Plow days continue Montana farming tradition
April 14, 2006
by Pat Hansen
Storm clouds shrouded the mountains, meadowlarks warbled, and kids laughed at play as their kite danced in the cool spring wind. Across the fence, in a field golden with last year’s grain stubble, the scene seemed to be one from a former era when horses and mules were used to plow, harrow, plant and harvest crops in the fertile Bitterrot Valley of southwestern Montana.
As a primary tillage implement, the plow is as ancient as farming itself. With today’s emphasis on minimum tillage or no-tillage farming, the plow doesn’t play a major role as it did for centuries. Today it is used only to a limited extent in the United States, although it is still used in other parts of the world.
However, the time-honored tradition continues each spring when members of Draft Horse and Mule Clubs in Montana hold plow days in their respective areas, such as those held near Corvallis and the state’s capital of Helena. At these events, veteran teamsters gladly share their knowledge and tales of their experiences as they coach novices learning new skills.
First-timers, such as Nick Shrauger of Bozeman, soon learn there is more to plowing than just sitting on the seat, holding the reins, and riding up and down the field. Driving a team of Belgians and riding a Pioneer two-way plow, Shrauger grinned and said, “I’ve got a lot to learn. Trying to stay on is amazing when it hits a rock and tries to bounce me off.”
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For an even furrow width, the center of the draft must pull straight and not toe-in toward the land or out toward the plowed ground. The plow is adjusted for evenness of depth. If the point is deeper than the heel of the plow it will be a hard pull for the horses.
Driving a three-abreast hitch of mules, Jim Milliron of Helena said this was his first experience at plowing. He admitted it was hard trying to keep a straight line.
According to old-timers, the key to straight furrows is for the driver to focus on a spot in the distance rather than looking immediately in front of the team. With encouragement from their mentors, it wasn’t long before the new drivers were soon feeling comfortable in their role and the furrows were remarkably straight for their first efforts.
The smell of freshly turned earth, the intimacy of working with horses, and the satisfaction of seeing row after row of precise furrows slowly spreading out over a field is a gratifying experience. Throughout the field, teams of horses and mules were pulling John Deere, Oliver and International Harvester single-bottom sulky and two-bottom gang plows built between 1900 and 1917.
A sulky is a wheeled plow with one moldboard, the curved plate of the plow that turns over the soil, and a seat for riding, rather than being guided while walking behind. Purchased through the Sears Catalog in 1902, an era when a pair of men’s work boots cost $2.50, a one-bottom, one-way plow cost $32.40. A gang plow was considered to be a two-bottom wheeled plow, but this definition later included any plow with two or more moldboards. Two or three horses can pull a one-bottom, but it takes four or more to pull a two-bottom plow.
It’s hard work to break the soil, and the nippy temperature was ideal for the sweating horses and mules that plodded up and down the field. I was told that in the old days, farmers figured if their horses were in good shape they could plow an acre per horse per day.
It was a quiet scene and there was no sense of urgency in the field, only the steady plodding of Belgian, Norwegian Fjord, Shire and Mule teams as plowshares cut into the musty, humus rich soil and drivers balanced on the steel seats. Drivers were bundled in warm jackets and Carhartts (the modern day equivalent of the mackinaw or sheepskin) with caps pulled low over their ears.
Against the backdrop of cold, blue-tinged mountains and gray storm clouds this wasn’t a gender-specific event. One of three experienced women teamsters was Christine Listerude of Florence. The transient sun glistened on her shoulder-length blond hair and the dun colored team of Norwegian Fjords ” Tryggve and Gjaeruum ” while the scarlet jacket she wore was an exclamation mark in an otherwise dreary day. Christine said she found the Oliver two-way plow easy to use.
“It’s a pretty fancy plow with a spring loaded release.”
With his gray felt cowboy hat pulled down firmly on his head, Kent Connor of Corvallis expertly handled the reins while disking with a four-abreast hitch of blond Belgians. Meanwhile, James Swanson and his Fjord, “Chubby,” were using a smaller disk. James found riding the seat over the rough clods a bit challenging and decided it was sometimes easier to walk behind.
At the Helena event a 12-mule hitch was put together and driven by Bob Tomaski of Helena. The mules were hooked up to a cart pulling a disk and Bob had a number of passengers who enjoyed riding along.
Shortly after noon the spectators made their way past towering bare-branched cottonwood trees to James and Dahlia Swanson’s house where a hearty potluck lunch was set out on the patio. After the teams were unhitched and watered, the drivers joined them and settled on benches to feast on crispy home fried chicken, barbecued meat balls, salmon fritters, savory baked beans, an array of salads and topped off with sinfully rich chocolate cake and cups of steaming coffee.
After a pleasant intermission, the drivers returned to their teams to continue tilling the field that would be seeded to oats, later harvested as feed for the draft horses in coming months.
Continuing the tradition of tilling the soil using draft animals and teaching the skill to others is the goal of the Montana Draft Horse and Mule Association and local clubs at the annual plow day events. Whether you are an observer or participant, the teamsters and their families extend a warm welcome to everyone.