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Equipment in focus: the Bickford & Huffman Grain Drill (ca. 1890), The Henry Ford (USA)

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

As an official grower with the “A Year on the Field” project, staff at the Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village (The Henry Ford, Dearborn Michigan, USA) planted winter wheat in Fall 2021. This video shows John Forintos (Manager of Historic Agriculture, Horticulture, and Animal Husbandry) using a horse-drawn "Bickford & Huffman Grain Drill" from ca. 1890 to get the seed in the ground:

Wheat Sowing at Greenfield Village in fall 2021 using a Bickford & Huffman Grain Drill. Copyright: The Henry Ford.

The digital collections of The Henry Ford provide a closer look at this grain drill as well as a bit more information about the use of machinery like this in the American Midwest.

85.131.2 - Seed drill (Agriculture equipment) - "Bickford & Huffman Grain Drill, circa 1890" - Bickford & Huffman - Rank 3

The Henry Ford (THF) acquired the Bickford & Huffman grain drill in 1985. Peter Cousins, curator of agriculture at the time, knew that it fit the interpretive plan of THF’s new living history farm, Firestone Farm. The reconstructed farmstead, dedicated in 1985, included the home and barn from Harvey Firestone’s birthplace in Columbiana County, Ohio. The museum dismantled the structures, moved them to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, and launched a living history program focused on mid-1880s farm life. Firestone Farm staff present the work routines required to keep a family and its livestock fed, and its farm fields productive. A grain drill factored prominently into this work as Harvey’s father, Benjamin, used a drill to plant winter wheat and other grains. The “Farmers’ Favorite,” manufactured and marketed by Bickford and Uffman of Macedon, New York, was

the best available at the time.

Detail of the Bickford & Huffman seed-drill in use at Firestone Farm. Copyright: The Henry Ford

Horses are used to pull the seed-drill at Firestone Farm. Copyright: The Henry Ford

B&H advertisements as early as 1850 conveyed the reasons why farmers favored their drills. An ad in the Genesee Farmer (a newspaper published in Rochester, New York) claimed that the drill “operated to the entire satisfaction of every purchaser” (June 1850, 152). The machine met farmers’ needs in four ways: 1) accurate and consistent seed distribution. The B&H Grain Drill had a “distributing cylinder” with cogwheels that regulated seed distribution. 2) operator control. The operator could adjust the toothed wheels to regulate the revolutions of the cogwheels and control the quantity of seed sown per acre. 3) quality of materials. The B&H drill used metal drilling tubes, not leather ones. This increased the durability of the tubes and ensured free flow of seed from bin to furrow. 4) a complete package for an affordable price. The machine might cost more, but the package was worth the price given its superior performance in the field. Farmers could use it to sow “all kinds of grain” and pay $65 for a seven-tube or $75 for a nine-tube drill [The Genesee Farmer (June 1850), 136, 152; (August 1850), 199]. Affordable and accurate. These terms best described American grain drills as they became more popular with farmers across the Midwest after the Civil War. The “forced” seed distribution system of rotating metal discs was an industry standard by this point, and one that ensured planting consistency. B&H improved their drill by patenting a “double-forced system” in 1867 that used flanges on both sides of the metal discs to distribute seeds of different sizes. The 1867 patent also described a unique feature – a bin divided to hold seed and fertilizer such as guano or bonemeal (US Patent 71,528). International trials conducted during the 1870s confirmed that American seed drills like B&H’s outperformed the revolving barrel, disc, and seed-cup system used in English drills (Anderson, 189, 194-199). Bickford & Huffman stressed the merits of their “Farmers Favorite” on each machine they sold. Cast-iron plates on each end of the seed bin on the drill in use at Firestone Farm reads: Farmers / Favorite. / Double Force / Seed Drill. / Patented (plate on machine’s proper left); Bickford & Huffman / Manfr’s / Macedon / N.Y. / Pat’d / Oct 21 1884 / no. 400 (plate on machine’s proper right). The 1884 patent (307,002) defined the mechanics of changeable speed gearing. Subsequent patents applied this gearing innovation to grain drills. One focused on the ways that changeable speed gearing increased grain drill seed delivery efficiency (1886, 345,018). Another focused on the fertilizer distribution mechanics of a grain drill that operated best at a different speed than the rotary discs on the same machine needed to best distribute seed (1887, 357,834). These patents improved the Farmers Favorite. This helped Bickford & Huffman maintain its edge in the grain-drill market during a time of rapid expansion in wheat cultivation. For more information see Russell H. Anderson, “Grain Drills Through Thirty-Nine Centuries,” Agricultural History 10, no. 4 (October 1936), 157-205 and Leo E. Landis, “As Ye Sow so Shall Ye Reap” 2001, updated 2021.

Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan


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