Even though the size and efficiency of farm equipment has changed, working the fields remains a springtime ritual. Once you’ve worked a field a few times, you remember its contour, where the water-run strips are and any obstacles like big rocks.
It’s a far cry from the days when homesteaders needed to create fields by removing rocks, trees and stumps to create tillable land. Acres of ridgetop fields were created by clearing the land – without the benefit of a tractor. Using horses and a grubber, the stumps were pulled out and away.
That stump puller could have been a Swenson Grubber. The “Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements” by CH Wendel has a passage on the Swenson Grubber Co. of Cresco, Iowa. In 1895 John Swenson and his father, Lorens, founded the Faultless Stump Puller Co. They engaged in the manufacture of stump pullers at Cresco until 1899, when they sold the business.
“By the 1890s the firm of Caward & Swenson Co. was building its Faultless Two-Horse Grubbing Machine, claiming it to be the best stump puller that man’s knowledge and skill has ever been able to produce,” the entry states.
John Swenson was born in 1872 in Racine County, Wis., and was a natural-born mechanic. He invented the Swenson steam valve, the original Swenson mower – one of the first in the country – and helped invent one of the first self-binders, a knot-tying device used in reapers. He also invented another stump puller that in 1905 won the gold medal at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon. In 1900 he and his father had founded the Swenson Grubber Company. By 1909 the company offered five different sizes of machines; it remained active until the 1920s.
The basic principle of the stump puller was two horses hitched to the end of a sweep log or beam. They were driven in a circle to turn the cable drum on the stump puller, which was anchored to another stump or a tree.
The drum cable was attached to the stump, and became tighter and tighter. The tremendous force applied at a slow rate eventually pulled up the stump. Softwood trees pulled out much easier than oak trees, which had a deeper tap root.
Pullers made of cast iron were eventually replaced by steel, which was less brittle.
One account of a rival stump puller made by Hercules claims that, in a series of tests in 1915 under the supervision of the University of Minnesota, a team of horses with three men cleared 5 acres and 1,261 stumps of soft timber in nine days.
Eventually tractors replaced horses and hydraulic equipment took over. By then most of the country had been settled and the demand for breaking new ground lessened.
This stump puller is from 1906, based upon the description and other photos. Some of the parts are missing – but they may be buried in the ground where the puller has sat for 50 years or more.
Here are some of the reader responses:
Bill Schaupp, Dunlap, Iowa — I think the picture is a stump puller. My dad and uncles used it to clear a lot of land for farming in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Ours looked a little different but was maybe made by another company.
Gary Cooper, Fontanelle, Iowa — The item is a rolling hinge from an old garage door that opened by rolling on a track inside the garage. The doors were in sections to around the curve, that’s why there is a hinge on the roller. I haven’t seen one for years.
Craig Gustafson — I believe it is a hay mow carriage. They run on a track at the peak of the hay mow to lift hay up and into the hay mow. A long rope was attached and ran through the barn to be pulled by horses or a tractor which provided the power to lift the hay.
George Perlinger — There used to be a little machine, I think it was called a Wagon Jack that they used to unload ear corn or other things. In the days when we picked corn by hand with a team and wagon, it had a frame that you drove the wagon under, unhitched the horses and hitched them up to the machine which had a low shaft near the ground that ran to the overhead frame. The horses walked around in a circle stepping over the shaft which raised the front end of the wagon box to dump the corn out into an elevator which moved it to the crib. My father did not have one and I always had to shovel the corn by hand.