What’s a froe, a flail and ‘riving the bolts’?

Autonomous tractor

I think I’ve mentioned Bascom B. Clarke in the past. He was the long-time publisher of The American Thresherman, a monthly publication that catered to the nation’s threshing machine operators and owners during “the good old days.”

In his monthly editorial, titled Fifty Years a Machine Man, in the September 1927 issue, Clarke wrote of his recollections of an even earlier time. Someone had asked Clarke why they had built covered bridges during the previous century and he replied as follows:

“I told (him) that bridges in the old days were built with roofs on for two reasons, one being to preserve these wooden structures from decay and the other to strengthen them.”

Clarke then explained to his questioner about how the bridges were covered with shingles, which were rived and shaved by hand. The man asked, “How come?”

Clarke continues, “Then I had to explain the process of making shingles by hand, by cutting down the trees, sawing off the cuts the length desired, splitting these cuts or blocks in quarters and eighths, and then ‘riving the bolts’ with a froe.

Then he asked me, ‘What’s a froe?’ “Many of my older readers know what a froe is; a knife with a blade fourteen or sixteen inches long, with a socket at one end into which a handle is placed at right angles to the blade.

It is used to split bolts of timber and for riving boards and shingles, being driven with a mallet and turned in the crotch of wood to keep the froe blade following the grain.”

Mr. Clarke goes on, “Many other things in common use at this early date might interest my readers. Take the old fashioned “prairie schooner,” with the toolbox on the body and tar bucket swinging on the coupling-pole, filled with pine-tar with which to grease the wheels and the axles made by hand and with a wrought iron strip on the top and bottom of the axle to prevent wearing.

“No wagon was considered complete without its tar-bucket hanging on the pole, nearly always without a cover to protect it from dirt and dust. If one neglected to keep the wagon-wheels duly anointed, one very soon was apprised of the fact by the screeching of the axle-trees, and unless attended to the wheels would lock, often causing a delay of hours until they cooled down.

“The type of cradle (scythe) with which I helped cut the crop in 1871, the year of the Chicago fire, is now found in museums, and our children look upon it as a curiosity. As late as in 1863, I helped thresh a small crop of grain with a flail, and there are children today who ask, ‘What’s a flail?’

“Thus we unconsciously advance in the arts and sciences in everything pertaining to the good of mankind, farming and agriculture included. We have been going in leaps and bounds in recent years.

The old-fashioned wagon with its tar-bucket equipment has given way to the truck, the buggy to the automobile, the ‘skip-jack,’ with which we covered corn 50 years ago to the planter which drops the corn more accurately than it was possible to do by hand.

From the cradle to the combine that reaps grain, threshes, weighs, and unloads it into the grain wagons as we go.

“The sound waves of the universe have been harnessed by man and obey his command to carry messages over land and sea. We are but at the beginning, so scientists tell us, in the discoveries being made by man from day to day.”

Clarke sums up with, “If the rapid progress which we have made in the last fifty years is an index of what is to come in the next fifty, those who are just beginning life’s journey will live to see wonders and glories untold, more marvelous if possible than the human mind can imagine. Nothing seems impossible!”

There are still folks alive who were born in 1927, the year Clarke wrote the above, and the progress they’ve seen — not all of it for good — is astonishing. And the end is not in sight.

I just read of the new “app” that projects “virtual reality” onto objects around us (I can’t even conceive what this means, or where it might lead).

One example given was the ability to walk down a city street and see a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” image projected on the front of restaurants based upon customer reviews.

Then this past spring, the agricultural engineering department at Harper Adams University near Newport, Shropshire, U.K., began a project they dubbed “Handsfree Hectare” (for those unfamiliar with the hectare it is a measure of land equal to just under 2.5 acres).

They proposed to plant, spray, monitor and harvest one hectare of spring malting barley without a human ever stepping foot inside the field. The team developed a robot tractor; using a Japanese Iseki 38-horsepower model, as well as modifying a 25-year old Finnish-built Sampo-Rosenlew 9-foot cut combine in the same way.

The robotic tractor and combine were guided by a GPS system. A SimTech Aitchison conventional no-till drill and a 3-point crop sprayer were used with the Iseki to pre-treat the field with herbicide, then to plant and roll the seed, and then liquid fertilize the crop, while a drone photographed the field and crop and used a clam-shell device on a lowering line to monitor soil conditions and crop progress.

When ready to harvest in early September, the modified combine harvested about 4.5 tonnes (nearly 5 U.S. tons) of barley which the project team intends to use to make a Hands Free Hectare beer.

Bascom B. Clarke, “The Old Machine Man,” would never believe agriculture today — the crop yields and the automated farm equipment, for example — in fact my own father wouldn’t either, and I hardly do myself!


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