As a result of last week’s barely mention, several readers have either emailed or flagged me down to inquire as to what on earth are bull tongue and double shovel plows? I mentioned, in the column, that both would be heavily used props if a movie was ever made about the summer, nonvacation months of my youth.
Well, actually, I made no mention of the movie but now I’m thinking it would be a good idea and required viewing for modern school kids who have already become bored with their summer vacation breaks from school. A horse- or mule-pulled bull-tongue plow was the most used tool for preparing vegetable gardens for planting throughout Appalachia prior to the invention of motorized rototillers. It enabled the user to stir up the soil by digging furrows about 6 inches wide and 6 inches deep. The trick was to run the furrows perpendicular to the last one in such a way that every square inch of soil was properly disturbed and fit for planting. After plowing we used a horse or mule to drag a harrow over the plowed ground to level it up then we used the bull tongue to “lay it off ” in planting rows/furrows that varied in width depending on the crop.
I searched the Internet, high and low, for a picture of a bull tongue plow but found nothing close to the ones we used in my youth. There are lots of pics of plows called “bull tongues” but they are misnamed. I did find a photo of a fellow plowing with one. Your newspaper may or may not run it.
I did find a picture of a double shovel plow exactly like the one I spent several hundred hours behind.
The double shovel was a cultivating plow with two narrow blades that plowed two side-byside furrows about 4 to 6 inches deep. The depth could be adjusted. It was used to plow the weeds out of the “balks” (space between rows) of corn. On the first trip between two rows of corn, the outside plow blade was run as close as possible to the plants in one row without actually uprooting them. Then, on the return trip, the outside blade was situated to plow close to the opposite row. The inside blades dug out all the weeds in the middle of the balk while the outside blades pushed loose soil up against the plants.
I’m making it sound much, much easier than it actually was. The process required absolute attention/concentration to what the plower was doing and it also required a horse or mule that knew exactly where to walk while he or she was pulling the plow.
In those days we raised over 4 acres of corn in one field and another 2 or 3 acres in smaller fields. It all had to be plowed out and hoed three times in June and July. By the time I was in 5th grade I could manage the double shovel plow with Ole Dock, our ultrapatient, 1,600+ pound Percheron workhorse who wasn’t sure if he was a huge dog or a human or a cross between the two species.
Ole Dock would do anything I told him to do unless he figured it was going to get both of us in trouble. He could tell, for example, when I was not in total control of the plow because I was asking him to step up the pace a bit faster than I could actually make the plow blade or blades go precisely where they were supposed to go. At which point he would come to an abrupt halt, swish his tail and turn his head around to stare me down and let me know who the expert was involved in this endeavor.
Plowing out the big bottom was a 2-3-day job that required 4 or more people with “chopping hoes” to keep up with the plow. And it had to be done 3 times every summer. Turning the plowing over to an 11- to 14-year-old boy was a big, big deal to the boy. It was the equivalent to turning a kid loose with tractor-trailer in the current age.
So, when school started back up in August and the teacher asked what we did for our summer vacations, I was usually the only one who answered, “I got to plow the corn out, all three times!”