Virtual “Draft Animals” and a Virtual “Plowing Match” before they happen! A note from Bob Powell

Before I begin, I will blame this impromptu personal “blog” on our colleagues and friends, Cozette Griffin Kremer and Claus Kropp who suggested, nay twisted my arm, to write something to link two up and coming events. 

As 2021 proceeds still under the effects of the Covid-19 virus, two related “virtual” events are occurring.  Firstly, on May 8th ~ 9th, instigated and administered by Claus is his on-line Conference “Draft Animals in the Past, Present and Future.” (Figure 1).   Secondly, following in an established tradition of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) is the Annual Conference’s “Plowing Match.”  The latter too, usually a major event, is for the first time, and experimentally, virtual.

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Figure 1: Poster for Claus’ “Draft Animals’ Conference. (Picture P. Starkey)

Encouraged by the late Peter Ledwith of the then Ontario Agricultural Museum, Milton, Canada, I joined ALHFAM back in 1993.  At the time I was ‘Curator’ at the Weald & Downland Living Museum, near Chichester, West Sussex, England.  It was June 1995 before I attended my first ALHFAM Annual Conference, which was held at Lake Farm Parks, Ohio.  The weather was exceptionally hot.  At that time there was no ‘Plowing Match’ but, as working livestock have invariably formed a part of the Annual Conferences, there was horse plowing.  This aspect is for ever “burnt into my memory” for the ground was baked like concrete.  I had never used a wheel-less walking plow before but what really threw me was that the plow being used was left-handed and totally alien to me (Figure 2). I was used to furrows always being thrown to the right.  I since learned that left-handed plows were often favoured in Ohio.

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Figure 2: Bob with the left-handed plow in 1995.

Living in Scotland from 1997, I did not attend my next ALHFAM Annual Conference until 2002 when it was held at Fortress Louisburg, Nova Scotia.  There was no Plowing Match but there was an opportunity to plow behind oxen, which at the time was my first occasion.

The following year, 2003, for which I sadly did not attend, the Annual Conference was held in New Jersey. The Conference incorporated Howell Living History Farm where the Director, ALHFAM Past President and our good friend, Pete Watson formally inaugurated the Annual ALHFAM Plowing Match. At Howell cultivation by both horses and oxen is the norm.  Further, under Pete’s instigation, Howell has held its own draft animal Annual Plowing Match since 1983.  Resultantly, Howell was the ideal place for the inauguration of the ALHFAM match and the start of an annual tradition.

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Figure 3: Bob with Canadian Horses at Upper Canada Village, 2008

The beauty of the ALHFAM Plowing Matches is that they are inclusive for all Conference comers; experiential and educational yet fun.  When I reflect, apart from the comradeship, I think about the variety of plows that we have had the opportunity to try from 18th Century replicas at Colonial Williamsburg to 20th Century industrially manufactured models.  I think too about the animals: mules, oxen and a variety of horses including ‘Canadian’ (Figure 3) when we were at Upper Canada Village in 2008.

When I further reflect, I think of a “brotherhood” that includes “sisters” of horse plowmen that has gelled over the years.  I have had the honour of both being a judge and a winner of the competition.  For the former, I think of melting as we judged (Figure 4) in the searing heat of Grapevine, Dallas, Texas in 2012.  Before that at Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 2006, where with my good pal Ed Schultz from Colonial Williamsburg, we had to, first, literally wire a plow together for the Match. Then, second, at the end of the not only very hot but humid event, Ed and I running for “liquid refreshment”.  Thinking about running, I recall being near Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2007 where lightning sent us running from the Match field for shelter. There has been much enjoyment and good memories. Over the years we have grown older, not necessarily wiser but it is good to see the events giving opportunities to especially younger participants who we hope will continue to be “tradition bearers.”   

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Figure 4: Ed Schultz gives guidance to a novice competitor at Grapevine, Texas in 2012 while the writer behind studies her plowing.

