were coming into factories in the city, new machinery was changing the way farmers planted and harvested their crops. In some cases, farming at the start of the 19th century was not much different from how had it been done thousands of years ago. Within the lifetime of many Iowa farm residents, the world seemed to be changing with incredible speed. 

A New Kind of Plow

For more than 100 years, American farm tools were made by local blacksmiths. An important tool to early farmers was the plow. The farmers used the plow to loosen the soil, allow moisture to reach the roots of crops and to keep down the weeds. Plows were made of wood, held together with metal bolts and bars. Some blacksmiths experimented with changes to make their plows turn better furrows (a furrow is the shallow trench of turned soil left behind the plow). In the 1800s cast iron parts were added to the cutting edge.

Prairie soil stuck to the wooden or iron plows. Plowing took a yoke (pair) of oxen and three workers: one to drive the team, one to steer the plow, and the third to clean dirt off (scour) the blade. It was possible for one person to do all three jobs in turn, but make for very slow work!

John Deere's plow solved the problem of soil sticking. It also pulled more easily than any plow that had been tried before. It allowed farmers to switch from slow oxen to faster teams of horses for plowing power. 

New technologies allowed farmers to work faster and more efficiently. The colter, a sharp wheel-shaped piece on plows, cut into the surface of the ground to help the plow blade move through the soil more easily. Even so, a farmer walking behind a plow could only plow two acres a day. A plow pulled by two horses with a seat where the farmer could ride was called a sulky plow. With a two-horse sulky that could plow two rows at a rime, a farmer could plow up to seven acres a day. 

Planting and Cultivating

Corn was first planted by hand, like other grains. After the corn began to grow, it needed cultivation (stirring the soil to kill the weeds). Because straight rows made cultivation easier, farmers marked out their field rows before planting. They drew lines across the field lengthwise and crosswise, making a checkerboard pattern. Corn seed was planted where the lines crossed. The field could then be cultivated either crosswise or lengthwise.

Corn seed was placed in the box of the hand corn planter. The tip of the planter was pushed into the ground. The handles were opened and closed, dropping a few seeds into the ground. 

Some horse-drawn planters were operated by two workers—one who drove the horses and an extra helper who pulled the seed planting handle as the machine came to each cross. A paddle behind the seed planter pushed dirt over the seed, then the wheel rolled over, patting the dirt firmly down.

The horse drawn machines were a welcome addition to the farm. After years of walking along behind plows, bending over to hoe weeds, and working through a field on foot during harvest, farmers welcomed a chance to "farm sitting down." 

Harvesting Corn by Hand

Hand husking (picking) corn was slow, difficult work. As each ear was picked it was tossed into the wagon. The high board on one side is called a bang board. It acted much like the basketball backboard. The farmer tossed the ear of corn, it hit the board and dropped into the wagon.

Sometimes farmers harvested the whole corn plant at once. Corn stalks are heavy, and setting them up in a shock was back-breaking work. A machine to cut down and tie corn stalks into bundles helped make the harvesting of corn faster and easier. But the bundles still had to be lifted, stacked and tied into shocks.

Grain Harvest—Hard Work 

Early Iowa farmers grew several small grain crops like wheat and oats. Wheat was made into flour and then into bread. Oats were fed to livestock. Before machinery, grain harvest took a lot of work for the whole family.

The grain harvest was hard work. When the grain had ripened on the stalk, it was cut with a cradle. At the bottom of the cradle was a scythe that sliced through the stalks close to the ground. The cradle of wooden rods caught up the loose stalks as the farmer swung the cradle around, and the stalks fell to the ground in neat rows. A helper then tied the stalks into bundles and set them into shocks to dry. 

The bundles were then spread out on the ground or the barn floor on a large sheet of canvas. Farmers beat the stalks with flails, short wooden sticks tied onto a longer pole by a leather thong. Flailing knocked the grain loose from the stalks. The stalks went gathered up and saved as straw. The kernels of grain left on the canvas were put in a winnowing tray. They were tossed in the air several times so that the wind could blow away this husks and chaff that covered the kernels and small pieces of straw mixed in. The process was call winnowing. Only after all these steps did the farmer have clean oats or wheat. 

Snorting Monsters

Toward the end of the 19th century, machines pulled by horses began to replace hand power in the grain harvest. By then Iowa farmers were not growing much wheat but they needed oats to feed the horses. 

For thousands of years, farmers all over the world had cut, shocked, flailed and winnowed grains the same way. Machines changed all that very quickly. Horse-drawn reapers cut the grain, and binders tied the stalks into bundles.

When the grain was dry, the threshing team arrived. Because the operation with machines required many workers, men from up to a dozen farms worked together for several weeks, moving from farm to farm when the grain was ripe until all the grain was harvested. Some members of the crew loaded the bundles onto a wagon and hauled them to a threshing machine. The machine usually looked like a railroad locomotive. It had a firebox that burned coal to produce steam, and the steam drove wheels and gears that operated a conveyor belt. Black smoke poured out of the chimney and a piercing steam whistle signaled farmers when it was time to start and stop work. 

Teams of horses pulled the wagons loaded with bundles close to the big conveyor belt. Farmers on the threshing team climbed to the top of the pile and began pitching bundles onto the moving belt. A rotating knife cute the twine holding the bundles together. Then the stalks of oats were pitched into a series of beaters that knocked the heads from the grain (flailing). The breeze from the operation blew the stalks and chaff into a straw pile while the clean grain dropped into a waiting wagon (winnowing). When the wagon was full, the crew drove it to the barn where it was stored in a grain bin. 

Farm women also worked long hours during threshing time. Whenever a crew came to a farm, it was the job of the women there to fix a huge noon meal for the men. Sometimes women from neighboring farms came in to help. The meal usually had beef, chicken or pork (sometimes all three), mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables from the garden, pickles, bread, butter, jams and jellies, and large slices of pie and cake for dessert. Often the women set up long tables in the shade in the yard where it was cooler than the hot kitchen. The women knew that the men could not help comparing the cooking from one farm to the next, and the women worked hard to make the beast meals they could. The men on the threshing crew went back to work in the afternoon well fed. 


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Plowing in the Past: A Look at Early Farm Machinery,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 3 (February 1981): 8-11.