Retrotechtacular: Farming Implements In 1932

Few people would deny that farming is hard work. It always has been, and it probably always will be no matter how fancy the equipment gets. In 1932, farming was especially grueling. There was widespread drought throughout the United States, which gave rise to dust bowl conditions. As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.

Even so, crop farming was still a viable and somewhat popular career path in 1932. After all, knowing how to grow food is always going to get you elected into your local post-apocalyptic council pretty quickly. As such, the John Deere Equipment Company released the 19th edition of their classic book, The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery. This book covers all of the various equipment a crop farmer needed to get from plough to bounty. The text gives equal consideration to horse-driven and tractor-driven farming implements, and there’s an entire chapter dedicated to tractor engine maintenance.

According to its preface, this book was used as an agricultural text in schools and work-study programs. It offers a full course in maintaining the all the (John Deere) equipment needed to work the soil, plant crops, cultivate, harvest, and manure in all parts of the country. The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery was so well-received that John Deere kept the book in publication for over thirty years. The 28th edition and final edition came out in 1957. We wonder why they would have stopped putting it out after all that time. Maybe it wasn’t profitable enough, or the company decided to phase out the shade tree tractor mechanic.

So why should you delve into a sorely outdated textbook about farm equipment? Well, it’s straightforwardly written and easy to learn from, whether you’re trying or not. You should check it out if you’re even remotely curious about the basics of farming. If for no other reason, you should go for the beautiful hand-drawn illustrations and stay for the interesting tables and charts in the back. Did you know that a gallon of milk weighs 8.6 pounds?

Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.

28 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Farming Implements In 1932

  1. if only producers of food were as “over”valued as tech bros making yet another smartphone app with the same functions as other apps, or a “disruptive” ad slinging social media platform.

    Not sure if any society in the past that has “disconnected” itself so far from its farmers ever lasted very long without lots of strife before fading away.

    1. Thing is that past cultures / societies weren’t able to disconnect from the land. Farming took up the vast majority of the available workforce until well after the industrial (and subsequent agricultural!) revolution.

      1. Good point, it’s hard to be connected with the land when 100% of farm labour can be performed by 1% of the population, what do the rest of us do, just stand around and watch grass grow. I respect farmers but it seems most of the jobs are taken.

        1. “Can be performed” doesn’t necessarily mean should be performed. Industrial monoculture farming isn’t exactly ecological.

          And as in all endeavors, if there’s unemployed/underemployed people to be employed, or people doing useless make-work, attempting to increase productivity by machinery is actually counterproductive because then you have the cost of the machinery AND the unemployed people, yet you aren’t actually producing any more than before because there’s nobody to buy the extra produce. Hence, more cost for the same output: robotization makes no sense on the level of the society.

          We would actually be better off if more people took to small farming to replace large automated industrial farms, because then the people who do the useless work like web ads and fart apps would actually pull their own weight in the society. Now we have them wasting resources to do the meaningless, while expensive machines are producing the food/clothes/houses/etc. for them, and everyone else is paying.

    2. I went to engineering school with a bunch of farmboys and they still very much have this spirit. I think people just don’t really pay attention to “fly over country”

      1. Most have to be practical “jack of all trades”. One of my high school friends father owned a farm, and gave his father a hand repacking some needle bearings. They had a well-equipped workshop that could fix almost anything.

  2. The 2017 version from John Deer is out now too. It just has a single page with “Take the implement to the dealer and have them plug in a laptop with our custom management solution running on it”!
    I use a tractor old enough to be fixed/covered by the concepts in this book. Its hard work, and its nowhere near as safe to operate (unshielded pto, the pto has no overrun clutch so implements can drive the tractor forward after you declutch, its more unstable on banks with no ROHP’s protection etc) but its still able to do a days work coming up to 70 years old…

    1. My father had a Model B, and it was the very definition of hacked/McGyver’d. It always started when we needed it, up until 3 years ago when we decided to spend the money and replace old parts with modern replacements. It never worked right after that.

  3. This reminds me of a company that existed for nearly 125 years and switched from making overpriced fishing rods to making overpriced clothes and hiding sex-related subliminal messages in their ads… still better than a company switching from fully documented equipment to DRM’ed stuff like Apple did in the 2000s.

    1. I should have stated that these are military – th older copy is from the “War Department” while the latest is listed individually for each service branch, but used by all.

