horse plow
woman in vineyard

Woman in a plowed vineyard.  Photo taken in 1935 and is from the Wine Institute Collection  at the Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County

The horse drawn plow. We’ve all seen it, at least in photographs in the history books. There’s a sort of magic to the image of plowing the land. An illusion mostly. Eventually the horse drawn plow was replaced with engine power. Why? Try harnessing the horse to the plow, or plowing the vineyard with a horse, or walking behind this animal for any given amount of time while the horse is straining itself to do this hard work. You’ll understand why our forbearers by and by relinquished horsepower.

The Wine History Project of San Luis Obispo County currently possesses a horse drawn plow within its collection. And believe me when I say, it is no easy task to move it from place to place. Awkward, burdensome, heavy, cumbersome…and on-and on. There is no way of being anything but clumsy and ungraceful when attempting to get this tool to move. The Wine History Project is donating this plow to the Dana Adobe for an exhibit that describes agricultural practices during the rancho period. 

From my research I discovered some information in the Thompson West book from 1883 by Myron Angel regarding Captain Dana. 

“At the blacksmith shop he made such improvements in plows as quite (sic) astonished the Californians, creating a revolution in agriculture in that quarter of the county, but, singularly enough, it did not spread to any great extent. The people were accustomed to the arid, usually a section of a small tree, having a limb of sufficient length for a pole reaching to the yoke of the oxen drawing it, one end of the body sharpened to scratch the ground and the other fixed for the handle. Dana made such plows as he had seen in his youth, which, though very crude, were a great improvement upon the pointed stick of ancient Biblical times used by the Californians, and were in use until the Americans brought in the new styles of modern times.

Wine History Project (WHP) Collection 

The plow shown in the black and white photo is currently held in the WHP collection. We obtained this massive vineyard tool in the summer of 2018 where it was found on an old Petaluma, California ranch. It is in excellent condition with original paints and was utilized for field or vineyard row planting.

cast iron fitting

As one can see in the photo above, there is a cast iron fitting to connect to the horse and the same material is used for the blade of the plow. Oak is used for the body and the handles of the plow. This oak is painted red and blue, and from my deliberation these are the original colors, though now faded. The plow is nearly eight feet long and close to two feet from handle to handle; these handles being two feet tall. Think about it. This would make for a bent-over handling while working the tool, following that horse!

Vineyard Plow

Wine History Project ID#:    V&F2
Vineyard Plow
Size: 94”L x 22”W x 24”H
Circa date: 1860s-1870s

Definition of Plowing

Generally, plowing is defined as turning up the earth of an area of land with a plow, especially prior to sowing

The French used the following terms. There is “labourer”, to plow which is a deep turning of the earth, practiced after the harvest in October, November, or December.  Or the necessity to grub up vines and prepare the ground for new plantings in the spring. Grubbing up means to pull the vines up by the roots and replace them with other agricultural crops.

There is also the French term “binage”, which is to hoe, just a few inches deep – a superficial plow. This is much more common than proper plowing and takes place during the months of May, June, and July to aerate the soil and turn the weeds.

Then, there is the practice of “buttage and debuttage”; this is described as the piling up of earth around the roots of the vine against frost damage in November and de-earthing in March. Most grape growers in France from what I read, do not see the need in the practice now of earthing up.

“Father of Vinifera in the East” Originally Used Horse Drawn Plows

Dr. Konstantin Frank (1899-1985) born in Russia, was a World War II refugee from Ukraine, who brought the Finger Lakes region of New York into the modern era by cultivating vinifera grapes successfully into a region of the United States where winter temperatures commonly drop to 15 below zero.

A short biography of Konstantin Frank would mention that by the age of twelve he was enjoying work in the vineyards, and by fifteen years old he had made his first wine. He conducted experiments with grapes and engaged in early winemaking experiments. By 1928 he had developed a special plow to cover rootstocks, now known as “hilling up”. The first plow he developed is shown in this image.

men in a field

Image and information found at 

During the 1920s – 1930s Konstantin Frank continued to work toward the cultivation of vitis vinifera grape varieties in cold climates; he wrote extensively about this work in his doctorate titled “Mechanical Covering and Uncovering of Grapes”. He earned a Ph.D. in viticulture from Odessa, Ukraine and became a leading expert in his field.

Dr. Frank immigrated to New York in 1951 and fell in love with property in the Finger Lakes region of New York where he successfully planted the first European grape varieties in the Eastern United States in 1958. This man, who could not speak English when he arrived in the United States, eventually ignited the Vinifera Revolution that forever changed the course of wine growing in the United States.

Man In Vineyard
Man In Field
Two men drinking wine

Dr. Konstantin Frank and Andre Tchelistcheff, known as the “Father of California Winemaking”, met sometime during the 1960s through the 1980s and became close friends. Andre visited Konstantin in New York on several occasions. They had much history in common. Both had fought for the White Army in the Bolshevik revolution, and both had left Russia to come to America to become renowned in the wine industry.

In Summary

To plow or not to plow that has been the question throughout the history of viticulture, but each vigneron  (or the person who cultivates grapes for winemaking), makes that decision. Whatever your thoughts are on plowing your vineyards, horse drawn plows definitely made a mark and were an important part of the viticulture history of the United States.