The History of the Wheel Hoe

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).

Modern versions of the Planet Jr wheel hoes are for sale here

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.

Push wheel hoes and Automatic seed drills:

Planet Jr Catalog cover image

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.

Serving the One-Horse farmer and gardener:

The firm understood that most of its customers owned a horse, usually a general-purpose animal not particularly powerful. But the horse plowed and harrowed the small fields that, thereafter, were worked by push tools, and if the small-scale farmer owned too much arable land for a wheel hoe or two, he might buy one of the firm's "one-horse cultivating tools." Diminutive by Western standards, the "tool can be used in the most delightful manner for hoeing a crop closely, saving an immense amount of work in all crops which are usually hoed by hand. It is particularly useful to the marker gardener and trucker, and to broom-corn growers, and, in fact, to all who grow crops where hand work must be done." Accessories and different models enabled growers to cultivate beneath leafed-out plants, in vineyards, and along rows of sweet potatoes. One very special tool, the celery hiller (first marketed in 1888), enabled growers to throw earth into celery and so to blanch it. But whatever its innovations, until late in the 1890s the firm intended its tools to be pulled by one horse.

After the financial panic of the early 1890s, Allen and Company entered the larger-farm market with a two-horse, pivot-wheel cultivator, but in its 1897 catalogue it explained that its recent efforts had focused chiefly on developing labor-saving tools for financially straitened small-scale farmers and market gardeners. For the first time, the firm began emphasizing large market gardens owned and operated wholly by women - perhaps by women whose husbands were forced to work full-time away from the land. Within a few years the firm had become established in the medium-scale farm market, but it continued its emphasis on one-horse farmers until massive technological change forced substantial reorientation.

By 1920 many Allen and Company customers no longer owned horses. Instead, they owned automobiles for commuting to work and, sometimes, for delivering their produce. And very quickly the customers learned the difficulty of being without horses in springtime, when plowing had to be done when weather and soil conditions permitted. This moment in American agriculture history, a moment reaching across a ten-year period between 1918 and 1928, passed unnoticed by government-backed experts but not by Allen and Company. By 1925 it was shifting its emphasis to recreational gardeners unfamiliar with wheel hoe technology, explaining in a free booklet, A Good Garden is Half of a Good Living, how to manage a very large home garden with little effort and a combination wheel hoe and seeder. Of course, West Coast competition had begun to destroy the established operations of eastern metropolitan market gardeners, and the firmed moved swiftly to extol the healthful exercise resulting from pushing its machines - anything to expand its recreational gardening market. Throughout the 1920s its catalogues edged toward being how-to books aimed not only at experienced market gardeners and other small-scale farmers but at newcomers - both hobbyist and profit-oriented venturers. Yet not until 1930 did the firm perfect its ten-year researched response to the horseless one-horse farmers.

The Two-wheel garden tractor:

Its garden tractor eliminated all need for horse-powered implements, at least on land already in cultivation, and sometimes eliminated the need for pushed machines, too. The garden tractor boasted a noisy gasoline engine riding between two large, spoked, metal wheels and pulling the same attachments the firm sold with its pushed machines, although made of steel rather than cast iron (the garden tractor snapped iron attachments when it crashed into hidden rocks). Proud as it was of the machine, the company often advertised it negatively, explaining what it was not. "The Planet Jr. is not an all purpose tractor," it argued in 1930. "It will not pull a large plow through heavy sod. It will not do the type of cultivation expected of a large tractor." What it did was replace the light-duty of the horse. "It is primarily a cultivator of narrow-row vegetable crops, and for that purpose is second to none." Most growers, the firm admitted bluntly, used it "to do the work of wheel hoes," and a few determined large-scale growers used several of them in concert to work fields of a hundred acres of spinach and other crops, apparently because the men "guiding" them tried much less quickly than if they pushed wheel hoes, even the Fire-Fly.

During the Great Depression:

Around 1930 the firm realized the diminishing resources of so many of its customers and the fierce competition of the tiny gasoline-powered cultivating tractor on which farmers rode, especially the International Harvester Farmall and its diminutive successor, the Farmall Cub. A one-horse farmer might never buy a garden tractor, or might buy a riding tractor, or might stick with an old horse until its death put him out of business. Many market gardeners simply sold their acreage to real estate speculators, and many hobbyist gardeners simply did not need an engine-driven tractor of any sort. In the depths of the Depression the firm abandoned its horse-drawn and engine-driven products and struggled to keep its decades-old pushed products for sale to those pluggers who understood them to be what they had always been: low-cost, productivity-increasing machines.

