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A selection of harrows in Henry Ford Museum, about 1950.

November 2004

Harrows of The Henry Ford
Henry Ford collected dozens of harrows for his museum.   Farmers used harrows to break up clods of earth after plowing or to uproot weeds in a field.  Why would harrows matter so much to Henry Ford? 

Henry Ford thought that harrows and other artifacts of everyday life were important.  He believed that these objects were a better way to show American history than a book full of facts and dates.  Ford wanted to give people a sense of change by gathering a collection that could demonstrate American innovation and ingenuity, inspiring new generations of Americans to create something better. 

Though Henry Ford is remembered for his automobiles, he was very familiar with agriculture, having grown up on a Michigan farm.  Though Ford disliked the drudgery of the farm work he had known as a lad, he continued to focus on rural and agricultural concerns throughout his life.   In his effort to reflect the history of American agriculture, Henry Ford collected many different kinds of harrows.Some of these designs remain in use today.

This month we take a deeper look at the harrows of The Henry Ford.



MORE: Harrows of The Henry Ford

George Geddes patented this expandable harrow in about 1835.

Farmers liked this style of harrow in fields free of obstructions.

The spring steel teeth of this harrow effectively rip apart the soil.

Late in the 1800s, farm machinery companies marketed harrows comprised of rolling disks.

Today, planters that prevent erosion use discs like a disc harrow to help break the soil before planting the seeds.


“The best crops are raised with least labor…by breaking it up just before planting; and having rolled or bushed it, drag it with a harrow till it is mellow.”

Benjamin Sommers, Erie County Ohio farmer, December 10, 1850

American inventors sought to create machines that performed work efficiently.  Farmers wanted the most affordable and effective implement possible.  The earliest wooden and iron harrows used a triangular design.  This style arose out of necessity, as the first European-American settlers had difficulty removing stumps from their newly-established fields. Triangular harrows did not catch on the stumps, but rebounded away without damaging the tool or hurting the draft animals.  A later development by George Geddes allowed the legs of the harrow to expand or contract so that the harrow best fit the distance between rows of planted crops such as corn or tobacco.  Farmers adjusted the legs in or out so that a team of draft animals could pull this harrow between rows to remove weeds. 

As farm families cleared the stumps from the fields on the established farms or settled treeless regions like the prairies, harrows returned to traditional European styles or took on new designs.  Rectangular frame harrows made of wood, iron and, later, steel -- called “Scotch” or “spike tooth” harrows -- proved popular.  This type of harrow and variations on it remained in common use into the 1900s.  It is likely young Henry Ford walked behind a harrow similar to a Scotch harrow as he helped cultivate his father’s fields.

Changes in materials also contributed to new types of harrows.  By the 1880s, machinery companies manufactured “spring tooth” harrows.  These implements retained the rectangular frame of their predecessors, but used gracefully curved “spring steel” teeth that ripped the soil and broke apart the clods.  The spring steel teeth proved more durable than metal spikes as the material was less brittle than iron and conventional steel.   By the early 1900s, this type of harrow could be found in the machine sheds and fields of many American farmers. 

Contemporary with the spring tooth harrow, the disk harrow offered another design innovation.   Rolling steel discs cut and pulverized clods of dirt.  These harrows worked well in soil free of stones, as they severed the roots of any existing plant as the farmer prepared the field for planting.   Disc harrows often featured another convenience for the farmer: a seat!  Farmers increasingly farmed sitting down, eliminating some of the drudgery Henry Ford so disliked.

Farmers continue to use harrows, though not as much as in the past.  Harrows expose top soil to wind and water erosion.  Many mechanical planters used today incorporate rolling discs of the disc harrow to help break up the soil and open a small hole in the soil immediately before planting the seeds.  Rolling disks then cover the seeds.  These conservation tillage planters are now standard on the majority of farms in the United States .  The John Deere Company’s No-Till planter, manufactured in 1979, uses this system.

Henry Ford believed people can be inspired by ordinary objects.  These harrows inform us where we have been but, like Henry Ford, we hope they inspire you to change people’s lives.  Whether it be Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb, the Rosa Parks Bus, or a harrow from the 1850s, we can draw ideas from ordinary things and be inspired to create a better world.  

Leo Landis
Curator of Agriculture & Rural Life


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