The History of the Wheel Hoe - Page 1

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Professor John R. Stilgoe of Harvard University, from "Scientific Authority & Twentieth Century America" (Baltimore: John Hopkins Univ. Press).

NOTE: The author defines pluggers as turn-of-the-century small farmers who "through continuous hard work, attention to details, and above all common sense prospered - or at least endured. Pluggers understood farming as a way of life in which 'the farm is the greatest and most important of all factories' and the family home."

Beginning of the book excerpt:

By 1890 the Philadelphia manufacturer of one-horse farming tools known as the Planet Jr. Line had proven beyond doubt the nearly insatiable market for small-scale farming implements. S.L. Allen and Company prospered by discounting USDA precepts, and it continually enlarged its niche in American agricultural manufacturing. Its success demonstrated the inherent genius of Jonathan Robinson and other mid-century inventors of devices useful to pluggers.

Essentially, Allen and Company prospered by selling lightweight, multipurpose machines that farmers pushed. Gradually, the firm expanded into a line of tools pulled by a single horse, and in the first decades of the new century it manufactured not only implements designed to by pulled by small gasoline powered tractors but also its own tiny, two-wheeled, engine-driven garden tractors guided by walking farmers. From its beginnings in the late 1870s, the firm focused its efforts on the recreational gardeners as well as one-horse farmers, flourishing as suburbanization gathered force, of course, but succeeding, too, by serving a large group of farmers all but ignored by government-backed researchers and the large implement manufacturers of Chicago, Moline, and other Midwestern cities. But a powerful devotion to the experimentation shaped company policy, too, and may well explain company successes.

While the firm consistently emphasized that its head "has always been and is today a practical farmer himself, and therefore in position to know what farmers want," continuous "careful experiment in the field" lay behind the continuous refinements in the tools. The firm conducted trials on its own test plots, but it brought customers into its efforts by manufacturing and selling more the one version of a tool and asking customers buying the hopefully improved version to report back to the company. In 1892, for example, the firm offered only the new version of the "combined drill" (a device that planted seeds automatically), having sent out the year before some of the new drills, "with special requests in each box to report to us after trial." Precisely how the policy worked cannot be determined, but the rapid design changes and frequent references to customer trials suggest that the firm intended its catalogues as educational literature as well as sales brochures. Simply put, Allen and Company had to assume the difficult burden of convincing one-horse farmers, who were scorned by government-backed experts as hopelessly hidebound, that a new tool would prove profitable. Moreover, the convincing proved complex, for not only did it involve generalities, it also involved all the specifics of every machine and accessory. And the firm determined that it must entertain the suggestions from its customers. As the decades passed, its catalogues evolved from fairly straightforward, detailed product descriptions to booklets describing an alternative, largely metropolitan agriculture of small holdings and few implements.

Throughout its history the firm emphasized its push wheel hoes and automatic seed drills, devices equipped with all manner of gadgets and practically impossible to describe briefly. Wheel hoes came with one wheel or two: single wheel machines typically ran between rows of plants and sliced off or tore up weeds, while two-wheel machines straddled one row of plants and sliced off weeds on either side. Drills deposited seed in perfect intervals, in one operations opening a furrow, depositing seeds ranging in size from tiny (celery or onion) to large (bean) at intervals set by the operator, and covering and tamping the dropped seeds, all the while marking the next parallel row. The firm claimed that with wheel hoes "one can plant four times his usually acreage of hoed crops from drilled seeds, without fear of being caught in their cultivation," Fourfold efficiency increases depended on the seed drill as well as the wheel hoe, of course, and Allen and Company manufactured combination tools like the "Combined Drill, Wheel Hoe, Cultivator, Rake, and Plow," an 1892 near-top-of-the-line tool. "Every purchaser of this machine will find it an excellent seed sower; a first-class double-wheel how while plants are small; a first-class single-wheel hoe; an excellent furrower; an admirable wheel cultivator; a capital garden rake; a rapid and efficient wheel garden plow, and it is without an equal in a variety of tools, easy adjustment, lightness, strength, and beauty, and as a practical everyday time and labor saver." Allen tools had very specific applications, indeed, and in the end, that proved important to the man - or woman - with five acres of celery to plant and cultivate.

It proved of importance to children, too. Allen and Company understood the role of children in the small fields of the one-horse farm, and it created smaller-sized machines for young pushers. The Planet Jr. single-wheel hoe "is light and well suited for the use of boys or girls," the firm claimed, emphasizing that the height of the heel could be changed "to suit the depth of work and height of the operator combined" and that attachments were easily interchanged, "a great advantage to beginners or when the tool is placed in unpracticed hands." But the model had other uses. "In some very tough soils beaten down by rain, it is even profitable sometimes for a man to use a single hoe and go rapidly along." In the end, the boy ought to use the exceptionally lightweight Fire-Fly wheel hoe, "a good tool for the boys and a pleasant one though a thorough, strong, all day tool for a hard-working laborer," for after all, boys lacked the energy reserves of grown men.

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Page last modified on 2017-10-30