The sowing and reaping of grain is one of the oldest tasks in the world. When authors speak of the ‘dawn of civilization’ and remark that civilization, as we know it, began with the discovery or invention of agriculture, they are usually referring to the growing, reaping and preparation (i.e. the grinding) of grain. The word grain refers specifically to the seed of a cereal grass. Cereal grasses include wheat, corn, oats, barley, beans, rice, sorghum and rye. Potatoes and peanuts are also sometimes classified as cereal grasses.
A species of wheat called Einkorn grew throughout the Middle East around ten thousand years ago. It is believed to have been the ancestor of the plants which belonged to the category of ‘cereal grass.’ Theories have been advanced that einkorn became cross polinated with another, unknown grass to produce Emmer wheat, the species that was widely cultivated throughout the Middle East.
The early peoples learned to gather cereal plants after they had gone to seed, because the seeds could be crushed, mixed with a liquid, and made into something that could be easily eaten.
The earliest cultivation of grains such as einkorn and emmer wheat is believed to have been around 8,000 BC. It has been theorized that the women who gathered the einkorn might have noticed that when they accidently dropped some of the wheat’s seeds on the ground they sprouted new plants. And from that chance discovery, the idea of deliberately planting some of the seeds from the plants that they had picked was born. At first, the seeds would have been sown by broadcasting, or freely scattering them by hand. At some point, it was discovered that if the seeds were sown in rows, it was easy to walk between the growing plants to pull out weeds, and later to cut and gather the seed bearing plants. Circa 4,000 BC, the plough (variously, plow) is believed to have been invented by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia. In its initial form, the plough would probably have been nothing more than a forked tree limb, the one prong having been sharpened in order for it to cut into the ground. The plough made it possible to harness the power of oxen to dig the furrows in which the grain seeds would be sown. And, despite the fact that most history books give the 18th century English farmer, Jethro Tull, the credit for having invented the ‘seed drill’, one has been found to be illustrated on a carved stone seal from Sumer. The seed drill was a variation of the plough, which dug the furrow, but which also contained a funnel and tube assembly to drop the seeds into the furrow at the same time.
In addition to the plough, archaelogical discoveries have found that the ancient Sumerians also invented the sickle, the tool used to cut and gather the cereal grasses. In fact, the sickle might have predated the actual cultivation of grains by a couple thousand years. Tools such as sickles would have been needed to cut the cereal grasses whether they were cultivated by man or growing wild.
In the nearly six thousand years that stretched between the Sumerian invention of the plough and the Colonial Period of the fledgling United States of America, the sowing and reaping of cereal grasses changed very little.
The early settlers of Old-Bedford County, in the American frontier that existed during the Colonial Period, sowed and reaped cereal grasses by manual labor. They used ploughs that retained the basic shape of those invented in Sumeria, but which bore iron ploughshares, to dig furrows in the ground. This was known as ‘tilling’ the soil. It should be noted that at first, when ploughs with iron shares were introduced, many farmers would not use them, fearing that the iron would poison the soil and their crops.
J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, in his book, Letters From An American Farmer, described the ploughs and manner of hitching the ploughs to draft animals in 18th Century America:
Our next most useful implement is the plough. Of these we have various sorts, according to the soil which we have to till. First, [there is] the large two-handled plough with an English lock and coulter locked in its point. This is drawn by either four or six oxen and serves for rooty, stony land. This is drawn sometimes by two oxen and three horses. The one-handled plough is the most common in all level soils. It is drawn either by two or by three horses abreast; and when the ground is both level and swarded, we commonly put upon these a Dutch lock, by far the best for turning up, and the easiest draft for the horses. A team of four oxen is conducted by a lad. If it consists of two horses and two oxen, the boy rides one of the horses, and another lad drives the oxen. Our two- and three-horse teams are guided by the man who holds the plough. Lines are properly fixed to the horses’ bridles on each side and passed around the plough-handle. The ploughman keeps them straight with his left hand while he guides his plough with his right. Three horses abreast are the most expeditious as well as the strongest team we know of for common land. We cross-plough with two horses, commonly one and a half acres a day. We have, besides, a smaller sort, called the corn-plough, with which we till through the furrows, and a harrow proportioned to the distance at which our corn is planted. Our heavy harrows are made some-times triangular, sometimes square. This last we call the Dutch one. In the rough, stony parts of New Eng-land, they use no other team but oxen; and no people on earth understand the management of them better. They show them with admirable skill and neatness. They are coupled with a yoke which plays loose on their necks. It is fastened with a bow which is easily taken off or put on. They draw by the top of their shoulders.
