Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Simple Plow

I don't exactly know what it is about the simple plow that fascinates me. I have long felt this way. I remember seeing an old plow not much different than the one pictured below in my two great aunts' barn in south-central Kentucky when I was a little boy. I always wondered how difficult it must have been to use one of these things. All the bother it must have taken with harnessing up the horses or mules, trying to keep your furrows straight, and smelling the sweating beasts walking in front of you...but what pride one must have been felt with putting in a good day of work.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to spend some time formally researching a few agriculture material culture items while completing a fellowship at the Stonewall Jackson House in Lexington, Virginia. One of the items that was listed on Thomas Jonathan Jackson's estate inventory was a shovel plow. Now, at the time I didn't know the technical difference between a plow (sometimes spelled plough in old times) and a harrow, so I certainly didn't know what a shovel plow looked like. Being curious, (and which historian isn't) I found out that the shovel plow was quite different from the plow pictured below. The main difference is the moldboard (the iron or steel piece that cuts the earth). The shovel plow as the name implies has a moldboard that looks simply enough like a pointed shovel. The shovel plow was extremely popular in the South before the Civil War, but it didn't cut deep furrows or turn the soil well. The shovel plow actually multiplied the damage to the soil that nitrogen sapping crops such as tobacco and cotton started and caused the migration of Southerners from such states as Virginia and South Carolina in the East to search for better soil in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi in the West.

Plows such as these have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. For large farming operations numerous plows are pulled by tractors, and for smaller jobs the rotor-tiller has made life easier for the gardener. But, a part of me romanticises and misses the simplicity of this ancient tool; I suppose much like part of me misses vinyl records. It seems all things must go away as time passes, but hopefully we have the sense to keep items like plows (and records) preserved in museums so that future generations will know what life was like "way back when."


  1. I do all of my gardening with hand tools; I'm not comfortable using a tiller. My father-in-law has a hand plow, light enough and small enough to be pushed easily through the soil, and I have to say it does a great job. I appreciate tools that don't need any electricity or gasoline.

  2. I'm sorry Morning Star School, I don't quite understand your question? If you mean who invented the shovel plow, I really don't have an answer. From what I understand the shovel plow was more of a development than a discovery. John Deere of course revolutionized the plow by making steel moldbords rather than cast iron to shed soil better.