Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Plows and Plowing
Nature Bulletin No. 520    March 8, 1958
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

At a country crossroads about five miles northeast of Joliet, Illinois, is a weathered stone monument with this inscription: "In memory of John Lane who made the first steel plow in 1833 on this farm. " He is one of hundreds of farmer-inventors who have made American agricultural tools and labor-saving machinery known and envied throughout the world. In contrast to the slow cumbersome methods of the Old World, our efficient well-designed farm implements have speeded up and lightened almost every task. The American farmer now produces more with less labor than any other on earth.

Stated briefly, the present-day plow cuts a slice of earth, turns the slice upside down, and then crumbles it. The plow may be pulled by horses or by a tractor; be a walking plow or mounted on wheels; be a moldboard plow or the disk type. In all of these the purpose is the same. Plowing prepares a granular seed bed, controls weeds, and turns under crop residues, weeds and manure to rot and add to the organic matter of the soil. In, addition, plowing helps regulate soil ventilation, moisture, temperature, and makes plant food more readily available to the planted crop. Tillage of the land starts with the plow.

Over 5000 years ago some prehistoric farmer, perhaps in Mesopotamia, got the bright idea of hitching his ox to his digging stick -- and so the plow was invented. Such primitive stick plows still are used in some parts of the world. The ancient Romans shod the point of the plow with iron or bronze to protect it from wear as it was drawn through the soil by yoked oxen. The first people to improve the Roman plow were the Dutch, who needed a more perfect implement to do satisfactory work in their soils. Their plow seems to have foreshadowed the fundamental principles of the modern plow -- a curved moldboard for turning the soil to one side of the furrow. It is doubtful whether any of our modern inventions has really meant so much to the welfare of the race as has this humble implement .

Both here and abroad many persons are given credit for the development of the moldboard plow but the greatest improvements were made in America. The plow of colonial days was a heavy affair made of wood and wrought iron with a beam ten feet long. The point or share which cuts the soil was iron but the moldboard wag of wood, often carved from a twisted tree trunk. It took several teams of horses or oxen to pull one and it needed repairs often. In 1797 a plow of solid cast iron was patented in New Jersey and soon Thomas Jefferson invented one with an improved moldboard which could be pulled more easily. In 1836 Daniel Webster made a special plow to break newly cleared land.

When the early settlers came to Illinois they avoided the prairie regions which now have our most productive soils. This was mainly because their plows could not successfully break the tough sod formed by the matted roots of grasses and other prairie plants. Even though five to ten yokes of oxen were pulling, the sticky black soil clung to the moldboard and had to be scraped off every few steps. For this reason John Lane made a moldboard from a polished steel circular saw blade which would "scour" -- remain bright and slick without cleaning. In 1837 John Deere, a blacksmith of Grand Detour, Illinois, made further improvements and founded the farm implement company that bears his name.

Today, plows on wheels turning two, three, four, five -- or even up to twenty furrows at once -- are operated by one man driving a tractor.

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