Although it is immaterial because of the positive outcomes, strictly speaking the ALHFAM “plowing matches” have not been really so but rather a version of furrow drawing contests, where each competitor follows on from the one before.  In the past in England, for example, furrow drawing matches were wholly individual, where each competitor had to draw a single straight furrow across a field for judging that had no physical connection to anyone else’s.  Now 2021’s Virtual ALHFAM Plowing Match will be different because in the true sense of a match and skill, each competitor will have to stand alone; plowing more than one furrow.   In my vernacular, each competitor will have to “open out, plough three rounds with neat ins and outs to result in a level finish with all rubbish buried and no ‘gardening’ allowed.” In other words, for judging each competitor is going to have to start straight with their first two back-to-back furrows, followed by three ploughed furrows on either side of the opening furrows that will be judged for straightness, width and depth of furrow.  Further, neat ends at the headland as the plough enters or exits each furrow, the efficiency of burying of surface growth and overall regularity and level of finish.  Finally, no manual handling to enhance the final plowed result! 

This change of the challenge may sound daunting to some.  However, one of the principal aims is to encourage participation.  We want entrants, ALHFAM members, to try and have fun.  It is about the experience as well as about learning.

As I started, this is in the lead up to the “Draft Animals” conference and one important aspect of the ALHFAM Plowing Match has been to increase the awareness of the potential of draft animals (horses, mules and oxen) by giving a memorable hands-on experience. 

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Figure 5: In the foreground a 1950s ‘Fordson Major’ and behind a circa 1970 ‘Ford 4000’ at ‘Farming Yesteryear’, Scone, Perth, Scotland in 2019.  Both are models of tractor, now widely collectible and nostalgic, that the writer regularly drove 50 years ago.

That said, again 2021 will be different because we are introducing a tractor element.   I am an ardent lifetime working horse enthusiast, yet I fully support this new initiative.   In the mid-1960s, a good 50+ years ago, I started to drive on a 1950s Ferguson TE20 tractor, a 1959 “Massey Ferguson 65” and “Fordson Majors” before moving on to such as Ford 4 and 5000s.  Having spent my career in living history museums, I have often thought that many of our fellow institutions are stuck, say in the early 1900s, a period when they were either founded or interpreted because their tangible or physical collections were nostalgic to the then audiences.  I have been “retired” since the start of 2014 but before that I used to say to staff during annual training to remember that the parents visiting with their offspring may have been born since 1990. Of course, now you might say 2000!  In the 1990s it became clear to me that many of our younger farming visitors had little idea about what we were exhibiting.  I recall a radio program where young people were talking about the “old days”, the 1990s!   I think that many of us, despite the potential for draft animals in existing and new contexts, realise that our representation of the “new” is often lacking.  However, that “new” may be from 100 years ago.  As a Curator I was pleased to include a 1950s Fordson “Super Major” and a 1960s Massey Ferguson 135 in our collection that were ticking the nostalgic senses of many similarly middle and older aged visitors to myself.  That’s still a long time ago… 50 plus years and well before the experience of our current early 21st century audiences.  OK, I’ll get off my soap box.  Many of us know that there will be many ongoing challenges to collection, relevance and interpretation.  However, with no threat to draft animals (my passion) intended, I am delighted that we are addressing an overdue need by the inclusion of tractors in our event.

In conclusion, may both of our related, “new normal” virtual events be successful.  Claus’ Conference creates opportunities for further engagement to explore the past and future relevance of draft animals.  The ALHFAM plowing match, is not only a means to encourage continuing engagement with a traditional skill but to also introduce a long overdue new aspect.

Speed The Plow… however drawn!

Bob Powell

Bob Powell is a working horse and farming historian, retired from the ‘Highland Folk Museum’, Scotland.

Virtual Symposium Nov 14th 2020

We invite you to join AIMA on Nov 14th 2020 for our first virtual symposium.

As many of our members and we as an organization had to adapt and adjust to the ongoing crisis and its challenges, we would like to share our experiences with a wider public.

Register now:

The conference will feature presentations from all around the globe including a Keynote by Susan Reckseidler (the current President of the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums, short ALHFAM) with the title “One Step at a Time: Re-Imagining Re-Opening During Covid-19”.


