A thing of the past: Check row planters

Cornrows by Angie Garrett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/smoorenburg/3682186902)], via Flickr

For a couple of weeks Farm and Dairy’s Hazard A Guess column featured a tin spool filled with knotted wire.

Of course the item was quickly identified as check wire for a corn planter. Many folks nowadays aren’t familiar with planting corn in checkrows.

In western Pennsylvania where I grew up everyone drilled their corn in 42 inch rows. The average width of a horse was considered to be 42 inches, and a horse had to fit between the rows of corn in order to pull a cultivator, so the rows were 42 inches apart.

We used a John Deere 919, two-row planter, originally pulled by a team, then, with the long tongue cut off, by a Ford-Ferguson tractor.

Later it was converted with a homemade three point hitch.

Corn Belt farmers, however, felt that the advantages of being able to cross-cultivate check row planted corn outweighed the faster planting of a drill-type machine, and called for check row planters.

Early check row planters had a separate seat for a second person to ride and trip the dropping mechanism each time the planter shoes crossed correctly spaced lines that had been scratched across the field by a row marker.

Others were set up so the driver could trip the dropper himself, requiring only one person instead of two.

I read of one farmer who, not wanting to take the time to pre-mark his fields with a row marker, tied a rag around the rim of a planter wheel. Each time the rag hit the ground he tripped the planter and dropped a hill of seed.

Finally, in 1864, a corn planter that used a knotted wire to trip the seed dropper was patented by two Aledo, Illinois men, John Thompson and John Ramsey.

Only one man was needed to operate this type of planter, which became a Corn Belt standard by the 1870s and continued in use up into the 1950s.

A poorly checked field can’t be hidden; from the time the corn plants break through the ground until its about knee high, the field is a public demonstration of how much care was taken in laying out the wire and adjusting the planter.

Therefore, most farmers took great care in the planting of corn or they were sure to hear about it from their neighbors at the general store, or at church on Sunday morning.

Planting corn with a check-row planter wasn’t real simple. The following is an edited version of the instructions published in my book “Implements for Farming with Horses & Mules.”

Abbreviated instructions for checkrow planting

To lay out wire, drive the planter to the edge of the field in position to drive across the field where the first two rows are to be planted.

Take the end of the wire from the reel, hook on an anchor stake, and set the stake to the rear of the planter in line with the check head nearest the edge of the field.

Adjust the reel tension just enough to straighten out the kinks as the wire is being unwound. Drive straight across the field so that the wheel marks can be used as a guide on the return trip when planting the first two rows.

Drive to the far end of the field and uncouple the wire, leaving enough to reach the edge, and turn the planter into position for planting the first two rows.

Hook the wire on another anchor stake and set the stake at the field edge behind the exact center of the planter.

Lower the row marker on the side toward the field, place the check wire through the fork and pulleys and close the pulley holder.

Lower the openers to the desired depth and drive to the opposite end of the field, using the wheel marks as a guide. When the check head is about four buttons from the end of the row, release the wire, raise the planter and the marker, and turn into position for starting the next row.

Pull the anchor stake and move it directly behind the check head of the planter.

Pull the wire and throw it toward the planter with an upward, circular, whipping motion, moving at least fifty buttons (I once read of a guy who claimed his father could, in his younger days, “whip” 80 rods or one-quarter mile of check wire).

Place the wire into the fork and pulleys of the check head and close the holder. Take up any slack and set the stake at the edge of the field and directly behind the center of the planter, making sure to maintain the correct tension.

Lower the openers, as well as the marker toward the un-planted side, and drive back across the field, keeping the planter tongue directly over the furrow made by the marker on the previous trip.

This procedure is repeated, back and forth, until the field is completed. If there is an obstruction, such as a tree in the middle of the field, plant to the tree and stop, walk to the far end of the field and pull the stake to slacken the wire.

Walk back to the planter, disconnect the wire at one of the buttons, pull the two ends to the opposite side of the tree and rejoin the wire. Walk back to the end of the field, reset the stake (in the same hole) and adjust the tension.

Drive the team around the tree, put the wire back into the trip forks and resume planting.

Most planters can take up the wire on the reel as the last rows are planted.

After all the checked rows have been planted, and the wire is taken up, the planter is set for drilling, and four rows, two each way, are planted across each headland to finish up the field.

Whew! What a lot of hassel!

I’ve seen photos of check row planted corn fields and they are a pretty sight, especially since, in the days before chemical weed control, the ability to cultivate in several directions left them clean and free of weeds.

The check row corn planter has gone the way of the plow, threshing machine and corn picker, replaced by up to 36 row planters that drill 30-inch rows, often guided with absolute precision by GPS and computer.

In a few more years, no one will be left who remembers riding slowly across a field behind a good team, feeling the spring sun warm on the shoulders, listening to the planter click rhythmically.

And, watching the crows learn that the creosote based Crow-Tox with which the seed corn had been treated made it taste awful.


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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.


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