Dad had a John Deere 999 corn planter, a cross-checked rows machine that planted corn in a checkerboard pattern with a hill of corn at the intersection of each line. This method allowed the farmer to cultivate the rows in both directions to better keep the weeds down. This was before the time of widespread use of herbicides and weed killers and Roundup Ready Corn seed. Weeds were the bane of the farmer, completing for moisture and soil nutrients.
A long wire with knots or buttons placed every 40 or 42 inches was stretched across the field from one end to the other. A rod is 16.5 feet. Check wire came in 80-rod lengths, which is a quarter mile. That is the length needed to cover a 40-acre cornfield. The buttons on the trip mechanism were typically placed 42 inches apart. A special button was placed every five rods, so it could easily be broken and reconnected. This allowed the wire to be broken at the edge of the field or to avoid any tree obstruction or rock formation along its path.
The wire was stretched across the field and anchored to a stake at each end. Dad’s planter had a seed can for each row. Two horses, Dolly and Prince, pulled the planter. There was a revolving seed plate at the bottom of each seed canister. The seed plate had a series of notches around the plate’s outer circumference that picked up and counted the desired number of seeds per hill.
A group of seeds fell into a valve at the top of the seed tube. A second valve at the boot of the seed tube worked in conjunction with the upper valve. Both valves opened momentarily each time a button on the check wire tripped the mechanism. The groups of seeds on the bottom valve were deposited into the furrow. The group above then fell down the tube where they were caught in the now-closed bottom valve, to await the next check wire trip.
I was fascinated by the system. Dad would pick up the staked wire and move it over as the field was being planted. A steady click, click, click jabbered as the buttons on the wire tripped the seed
Phillip, Bob, and I often carried a jar of water out to the field for Dad. He would climb down over the corn planter, take a drink of water, and place the jug along the fence row. Then Dad would pick Phillip up, put him on his lap, and make one pass across the field and return. Then it was my turn. What a thrill, the steady click, click, click as the knotted wire tripped the seeds to be planted, and the smell of sweaty horses and oiled machinery. The gentle late April breeze blowing, and the sun warming the Wisconsin fields. Then it was Bob’s turn.
Check-row planting was ideal for the flat corn country of Illinois, Iowa, or Nebraska. Check-row planting demanded perfectly square or rectangular fields. At a minimum, the rows had to be straight, with no bends. But in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin, planting and cultivating up and down hills was not suitable for retaining top-soil.
By 1950 check-row planting was being phased out. Farmers were contour-plowing, plowing around the hills, not up and down. Strip cropping was employed: a strip of corn, then a strip of hay, perhaps a strip of oats.