The farmer began the process of planting his crop by ploughing the ground to break up the soil. The ploughs available in the 1700s were heavy, clumsy things, especially difficult to use in ground that was full of rocks and tree stumps. Cross ploughing was often necessary to get the ground dug up. The farmer would follow the ploughing by dragging a harrow across the ground. The harrow was an implement that consisted of a heavy wooden frame, often in the shape of a triangle or ‘A’, that was fitted, on the underside, with ‘teeth.’ Harrows were usually made of oak frames with hickory, or iron, teeth. Dragging the harrow across the freshly ploughed field would break up the larger clods. It also was used to remove any stump roots that were loosened up by the plough.
Growing up on a farm (albeit in the early 1900s), this author’s mother, Dollie (Nofsker) Smith, remembered her brothers towing a drag over the field after harrowing it. The ‘drag’ was simply a log or heavy plank that would be hitched to the horse or donkey to be dragged over the ploughed and harrowed soil in order to more evenly and finely break up any remaining clods. The farmer might stand on the drag while it was being used in order to add more weight to it. Dragging the field was also sometimes called ‘rubbing’ it.
After the field’s soil was sufficiently prepared, the farmer would use a seed drill (variously called a ‘seeder’ or ‘planter’) to plant the grains in rows. This was an implement that was constructed on the order of a wheelbarrow. It had a wooden spike positioned behind the wheel for the purpose of opening a small furrow in the ground. Grains or seeds were dumped into a hopper, and allowed to drop downward through a tube and into the furrow. Some seed drills had an additional attachment at the back, which would push the furrow’s ground back on itself, covering over the grains or seeds. Farmers who did not use seed drills would perform that process by hand, making a furrow either with a plough or with a hoe. And after the grains or seeds would be dropped into the furrow (usually by the farmer’s children) they would be covered over using a hoe or rake. It was said that three seeds should be placed together at any spot: “The first for the crow; the second for the cutworm; and the third to grow.”
After the crop had grown and was ready to be gathered, the farmer would cut it by hand, using either a sickle or a scythe.
The sickle was the smaller of the two tools. As noted above, the sickle has been found to have been in use by the Sumerians circa 6,000 BC. By the 1700s there were a number of styles of sickles, including smooth edged ones called reaping hooks and ones with serrated edges. The sickles used in the American colonies during the Colonial Period had handles made of wood that were about eight inches long. The blade, made of wrought iron, was a gracefully curved ‘C’ shape with one end fitted into the wood handle. The inside curve of the blade was sharpened to a knife edge.
The photo below displays two sickles from the 1700s.
The sickle was intended to be used with only one hand. The farmer would hold a ‘hay crook’ in the other hand. The hay crook was simply a piece of wood about two foot long with a hook-like barb, cut into the one end. A natural tree branch or root, with a barbed or hooked end, might be used in place of a manufactured one. The hay crook was used, as an extension of the farmer’s one arm, to pull aside a bunch of the crop, such as wheat, and then he could slice the bunch off near the ground with a side to side, slashing motion of the sickle in the other hand. The hay crook permitted the farmer to safely hold a bunch of the crop without having to worry about getting his hand cut off by the slicing motion of the sickle.
