Here we go again. Start thinking about something and before you know it there's another weblet... this time it was because of an e-mail message I sent to John, a comment on Turner and what we might do on Friday the 22nd:
Turner is quite vague about DETAILS, though he presents an admirable (if
ideologized) overview of historical process in space, of the "character"
of pioneers and other dramatis personae, and of sociopolitical
organization.  But there's next to NOTHING about the ENABLING TECHNOLOGIES
that underwrote the expansion of settlement.

So our question might be:

HOW would we set about finding out about the technological
palette/spectrum of a TIME and/or a PLACE?  Like 1835, or 1730-1760, or
the Great Valley, or Hannibal MO?

How do we make more sense of the PROCESSes Turner sketches?  WHY did folks
go all the way to Oregon instead of settling the plains first? (that's an
easy one).  What exactly did the railroad DO as it expanded into a
continental network, or the telegraph, or electrification?  How do we set
about filling in some answers?

I started thinking about the example of the plow, and wondered to myself how I might find material on plows, plow history, etc., since I knew that settlement of the Great Plains was delayed by the unsuitability of plows for the specific problem of prairie sod.

I tried Annie by subject, looking for plow, and found nothing (i.e., 'plow' seems not to be a Library of Congress Subject Heading). So I re-thought the problem: how about 'Agricultural implements'? And sure enough, we have 3 books under that rubric, two of which are specific to the U.S. I looked through a bunch of other 'Agricultural' subject headings, to get an idea of what's there, and wrote down a few call numbers that looked interesting, and went to look at the shelves and found a bonanza, in terms of the questions above. The question now is how ELSE might I have found the following:

CALL NO.     S676.3 .C58 1994.
AUTHOR       Clemens, Terri.
TITLE        American family farm antiques / Terri Clemens.
IMPRINT      Radnor, Pa. : Wallace-Homestead Book Co., c1994.
DESCRIPT     vii, 200 p. : ill. ; 23 cm.
SUBJECT      Farm equipment -- Collectibles -- United States -- Catalogs.
             Agricultural implements -- Collectibles -- United States -- 
 Science Library        S676.3 .C58 1994               NOT CHK'D OUT

CALL NO.     S441 .R33.
AUTHOR       Rasmussen, Wayne David, 1915-
TITLE        Agriculture in the United States: a documentary history. Edited 
               by Wayne D. Rasmussen.
IMPRINT      New York, Random House c1975.
SUBJECT      Agriculture -- United States -- History -- Sources.
1 > Science Library        S441 .R33 v. 1                 NOT CHK'D OUT
2 > Science Library        S441 .R33 v. 2                 NOT CHK'D OUT
3 > Science Library        S441 .R33 v. 3                 NOT CHK'D OUT
4 > Science Library        S441 .R33 v. 4                 NOT CHK'D OUT

CALL NO.     S441 .A363.
TITLE        Agriculture in the Great Plains, 1876-1936 / edited by Thomas R. 
IMPRINT      Washington : Agricultural History Society, 1977.
DESCRIPT     263 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
SUBJECT      Agriculture -- Great Plains -- History -- Congresses.
 Science Library        S441 .A363                     NOT CHK'D OUT

CALL NO.     S441 .C75.
AUTHOR       Conrat, Maisie.
TITLE        The American farm : a photographic history / by Maisie Conrat and
               Richard Conrat.
IMPRINT      San Francisco : California Historical Society, 1977.
SUBJECT      Agriculture -- United States -- History.
             Agriculture -- United States -- Pictorial works.
 Science Library        S441 .C75                      NOT CHK'D OUT
Each of these is the answer to a maiden's prayer, but the 4-volume documentary is a pearl beyond price for this purpose.
The search for stuff on plows and the plains led me to the factoid that John Deere invented a "highly polished wrought iron plow with a steel share that held a sharp edge" in 1837, but a troll through Franklin Institute Journal reports of patents for that year didn't turn it up. A quick AltaVista search for "john deere near plow" got lots of hits (478 --not a surprise), but one very nice random find is another sort of answer to the above questions:

from the Museum of Westward Expansion in St. Louis, with links to maps... simply amazing.

Some others:

John Deere biography
from Green Magazine
MIT Invention Dimension

It took the early eastern settlers some time to adjust to the Great Plains environment. There were no trees to build houses with, water sources were scarce, and rainfall unpredictable. Several 19th century innovations changed this situation. Barbed wire replaced scarce wood for fencing; wind mills enabled water to be pumped from wells much deeper than those in the east; and the first rail lines brought wood from the east to replace sod for house building. Winter wheat was introduced by Russian immigrants and proved well adapted to the fluctuating conditions on the Great Plains. John Deere introduced the steel plow in 1882, making it much easier to break the dense sod soils. This, along with other advances in the mechanization of agriculture, allowed a single farmer to work larger areas of land, thereby compensating for lower productivity per acre.

(Alan Lew,

New Frontiers, New Resources (1860 - 1900)

Great Plains Grasslands Exploited (chapter outline from Carolyn Merchant's Great Problems in American Environmental History --see other chapters too)

Agreement on the facts seems a bit variable. Here's the version from John W. Oliver's History of American Technology:
The farmers of the Midwest were never satisfied with their plows. The soil of the western prairie, lacking in stone and grit, failed to scour the mould boards. John Deere attempted to overcome this defect by fashioning a steel mould board plow from an old broken mill saw and attaching it to an ordinary plow. The experiments proved successful, and Deere placed an order with a Pittsburgh steel firm for a supply of high-grade steel. this resulted in manufacturing (in 1846) the 'first slab of cast plow steel' ever rolled in the United States... In 1858 the John Deere factory made thirteen thousand steel plows for the prairie trade... (pg 224)

Marcus and Segal's Technology in America: a brief history has a different take:

Cast-iron Eagle plows led the more generalized onslaught of cast-iron plows with wrought-iron shares in both the North and South during the late 1830s and 1840s. At least 25,000 of these plows (with elongated, radically curved mouldboards to facilitate plowing on rough, heavily stubbled ground) were purchased yearly in the two decades prior to 1860. But Eagle plows were unsitable for western grasslands. The region's heavy, sticky soil clung to the cast iron and required farmers to slop periodically to clean their mouldboards. The Prairie Breaker, a huge plow with a 125-pound wrought-iron strap-plated mouldboard, a 15-foot beam, and a wrought-iron share, was the first important western plow. Reigning through the 1840s, the Prairie Breaker's enormous weight required as many as seven yoke of oxen to pull it, but cut furrows only two or three inches deep.

...Deere popularized the agricultural use of steel when he built a steel-shared plow with a highly polished, cling-resistant cast iron mouldboard that needed only half the Prairie Breaker's draft. Deere offered his plow for sale in 1841. While farmers were immediately impressed with its performance and durability, its cost gave them pause. Deere's price was double that of the expensive Paririe Breaker, becuase he hammered his shares from steel ingots imported from Germany. In 1846, Deere began to melt ingots and cast shares, and by the mid-1850s also had casted steel mouldboards. Casting reduced the price somewhat, and western armers began to purchase Deere's plows in increasing numbers. (120-121)

The Prairie: From Vast to Vanished (Sarah W. Oelberg)