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The Walking Plough

by William L. Morton

Manitoba Pageant, April 1957

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

It is now many thousands of years since men began to till the soil, to make it loose and soft for a seedbed. At first they did this with only a sharp stick. And probably the first plough was only a big sharp stick with an angle in it. But in time the plough was worked out, with its share and its coulter to cut the earth, its mouldboard to turn the furrow and the wheel to keep the share from cutting too deeply into the soil.

Now the farmer tills the soil with great one-way discs and with cultivators of different kinds, as well as with ploughs turning many furrows at once. These are drawn by powerful tractors. But when Manitoba was settled, the only means of tilling the soil was the walking plough drawn by oxen or horses. And when the writer was a boy the walking plough was still some times used to break rough land or to plough small pieces, such as a garden or a potato patch.

The first ploughs used in Manitoba were made by blacksmiths for the Selkirk settlers. These ploughs were made of wood, with only enough iron - not steel - to give the share a sharp point and a cutting edge. Probably they had no wheels at first. It must have been hard work for the oxen and horses to pull them through the tough sod and heavy soil of Red River and for the ploughmen to keep them level. To do this he walked in the furrow between the handles which he used to guide the share.

In time the ploughs were improved. More iron was used, and the smiths had more time to make stronger ploughs. About a hundred years ago ploughs were brought in by Red River cart from St. Paul, Minnesota. Some of these were made entirely of iron, handles and all.

When more settlers came after Manitoba became a province, they came to settle the land away from the river front and to plough bigger fields than the Red River settlers had needed to. What they found was that the ploughs they brought from Ontario were not suited to Manitoba. The mouldboards would not "clean," that is, the sticky prairie soil would not slip over the iron mouldboard. One famous Ontario farmer, Kenneth McKenzie who settled at Rat Creek, Manitoba, even suggested that farmers might have to use glass mouldboards. But a mouldboard which would clean was supplied by a famous American maker of ploughs, John Deere. His ploughs had mouldboards of chilled steel which was almost as smooth as glass. The Ontario ploughs also cut a narrow furrow which they turned only partly over. This left a little channel underneath to drain the soil. But Manitoba farmers in the drier climate of the prairies, wanted to keep moisture, not drain it away. So ploughs were brought in which turned a wider furrow and turned it completely over, so that it lay flat.

At the same time came the "sulky" plough, which guided its one share by wheels set at an angle. The ploughmen could now ride on the plough. He could also ride on the "gang" plough, which had two shares and required four horses to pull it. This was a great advance indeed.

Many men, and even some boys, still liked to use the walking plough some times. It was pleasant on a sunny day to walk in the cool, fresh soil of the furrow and guide the plough. The walking plough was a tool rather than a machine, and a skilful ploughman could plough as straight a furrow and do as good a job as the best tractor man. And what he did was more his own doing. When the horses stepped out well, and the plough ran smoothly, it was pleasant to watch the black ploughed land widen as one went round by round And to "strike out" a new furrow was thrilling work. If one could handle one's horses by guiding them with reins tied round one's back. and if one fixed one's eyes on the mark at the other end of the field and never took them off it, or stopped, but went right through to the end, one could be sure to look back on a black furrow running through the stubble straight as a ruler. The Bible truly says that a man, having put his hand to the (walking) plough, should not look back. If he does, he will plough a crooked furrow.

Page revised: 30 June 2009

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