    2. When I was a kid I had no idea how important education and knowledge management were to the military and I could never figure out how my father seem to know everything about any technical topic you could imagine given he spent almost 40 years in the service. It never occurred to me that that they a profession of life long learners.

          1. The balance classroom training with an extensive OJT program. When i was an E-5, one of my additional duties was shop training monitor, which ensured new people as well as those transferring from other bases had the relevant skills assigned for training (each career field has its own master document, from cooks to aircraft mechanics), and that each person made reasonable progress.

  4. Page 197: “The operator’s chief responsibility is in correct lubrication and proper care. However, when trouble arises, the operator should be capable of analyzing his machine and making day-to-day adjustments that fall within the range of his skill and the equipment of his farm shop.”

    Back when John Deere actually encouraged farmers to be self-reliant and free to tinker with their tractors…

  5. How things have changed, these days many of the wheat farms in my country are as large as small European principalities and they are one continuous laser levelled area that is tilled, planted and harvested by huge robotic systems navigating by GPS.

  6. I have a couple old reactors from the 40’s. What many people refer to the time when farmers went from horse drawn implements to tractor drawn implements. The build quality was amazing. They are dirty running beasts but the fact is that with little care and a hard life something 70 years old will pop over and run. They are dangerous beasts. You need to use your head when you are driving them. There are zero safety items. Not a single interlock on the things. You can start them in any gear, you can try and probably succeed in starting them with the clutch out.. It amazes me how far downhill machinery has gone today.

    1. You mentioned clutch interlocks, of the 5 agricultural machines I own 5 had clutch interlocks and all were bypassed .
      If you’re climbing a steep hill and the engine stalls the only safe way down is the engage reverse, release the brakes and start the engine and slowly reverse back down, which means having the ability to start the engine with it in gear and the clutch released, it also comes in handy on occasion when restarting going forwards down hills.
      For those of you that don’t know, PTO guards are a plastic tube around a drive shaft to make it look safe, they make fitting shafts difficult and obviously require maintenance but make shaft maintenance difficult.

  7. As long as we’re listing cool, related books, here’s a few of my fav’s:
    last one now online

    These are basic mechanisms that were part of daily life for our very recent ancestors that most today aren’t even aware of.
    There’s some great stuff in there that goes perfectly with the DIY maker/hacker life those of us here enjoy.

  8. A DEERE JOHN letter–

    No one has mentioned John Deere’s embracing of the “new normal” brought to us by the leeches of high technology: the software business.
    John Deere no longer prints works of art on the repair and maintenance of their products for the simple reason that it is John Deere’s absolute, firmly held conviction that the John Deere product you buy with your hard-earned, sweat-of-your-brow money IS NOT YOURS; don’t even think of trying to find a way around the glorious software which Deere has created; you’ll be sued.

    What John Deere has created is the same environment which pervades the software industry–people will always rebel at not owning something they’ve bought and paid for.

    The Chinese, and others, make really good tractors as well as other very fine farm implements. Best of all?: They all come with VERY good, very well written repair and replacement manuals; they’re about half the price of the DEAR (not a misprint) versions, and–get this–YOU OWN IT!.,

    It’s been fun, Deere, but since you’ve started ‘putting on airs’, you’re no fun any more.

  9. “As if those two things weren’t bad enough, the average income of the American farmer fell to its lowest point during the Depression, thanks to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.”

    Not true. Smoot-Hawley had little to do with farm income. In fact, the original goal of Smoot-Hawley was to protect farmers by putting tariffs on agricultural imports. Congress soon realized that imports were not the cause of farm distress. When World War I started American farm exports to the warring powers increased dramatically as farms became battlefields and farmers became soldiers. To meet the demand farmers went into debt to expand their fields. When the war ended prices collapsed and the USA went into a steep depression. Congress responded with the Fordney-McCumber Tariff of 1922. That tariff produced an economic recovery generally referred to as The Roaring Twenties. That recovery did not extend to the farm where farmers were in debt and prices were still low as a result of wartime expansion and overproduction.

    At the time Smoot-Hawley was passed the USA had been the most tariff protected nation in the world for more than a century. Those tariffs had produced prosperity. At the time economist had been claiming tariffs were bad for longer than we had been a nation and consistently wrong. They used the single tariff increase since 1816 that did not result in economic expansion to claim they were correct.

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