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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Sod Breaking

"Here the countryside is a dead level in all directions. The effect is anything but agreeable. You seem to be cramped up by the very expansion of space, where there are no prominent objects on which the eye can fix."

Charles Lindsey, The prairies of the western states, their advantages and their drawbacks, 1860

During the early 19th century, as people moved westward across the United States, relatively few settled on the Great Plains or prairie regions. This was mainly because the soil was difficult to cultivate using the tools and techniques available. The lack of reliable water sources made it challenging to sustain large-scale agriculture. In the 1840s and 1850s, settlement of the Great Plains began to increase significantly. This was primarily due to a combination of factors, including the development of new agricultural technologies, transportation infrastructure improvements, and cheap land availability through federal land grants and the Homestead Act of 1862. As a result, by the late 19th century, the Great Plains had become a major agricultural region, with large-scale farming operations producing wheat, corn, and other crops. This transformation was a significant factor in the American West's economic development and profoundly impacted the growth and development of the United States.

The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma. © Mike Fuhr/TNC

The Great Plains are characterized by the absence of widespread forests and the dominance of grasses. In the shadow of the Rockies is the more arid short grass prairie. Further east is the wetter tallgrass prairie. And in between is the midgrass prairie with its mixture of short and tall grasses. This vast area contains a complex ecosystem dependent on the variety of soil types, amounts of moisture, and topography. Riparian areas and bottomlands with poor drainage support different fauna and flora than the wind-swept and dry higher elevations. Prairie soil is dark, thick, and rich in organic material, but the roots of grasses penetrate deep and form fibrous mats. The tangled, knotted roots help bind the soil together and prevent erosion from occurring.

The Native Americans who inhabited the prairie regions of North America before European contact adapted to their environment. Many of the Native American tribes had adopted a semisedentary lifestyle. They established settlements near wooded areas along rivers. Here, periodic floods renewed the light, easily cultivated soils. They cleared small plots of land by cutting down trees and other vegetation, burning the debris to enrich the soil, and then planting crops such as corn, beans, and squash. After several years, when the soil had become depleted, the plot would be abandoned, and a new plot cleared elsewhere. Different crops would be planted together in the same field, allowing them to complement each other and improve overall yields. For example, beans would be grown alongside corn, with the beans providing nitrogen to the soil and the corn providing a trellis for the beans to climb. Native Americans used various tools to cultivate the land, including digging sticks, hoes, and wooden plows. They also relied on irrigation systems to bring water to their crops in regions with limited rainfall. Crops would be planted in spring, and then the tribe would depart the village for the summer bison hunt on the open plains. They would return to harvest the crops in the fall before leaving again for a winter hunt.

For the early white settlers, the different prairies were regions to be avoided. The Europeans saw the lack of trees as a lack of fertile ground. The wetlands of the tallgrass prairies they first encountered were seen as wastelands and sources of malaria. Early settlements gravitated toward rivers and the edges of woodlands. Most settlers during this period focused on regions with more fertile soil and temperate climate, such as the Ohio River Valley and the Mississippi River Valley. The iron and wooden plows they brought were great for cutting through the loose, sandy soil they knew along the eastern seaboard. But prairie soil was typically tough and dense. The thick layer of sod made it challenging to plow. One observer said it was "enough to give strong men pause."

Six horse teams or three pairs of oxen could be required to pull a plow through the dense prairie soil. Most farmers were unable to afford the draft animals required. As a result, many early farmers on the prairie relied on a method of farming known as "sod busting." This involved breaking up the thick layer of sod using various tools, including axes, hoes, and picks, and then planting crops directly into the loosened soil. This method was highly labor-intensive and often yielded poor results. Farmers sometimes would use a crude plow known as a "bull plow" or "bar share" to break up the soil. This plow was made of wood and had a blade made of a piece of iron or steel that was hammered into a thin, curved shape. However, the blade was not durable and often broke or wore out quickly, making it unsuitable for large-scale farming.

