Anyone remember cyclone seeders? The early years of drills and related planting equipment

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When I was a kid, my father’s crop rotation was corn, oats, wheat and hay. The wheat was planted in the fall after the oats stubble was plowed and, in order to have a crop of hay in the year following the wheat, grass seed had to be sown either with the wheat, or the next spring.

Our hay crop was a mixture of timothy and clover and, as I recall, was sown with the wheat in the fall with the Van Brunt combination seed and fertilizer drill and grass seed attachment.

Seeding

Sometimes, however, for reasons I don’t recall, Dad tramped the wheat fields in the spring with a cyclone seeder over his shoulder.

For those of you unfamiliar with a cyclone seeder, it had a flat wooden bottom containing an adjustable hole for the seed to drop through.

Above the wooden bottom was a canvas bag with an attached shoulder strap. Beneath the hole was a flat (or maybe slightly cupped) tin spinner that was turned by a hand crank through a series of gears. The bag held a peck or so of seed and, as the operator strode purposely across the field, he turned the hand crank and broadcast the seed to both sides and in front of him.

Grain drills had been experimented with in Europe beginning in the late 16th century, although Jethro Tull, a progressive British farmer, is usually credited with inventing the first successful drill in the early 1700s.

Grain drills were slow to catch on in this country for several reasons. First was the high cost of importing the machines froReasonsm England; second was that the fertility of the virgin soil settlers found here yielded good crops without careful cultivation.

And early farmers cleared their forested lands either by chopping down the trees for the logs and burning the brush, or by girdling the trees and letting them die. This left an abundance of stumps and dead trees in the newly cleared fields that made the thorough tillage necessary for the use of drills almost impossible.

For these reasons most grass and small grain was broadcast by hand. A person would carry a basket or a bag of seed and scatter it by hand as they walked. This required good hand-eye coordination and a steady pace in order to ensure adequate seed population.

The weight of the seed and the wind had a great effect on broadcast seeding, especially with the lighter grass seeds that could be easily blown away. After the seed was scattered, it was covered by harrowing.

A few drills came into use in the eastern states during the 1840s and spread to western Pennsylvania and the wheat growing regions of New York during the 1850s.

However, broadcast seeders consisting of long hoppers on two wheels, with a seed agitator of some kind to force seed through a series of holes in the hopper bottom, were developed and were used extensively in the huge wheat fields of the plains and northwestern states.

Pigeons

A huge impetus to the wider use of grain drills was the passenger pigeon. Huge flocks of these now extinct birds roamed the Midwest and northwest during the 1800s.

John James Audubon wrote: “In the autumn of 1813, I left my house at Henderson (Ky.), on the banks of the Ohio, on my way to Louisville. In passing over the Barrens a few miles beyond Hardensburgh, I observed the Pigeons flying from north-east to south-west, in greater numbers than I thought I had ever seen them before.

“The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose.”

Seed buffet

A large flock of these hungry birds would settle on a field behind the broadcast seeders and gobble up all the seed before it could be covered by harrowing. The grain drill placed the seed in trenches and covered it at once, thus foiling the birds.

The most difficult challenge in making a good grain drill was developing an accurate and dependable method of metering the seed as it was fed into the feed tubes that carried it to the openers that made the trench in the soil.

Innovators

Two men seem to have been the most instrumental in developing the two most popular ways of accomplishing this metering: the double run and the fluted feed.

In 1863, Joseph Ingels, a farmer in Wayne, Ind., developed the forerunner of the double run drill in 1857. Ingels’ cousins, Milton and Abraham Gaar actually built the drill for Ingels, probably in the shops of the Gaar-Scott Co., builders of threshers and steam traction engines in Richmond, Ind.

In 1867 Ingels formed the Hoosier Drill Company in Richmond and became so successful that the mighty International Harvester Company bought the Hoosier firm, renaming it the Richmond works of IHC.

About the same time in Wisconsin where the bird flocks were numerous, George Van Brunt was awarded a patent for a grain drill that featured the fluted feed principle for metering the grain. By the turn of the 20th century Van Brunt drills were selling so well that the big boys became interested.

IHC courted the firm, but Deere & Company ended up being the successful suitor and absorbed the Van Brunt Company at Horicon, Wis. in 1911. For the next 70 years or so, most grain drill manufacturers offered both double run and fluted feed versions of their machines, although I believe today all grain drills are fluted feed.

Hard to find. One can still occasionally find a cyclone seeder in an antique shop, but I doubt that any modern farmer tramps his fields, turning a crank to scatter seed. It’s much more likely to find him speeding across a field on an ATV with a Herd electric broadcast seeder attached to the back.

Personally, I’m with the guy on the ATV. It couldn’t have been fun trudging all those miles in heavy muddy boots like my father did.
(Send suggestions, comments or questions to Sam Moore in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via e-mail to:

About the Author

Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules. More Stories by Sam Moore

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