About 40 percent of Americans were living and working on farms in the early 1900’s. Most of these farming families and their hired help worked an average of 150 acres of land, which is three times the amount worked a century earlier. Farming tools and machinery underwent many improvements during this time and new developments were being introduced to increase efficiency and production while reducing the hours of backbreaking labor.
Most farm tools in the 1800’s were simple, hand held and crafted from iron. Working with them was often slow and tedious. Injuries were commonplace. The dawning of the 1900’s saw farmers still using hammers, saws, hoes, rakes, shovels, sickles and other hand held instruments, the quality of these tools was much improved due to the growth of the steel industry. The United States was the largest producer of steel by 1900, mass producing tougher hammer and shovel heads, sturdier saw blades and other sharp instruments that cut through dense brush and thick roots.
A major addition to early 20th-century farming was the development of horse drawn equipment. While oxen and mule teams were still seen plowing fields and pulling wagons, many farmers began to use draft horses for these and other hard tasks. These large horses weighed an average of 1800 pounds and were bred specifically for farm labor, logging and other heavy jobs. The Industrial Revolution brought forth machinery that utilized horses for planting corn, cutting hay, binding oats, cultivating land and bringing in crops. Examples include the horse drawn reaper, which outperformed the handheld scythe for cutting ripe crops, and the horse-drawn combine that could cut and thresh fields of grain at the same time.
The early 1900’s saw major developments and discoveries in agriculture, including the finding of new uses for peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes by scientist George Washington Carver of the Tuskegee Institute. This led to more diversity and opportunities in farming. Dramatic changes also came with further development of steam powered tractors used for plowing and threshing. About 5,000 had been manufactured in the United States at the turn-of-the-century and 30 different companies were striving for a piece of the pie. Reapers and combines remained animal powered until the 1930’s when they became self-propelled.
Though steam engine tractors were used well into the first quarter of the 1900's, tractors with internal combustion engines fueled by gasoline were being developed and creating a lot of excitement within the agricultural community. Henry Ford experimented by producing his company's first gasoline powered “automobile plow” in 1907. After becoming smaller and more affordable in 1910, gasoline powered tractors grew in popularity and the first mass-marketed one, the Fordson, was introduced by Ford in 1917. By the 1920s, tractors built with gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were used extensively.