Almanac

Cover Story - March 13, 2013

American made: Woodside's Adolph Rosekrans restores farming implements from the days of the horse-drawn plow

by Dave Boyce

It requires a leap of imagination to visualize it now, but there was a time when growing crops commercially in the United States meant entering the domain of draft horses and the iron, steel and hardwood tracery of the American-made farming implements they pulled. Pastures under cultivation felt the heavy tread of nodding, plodding teams of big, muscular animals and the slow churn of the delving metal blades of plows, cultivators and harrows.

It was a simpler time. A farmer's engines of cultivation ran on hay and were more or less self-steering. The necessary work included turning over the soil, breaking up the big lumps and then planting, weeding and harvesting. There were implements made to do all of these things. They could be simple or complicated, as well as ingenious. Farmers wanted labor-saving devices and American factories were hothouses of innovation. Traveling salesmen would visit farmers and demonstrate a company's latest products using hand-held scale models.

"They were always building a better mousetrap," Woodside resident, planning commissioner and architect Adolph Rosekrans told the Almanac. Mr. Rosekrans has a collection of about 100 horse-drawn farm implements, a collection that started to come together about 12 years ago with 10 or 12 implements that had been sitting under trees for years at his home at Runnymede Farm on Runnymede Road. "I was fascinated with the tools, the engineering and the levers and the gears," he says.

A substantial part of Mr. Rosekrans' restored collection goes on display in the San Mateo County History Museum in the exhibit "Plowing Ahead: Historic Peninsula Farming" on Wednesday, March 13. The exhibit at 2200 Broadway St. in Redwood City runs (tentatively) until September 2014 and will include 16 lithographs of Peninsula farms from around 1878, drawn by Grafton Tyler Brown, an early African-American artist in California.

Since 2003, when Mr. Rosekrans transferred ownership of his collection to the museum, it has continued to grow.

The Almanac visited with Mr. Rosekrans and his assistant Sam Perry, an Oakland-based sculptor. The tour included the barn/workshop and a long shed that is home to several restored implements and many that are yet-to-be-restored and whose metal parts have weathered to a uniform and benign coat of light-brown rust.

(The 120 acres of Runnymede Farm is also a sculpture garden with around 150 outdoor works of art collected and placed by Mr. Rosekrans' brother John, who died in 2001. The farm opens occasionally to nonprofit groups for fundraising events. Mr. Perry and sculptor Michael Ehrlich also have roles at the farm in maintaining the outdoor sculptures.)

Baling hay

As a kid growing up at Runnymede in the 1930s, Mr. Rosekrans says he remembers nomadic farm workers arriving in hay-baling season with children and dogs, a cook wagon, and a horse-driven hay baler. The rectangular bales came out wrapped in five wires, he says. According to an October 1935 edition of The Gettysburg Times, a five-wire bale weighed about 190 pounds. "It was exciting to a little kid," Mr. Rosekrans says.

His parents bought Runnymede in 1929 or 1930 and photos from that time show rows of grapes. The farm may once have been an eight-cow commercial dairy, he says, having derived that number from the eight milking stalls in the farm's elegant stone barn.

The implement collection got a jump start from Ray Stacy, a retired blacksmith and draft-horse owner in San Mateo County who, Mr. Rosekrans says, encouraged him "and sort of pushed me over the edge" to pull Runnymede's implements out from under the trees and restore them. Along with his original 10 implements, Woodside resident Elizabeth Flood, of the Flood Estate, at one point asked him to look over what she had in horse-drawn hardware. "Do you want it? Take it," he says she told him. And so he did. The largest category of implements in his collection is the single-blade walking plow.

Auctions are another way to find implements. Mr. Rosekrans says he visits Tulare in the Central Valley a couple of weekends a year. It's not uncommon to pay $150 for a plow, and he once paid $1,500 for a 1940s-era cultivator — a device used to break up plowed lumps of soil. A $1,500 cultivator may even have its original paint, but if it doesn't, one way of discovering it is to loosen old bolts and look underneath, Mr. Perry says.

Farming implements being worked on at Runnymede sit in various stages of restoration in the workshop in the upper level of the barn. With some of the objects, it is not obvious what they're used for. Mr. Perry picked up a device whose main feature is a vertically oriented circular case of cast iron about the diameter of a pancake. Like a pencil sharpener, it mounts to a flat surface and includes a hand crank. There's a pancake-sized wheel inside the cast-iron case with four or five finger-sized holes around the perimeter, and visible gears inside those holes. The holes accept strands of fiber that, when the crank is turned, join to become the braid of a rope.

Plowshares into swords

American companies were once major exporters of horse-drawn implements, Mr. Perry says. Even after the transition to farming with tractors in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe and the United States, South American farms remained reliable customers. And after mechanization, the implement manufacturers' export market remained strong in that they adapted their implements so they could be pulled behind tractors.

World War II slowed mechanized farming briefly as manufacturers shifted to making war machines, and some of the metal used in those war machines came from melted-down horse-drawn implements. But horse farming is making a comeback. "There's a lot of horse farmers," Mr. Perry says.

"It's not going to feed the world, but it'll make 'em feel good, like farmers' markets," Mr. Rosecrans adds with a smile.

What's it like, walking behind a horse-drawn plow? "That's hard work," and particularly hard on hips and knees, Mr. Rosekrans says.

"It's really how well your horse is trained," Mr. Perry says.

"The worst thing that could happen," he adds, "is the horses would hit a hornets nest." But he says there's a technique to step out of the reins if that happens. The farmer should make a habit of tying the reins together and wrapping the whole thing loosely around the shoulders so that if the horse spooks, the farmer can duck down and let the reins slip off.

Comments

Posted by Borut Prah, a resident of another community
on Mar 23, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Not the book, not even the computer, but the plow is the most important invention of all times. Here is why. To eat, early humans had to hunt or gather berries, a way of life not much different from that of animals.
The discovery that one seed planted in soil could produce many seeds that can be harvested and used as food was a major scientific breakthrough, but to plant a lot of seeds one still has to do a lot of digging. But how?
Economist Milton Friedman's story of his visit to China has the answer. A high Party official was showing him a public works project where workers, like ants, moved dirt with wheelbarrows and shovels. But why don't you use tractors, inquired Friedman. Because we have too many people who need work, was the answer. Replied Friedman: then give them spoons and you will employ even more people. In that China, the wheel barrow would still wait to be invented.

Inventions do not happen when there are enough resources to solve the problem or to fill the demand.

Thus, according to some twisted modern thinking, early humans would never have needed a plow if they had enough Mexicans who would dig for them. But they did not, and the plow was invented -- and with it the concept of productivity.

More food brought better life. Dangers of hunting diminished. Slash-and-burn nomadic life was no longer needed for survival. Land could be recycled by plowing it over and over again. People could now live in permanent houses. They could consider planting crops and develop cultures that needed longer than one year to yield fruit. Vineyards, for example.

The plow has now been given the place of honor it deserves, by Adolph Rosekrans at the Runnymede Farm Equipment Collections, which includes many immaculately restored plows.


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