Start of the symposium: 3 PM CET/MEZ
End of the symposium: ca. 7 PM CET/MEZ

In the map you see the timezone in which the symposiums timetable is set

Session 1

Welcome Address
(Ollie Douglas, President of AIMA)

Introduction and technical information
(Claus Kropp, Lauresham Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology, Germany)

Key note: One Step at a Time: Re-Imagining Re-Opening During Covid-19
(Susan Reckseidler, Heritage Park Historical Village, Canada)

Break with Clip (Promovideo of AIMA)

Session 2
On-site responses

Share the harvest: One living history farm´s response to C-19
(Pete Watson, Howell Living History Farm, USA)

Sustaining living “exhibitions” during crisis: C-19 lessons for updating Risk Management Plans
(Kerry-Leigh Burchill, Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, Canada)

Online/Offline. The MERL Communicating through the Pandemic
(Isabel Hughes / Ollie Douglas, Museum of English Rural Life, England)

Break with Clip (Activities of the National Museum of Agriculture in Szreniawa during the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus pandemic)

Session 3
Digital pathways

Digital ways of approaching museum audiences during the crisis
(Claus Kropp, Lauresham Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology, Germany)

Celery and Tomatoes: Digital Products based in Agricultural Museum Collections
(Debra Reid, The Henry Ford, USA)

Break with Clip (Slideshow of AIMA Members)

Session 4
Widening the scope

Deep networking as a chance
(Cozette Griffin-Kremer, CRBC Brest, France)

Harvesting memories on the Farm. Oral Histories of African American Farm Owners
(Adrienne Petty, College of William & Mary, USA / Mark Schultz, Lewis University, USA)

Indian Agriculture coping with the C-19 crisis

Concluding Remarks
(Kerry-Leigh Burchill, Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, Canada )

Preview CIMA 2021 at the MERL in Reading, England
(Ollie Douglas, President of AIMA)

Groundbreaking Journal Tools & Tillage made Open Access

‘Sharing expertise about our agricultural past is one of the primary aims of the AIMA. Making Tools & Tillage available online represents a significant step towards realising this goal. With the support and generosity of the University Library Heidelberg, decades of fascinating scholarly work have now been made freely available to researchers worldwide. The AIMA community hopes that this represents a new phase in the sharing of knowledge and heralds the beginning of many fresh collaborations between the partner organisations involved.’ — Dr Ollie Douglas, President of the International Association of Agricultural Museums

The international journal Tools & Tillage is a great resource about historic farming techniques and traditional agricultural practices, combined with an (experimental) archaeological approach. Published over the years 1968-1995 it pulled together an impressive number of research projects from around the world, a remarkable effort in the days without internet.

As the number of people studying rural history increases, and museums continue to interpret meaning and method, several of us who work with agricultural museums, experimental archaeology, living history farms, and open-air museums decided to join forces to try and make Tools & Tillage more widely available.

As debates about environmental change gain intensity, and as agricultural practices factor significantly in these debates, the research published in Tools & Tillage seems more and more essential to our collective understanding. Yet, the journal is very hard to access. Three international organisations collaborated to increase access with the aim of engaging younger historians of rural and farm life with the essential knowledge and skills of agricultural techniques published over 27 years in Tools & Tillage.

We found an avid supporter in Dr. Grith Lerche, the only remaining editor of Tools & Tillage, and owner of the copyrights. She co-edited Tools & Tillage with Axel Steensberg and Alexander Fenton. Thanks to UNESCO-Welterbestätte Kloster Lorsch – Experimentalarchäologisches Freilichtlabor Lauresham (DE), the University Library of Heidelberg (DE) scanned the material and made it available, including a full text search of the 137 articles in 1,776 pages.

The full Journal is made available for dissemination and preservation of the electronic files under a (CC BY 4.0) license at:

This project of making Tools & Tillage available was possible thanks to the persistence and good cooperative spirit of many. The partners in this project are:

Submitted by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Mighican