The scythe was a larger version of the sickle that was intended to be used with both hands. It consisted of a slightly curved, but almost straight knife blade attached to a graceful ‘S’ shaped bent-wood handle called the snath. The earliest scythes had straight poles for the snath; but then naturally bent snaths came into use. It was apparently discovered that a curved handle would allow the user to swing it with more ease and efficiency. By the 1700s, the snath (variously, sneath or snid) was being fashioned of a willow pole, heated in oil and bent to the ‘S’ shape. The end to end length of the snath of a scythe was roughly five feet. Positioned on the snath at angles that allowed for ease of handling were two ‘nibs’ or hand grips. These were also made of wood and fastened to the snath by means of iron or leather straps. Their positions on the snath could be adjusted a bit to accommodate the height of the user. The wrought iron blade was usually 1-1/2 to 2 feet in length, although some might reach to three feet in length. The angle at which the blade was attached to the end of the snath was such that the user could swing the scythe from side to side, and the blade would glide just above the ground, cutting off the crop neatly at the ground level. A cradle scythe was a regular scythe to which a ‘cradle’ of three to five ‘fingers’ or ribs was attached above and parallel to the blade. The purpose of the cradle was to catch the crop as it was cut, allowing the two jobs of cutting and gathering to be done at the same time. The fingers or ribs of the cradle were usually made of hickory.
The photo below displays a scyth from the mid-1900s. The shape is basically the same as from earlier periods.
Although the sickle was widely used during the Colonial Period, the scythe eventually made the sickle obsolete. The scythe permitted the farmer to cut a larger quantity of the crop than the sickle simply because of its larger size.
The cut crop, at this point called straw, would be bound into sheaves. The sheaves would then be loaded onto a wagon or cart and hauled into the barn where threshing would separate the grain from the straw.
Threshing involved striking the straw with a flail. The flail consisted of a long wooden pole (the staff), to which was attached, by means of a short piece of leather on one end, another shorter wooden pole (the supple). The flail was described by the author Edwin Tunis as “simply a club, swiveled with leather at the end of a handle about six feet long.” The flail was used by taking hold of the staff, and giving it a swing over the head, to bring the supple down onto the straw with a slap. This process of threshing, by continually striking the straw with the flail, was intended to cause the grain kernels to be knocked out of the heads of the straw. It was important to perform the threshing on a packed-earth floor. In the 1700s, tongue-and-groove boards were not popular, and the threshing was performed on a normal wooden floor, there was the chance of some of the grain being lost between the flooring boards.
The photo below displays a flail from the 1800s. The inset shows how the staff and the supple were joined by a leather strap.
A variation of the threshing process was that of treading. Treading was less laborious for the farmer, but was not as efficient. The straw was spread on the ground outside, and in a circle. The farmer would then lead one of his oxen or a horse to walk over the straw, thereby pushing the grains out of the heads.
Threshing was repeated a number of times, between which the straw would be turned using a hayfork. Hayforks were most often entirely wooden. They were sometimes crafted from a naturally multi-pronged branch or could be constructed by cutting slits in the one end of a pole and inserting wedges in the cracks to force the pieces to spread apart. When the threshing was considered finished, the spent straw was gathered up with the hayfork and placed in a crib to be used as bedding for the animals.
Remaining on the threshing floor was a mixture of grain and the chaff (i.e. the hulls and ‘beards’). The grain, of course, now had to be separated from the chaff. The process by which this was accomplished was referred to as winnowing. A winnowing scoop was a large wooden, two-handled scoop constructed with a flat bottom shaped as a cemi-circle, with raised sides on all but the straight one. The grain and chaff mixture could be scooped up in this tool and then carried away. It was sometimes carried or lifted up onto a loft under which a sheet was spread. With the doors on opposite sides of the barn opened, and a breeze flowing through, the winnower, holding the winowing scoop in front of him, would pour the mixture down onto the sheet. The wind would catch the lighter chaff and blow it off to the side, while the heavier grain would land on the sheet. There was no way that anyone in the barn could avoid getting some of the chaff in their eyes, in their hair, or anywhere else on the bodies.
There was a mechanical way to winnow the grain and chaff mixture. The estate inventory of Bedford County pioneer, Jacob Schmitt, taken in 1797, included a windmill. That was a wooden device into which the grain / chaff mixture could be shoveled. Someone would turn a handle, causing a fan blade to turn, which would force a draft to flow through the mixture in order to separate the grain from the chaff. The Germans called the windmill the ‘cleaning mill’ while their English neighbors sometimes called it the ‘Dutch fan’ because the Germans were more inclined to use it. A man by the name of Adam Acker advertised in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1756 a ‘Dutch fan’ that could clean two hundred bushels of grain a day.
The final step in the process was for the farmer to take the grain he had collected to the nearest grist mill to have it ground into flour.