Caring for the Land: Forgotten – Then Re-discovered
To the Europeans who settled colonial America, the availability of land seemed limitless. Farmers paid little attention to caring for the soil, quickly abandoning the fertilizing activities they had practiced in Europe. These farmers felt it more cost effective to simply move on to new land when the soil lost productivity, rather than put in the effort to restore its fertility.
By the 1800s, this strategy had begun to run its course. As land went fallow, first in the east, and later in the Midwest and plains, American farmers had to re-discover the soil stewardship practices they had lost generations earlier. Since much of the grain grown on a farm is fed to livestock, they began to gather up barnyard manure from cows, horses, pigs and other livestock, and spread it on their fields to restore the soil’s fertility.
The Dirtiest of the Dirty Jobs
Spreading manure is one of the most unpleasant and labor-intensive jobs on a farm. It requires a lot of effort and a strong constitution to scoop up raw manure and straw bedding from the barnyard and stalls into a wagon, and then fork it out evenly over many acres of fields. Spreading manure needs to be done properly to be effective. Too much manure in one spot could “burn” the soil, so clumps needed to be broken up before they were tossed on the field.
David C. Voorhees, a farmer in Somerset, New Jersey, wrote in his diary of spreading 215 loads of manure in September 1875, following the harvest. If ever there was a farm task that was ripe for mechanization, it was spreading manure. Throughout the 1800s, dozens upon dozens of patents were issued for manure spreaders. By the 1870s, the design of manure spreaders was sufficiently refined, and the manufacturing process was developed enough that manure spreaders were both effective and affordable.
How to Make the Manure Fly
The more successful manure spreaders had two key design features: a continuously moving apron or floor which automatically moved the manure toward the back of the wagon to be spread; and a beater at the back of the spreader to pulverize the manure and spread it evenly across the field. With a good manure spreader, one person could do the work of five or more. And those other four people were surely happy to do some other job.
A Remarkable Survivor
If spreading manure was hard on farmers, it is even harder on farm equipment. since the manure rapidly corrodes and rots the parts of the manure spreader. Consequently, early manure spreaders rarely survived to be passed on to the next generation, much less make it into a museum.
Henry Ford Museum’s circa 1905 International Harvester Manure Spreader No. 3 is one of these very rare survivors. It is all the more extraordinary, because it retains its original paint and parts. It is an excellent example of the prevailing manure spreader design of the early 1900s.
A Sustainability Hero
In many ways, farm practices can work against nature. The manure spreader is a great example of a tool that helped the farmer reestablish the natural cycle, by recycling the bounty of the soil back into the soil. Mike Rowe, in his Discovery Channel television show, “Dirty Jobs,” describes the dirty and behind-the-scenes work which he explores as “the lubricant that keeps the engine of our modern society running.”
The manure spreader does the dirtiest job on the farm – but it is the key part of making farming a sustainable undertaking.
-- Jim McCabe, Acting Curator of Agriculture