However important the tens of thousands of wheel hoes sold by Allen and Company, and its competitors, they are remarkably absent from government-sponsored research and educational literature. Indeed, their absence is almost extraordinary. Not only did experiment stations and other branches of the increasingly massive federal and state supported system publish nothing devoted specifically to wheel hoes, they rarely mentioned wheel hoes in reports on crops for which wheel hoes were ideally suited. No government-backed expert attempted to improve the wheel hoe and wheel hoe accessory design, or to evaluate models made by competing manufacturers, or perhaps most important, to instruct farmers and pleasure gardeners in their use. The vast late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century crop growing literature barely mentions wheel hoes.

The never-ending Wheel Diameter debate:

Antique double wheel how with assorted attachments

Once in a great while, government-supported researchers did cite the advantages of wheel hoes. In its 1893 Strawberries, The Agricultural Experiment Station of the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts aimed its advice at three groups of readers: large-scale farmers, pleasure gardeners, and small-scale farmers. For the large-scale farmers it offered detailed information, including a line drawing, on the wondrous advantages of a wheel hoe. "The best hand cultivator that we have used for this purpose is the 'Success,' manufactured by Messrs. Kirkwood, Miller & Co., of Peoria, Il. The wheel of this cultivator is thirty inches in diameter, with its bearings nearly directly over the center of the draft." Everything about the machine was efficient. "It is easily operated and its work is very satisfactory. With it one man can often kill as many weeds and loosen the soil about the plants as nicely as three or more men with hoes." Was it more satisfactory than Allen and Company machines? Apparently so, for in singling out the Success the Rhode Island Experiment Station implied that the large-wheel machine triumphed over the small-wheel variety manufactured much closer to home.

In the decade in which Americans embraced the bicycle, the big-wheel/little-wheel controversy about wheel hoes may have seemed of value only to one-horse farmers. Yet clearly Allen and Company believed its small-wheel design to be far superior to anything developed by its competitors. The Philadelphia firm marketed its wheel hoes with fourteen- or fifteen-inch wheels because small wheels let operators get very near seedling plants without injuring them. But large-wheeled machines, those with wheels two feet or more in diameter, pushed far more easily, and by the 1920s, appear to have equaled the popularity of small-wheeled ones, although the many attachments of Allen wheel hoes enabled the company to dominate the market.

What explains the rarity of statements like that made by the Rhode Island Experiment Station? Government-supported researchers willingly evaluated privately manufactured products, from fertilizer to tractors, publishing nitrogen, potash, and phosphorous analyses and horsepower ratings, so clearly the researchers might not have feared offending wheel hoe manufactures, especially those located out of state. The only plausible answer lies in the increasingly big-farm bias of research and the progressive farmers; support of increased experiment station budgets.

Berry growers - large or small?:

Berry growers, however, used wheel hoes. Allen and Company and other manufactures understood berry growing to be labor-intensive, usually small-to-medium-scale, season-intensive enterprise ideally suited to wheel hoe use- exactly the viewpoint of the Rhode Island Experiment Station. Yet only rarely did experiment center experts address the needs of small-scale, possible part-time, berry growers. Liberty Hyde Bailey, perhaps the best known turn-of-the-century agricultural writers, argued from his Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station that berry growers should use hoes or horse-drawn cultivators. In Blackberries, an 1895 bulletin, he told commercial growers to space their rows eight feet apart, for this "allows of easy cultivation." But cultivated by what? "Two horses and a spring-tooth cultivator are the most efficient means which I have yet found of keeping a blackberry plantation in condition," Bailey concluded enthusiastically. The two-horse method is the whole focus of the bulletin, and Bailey directed the attention of his reader to "the picture in our plantation, on the title-page," and illustration making exceptionally clear that his intended audience consisted chiefly of large-scale farmers.

A national figure in the agricultural experimentation and education, Bailey now and then mentioned wheel hoes. His Principles of Vegetable Gardening, a very popular textbook first published in 1901 and frequently revised, lambasted the hoe as "a clumsy and inefficient tool" and praised the "important" wheel hoe. "It saves immensely of hand labor and usually leaves the soil in better condition than does hand-work." But immediately after this, his prose becomes vague. "There are a number of patterns, large and small. Choose a large wheel with a broad tire, that it may ride over lumps and travel on soft ground." About the benefits of the broad-tired, small-wheeled machine he said nothing. Indeed, his final sentence suggests a real confusion. "Soil must be in good condition to be worked with wheel hoes; therefore, they should be introduced for their educational effect." Whatever the meaning of his last words of the subject - educate about tilth or wheel hoe efficiency or what? - his treatment of the machines in a college-level textbook aimed chiefly at aspiring farmers seems at first inexplicable. Why nearly ignore a machine so useful to small-scale growers?