The Grand Prairie of central Illinois lay at the eastern extremity of the plains. It was a mosaic of tallgrass prairie and marshland, and it was the last area of the future state to be settled. In this region, an innovation would alter the course of agriculture in the Great Plains. It would contribute to the transformation of the prairie from wasteland to breadbasket.

John Deere

Cast iron plows had been developed and modified since the late 18th century. One of the problems that farmers encountered was that the black, sticky soil tended to clump up on the plow's blade. This required stopping every few minutes to clear off the edge. In 1833, John Lane, a farmer and blacksmith living in Lockport, Illinois (now a suburb of Chicago), hit upon a solution to this problem. His solution was to use polished steel. But steel plate was not being produced in the country at the time. Therefore Lane obtained a steel sawblade from a local sawmill. The other obstacle Lane needed to overcome was that steel was hard to work into the curved shape required for a plow. Lane cut the blade into three strips, welded them onto softer iron, and then hammered them into the desired shape. The plates were then polished. Two vessels were mounted to the plow's moldboard, the part that turns the soil, and the third was attached to the share, the cutting part of the plow. Lane tested his plow and found that the plow scoured itself of the prairie soil.

Lane's innovation was taken up by other blacksmiths in the region. Most notable of these was John Deere. John Deere, like Lane himself, was a transplanted New Englander. He was from Vermont, where he had his own blacksmith business. But financial difficulties and competition forced him out west, leaving his wife and children behind. In 1836, He settled in Grand Detour, Illinois, and formed a blacksmith partnership with Captain Leonard Andrus. The year after, Deere, like Lane, used a sawblade to develop a self-scouring steel plow.

Thought to be one of three original John Deere plows. Smithsonian Institute

But there was a difference between Lane and Deere. Lane never patented his version of the steel plow. And he continued to do business as a blacksmith. He made his plows to meet individual demands. It is estimated that he produced at most 500 plows. John Deere would take the next step and find a way to mass manufacture the plows. Everyone recognized the steel plow's advantage over the older cast iron ones, and they were in immediate demand. Deere had the blacksmithing ability, but Andrus was the one who had the financial means to provide the necessary capital. One plow was produced in the first year. Four were made in the second. By the third year, a second forge was added to the shop. In 1840, Deere and Andrus added a horse-powered grinder to polish the steel, and by 1844, they were producing over four hundred plows. They built a new factory and converted it to steam power. At first, steel had to be imported from England. This was expensive and took over six months. But soon, the first steel was being rolled in Pittsburgh, reducing the cost. In 1848, Deere sold his interest in the company to Andrus, found a new partner, and set up a new operation in Moline, Illinois. Here, he would establish the company now famous for its tractors. By 1856, Deere's company was manufacturing over 13,000 steel plows annually.

The steel plow can be seen as a critical technological innovation that helped to facilitate the shift from subsistence agriculture to large-scale commercial agriculture in the American West. The plow made it possible to cultivate the dense prairie soil more efficiently, which allowed surplus crops to be produced, altering the region's natural ecosystem. This had significant implications for the region's economic, social, and political development. Its widespread adoption in the mid-19th century helped to fuel the westward expansion of the United States and the settlement of the Great Plains. It allowed for the growth of large-scale commercial agriculture, which created new economic opportunities and contributed to the development of American capitalism. However, it also had negative consequences for many indigenous communities, whose traditional ways of life were disrupted by the encroachment of settler agriculture.

The impact of the steel plow can also be seen in the longer-term processes of environmental change and agricultural development that it helped to set in motion. The transformation of the Great Plains from a vast expanse of grassland to an agricultural heartland was not simply the result of the invention of the steel plow; it was the product of broader economic, social, and environmental processes. These processes included the pressures of the westward expansion of white settlement, the growth of industrial capitalism, the introduction of the railroad and improved transportation, and the development of new agricultural technologies and practices.


Further Reading:

Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois: James Krohe Jr

John Deere's Company: A History of Deere & Company and Its Times: Wayne Broehl Jr

Did John Deere’s Best Invention Spark a Revolution or an Environmental Disaster?: Jackson Landers (Smithsonian Magazine)


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