An answer lies toward the end of Principles of Vegetable Gardening, in an outline listing tools for market gardeners. Bailey listed wheel hoes in two places, under "tool to prepare the land for planting" and "tools for subsequent use." But it is on a second list of equipment "for a market garden large enough to be worked by horses or mechanical power" that he lavished attention, suggesting that a would-be market gardener ought to have two horses at least. His book ignores wheel hoes because it ignores the small-acreage market gardener, an agriculturist even the USDA admitted made a comfortable family living from as little as three acres.

The Wheel hoe comes home:

By the close of the first decade of the new century, a handful of pleasure gardeners largely outside the circle of government-backed researchers had determined that vegetable gardens ought to be redesigned to make the most of wheel hoe efficiency and that the wheel hoe ought to be the center of a larger "system." Systematizing vegetable gardening in order to increase efficiency struck no one as new, but the notion of the wheel hoe - and to a lesser extent, the scuffle hoe - as the generators of a system did. While Allen and Company had long claimed that large-scale truck farmers frequently employed ten or more men on large fields, each pushing a wheel hoe, not until 1911 did one innovator study the efficiency of the wheel hoe in the small, family-sized garden, a space thirty by sixty feet, "slightly over one twenty-fifth of an acre." E.L.D Seymour argued in Economy and the Vegetable Garden precisely the opposite of Bailey's two-horse thesis and demonstrated his argument through the most precise bookkeeping imaginable, accounting for such minuscule sums as the cost of row labels.

Seymour claimed that his eighteen-hundred-square-foot garden ought to provide all the vegetables needed by a family of four and ought to consume very little time if engineered for the wheel hoe. Using the industrialist-engineer language of the times, he stressed the necessity of eliminating "waste" and emphasized that "economy is simply a synonym for the prevention of waste." Seymour loathed wasted space and wasted produce, but above all he loathed wasted time and energy. Only the wheel hoe, around which the pace of the garden is ordered, conserved time and energy. The "adoption of the system of planting in rows instead of in small, isolated beds" allowed the gardener "to weed and cultivate rapidly, down one row, up another, with no breaking of backs and wearing away of knees, merely by the propulsion of a wheel hoe or the rapid manipulation of a scuffle. These modern gardening tools - the second factor in economizing time and effort [after the arrangement of long rows] - and should have a prominent place in every garden." He told readers to lavish care on the tools, to keep them in perfect condition, to learn to use them well. "Maintain system in every phase of the work," he insisted.

His photographs and sketches make clear that his "combination wheel hoe and seeder" was indeed "indispensable in the vegetable garden" and "saves time and backache." Moreover, the illustrations depict what are almost certainly Allen and Company machines - small-diameter, one and two-wheel machines for working close to seedlings. Seymour admitted the necessity for some hand weeding, he suggested that the use of system and wheel hoes would nearly eliminate kneeling. And his precise calculations of cost - including the property tax on the garden area and the nine-dollar cost for the wheel hoe seeder - suggest that the no-horse gardener could profit from the systematized vegetable garden. Moreover, his article implies that an even larger area would hold out a promise of increasing family income - not just a saving on the food budget.

Agricultural authorities finally take note:

By the 1940s, Depression and war convinced even government-backed researchers that wheel hoes made sense in any small-farm financial equation, but by then the two-wheel, engine-driven garden tractor and its successor, the rototiller, had reduced many of the claims of wheel hoe supporters. Yet between 1910 and 1940, thousands of American families more than proved Seymour right, although their efforts at market gardening innovation passed essentially unnoticed by USDA and other "official agricultural science" authorities until the Division of Subsistence Homesteads of the Department of the Interior funded several studies in the mid-1930s. In study after study, state agriculture experiment stations examined the extent and implications of part-time farming, learning, as W.P. Walker and S.H. DeVault noted in Part-Time and Small-Scale Farming in Maryland , that "small farms are generally overlooked in most agricultural programs. We have neglected to consider small farms in our public policy. Irrespective of the trend toward large-scale, mechanized farming, small farms, like other small business enterprises, are here to stay in sufficient numbers to be a factor in our land policies."

Surprise spices all of the studies. Experiment station workers made discovery after discovery, and while rarely as outspoken as Walker and DeVault, often expressed their wonder that so much small-scale and part-time farming prospered beyond the notice of decades-old agricultural research activities. Iowa researchers found part-time farmers enjoying many more "urban" conveniences, especially radio sets and toilets, than their full time counter parts; Maryland investigators marveled that: "the amount of food that can be secured from a small area of land is surprisingly great." Indiana researchers discovered that many part-time farmers bought a horse in spring, worked it until harvest then sold it, saving the cost of keeping it over the winter and that many, many others (72% of the survey sample) used no horse at all. The researchers had burst into an agricultural realm not only of one-horse farmers, but of half-horse farmers, no-horse farmers, and wheel hoe farmers, innovators beyond the notice of brand name agricultural science and technology.

: end of book excerpt