Ploughing with steam plough engines

Pløjemobilet fra Højbygård

Here is one of the two traction engines that were used for steam ploughing by Denmark's first sugar mill, 'Lolland', in the beet fields by Højbygård and Nøbbøllegård farms.


In 1872, the daily Lollands-Posten published this description:


"Maribo. 22nd Oct. Yesterday at noon, the residents on the western outskirts of the town witnessed the surprising sight of two locomotives steaming along the main road towards the town from Bandholm. On arrival, they turned out to be steam plough engines, which the sugar beet mill 'Lolland' had ordered from England a while back." '


One of these steam plough engines can still be seen at the Open-Air Museum in Maribo today. The steam engine, which was made by John Fowler and Co. in Leeds, is a 14 horsepower single-cylinder steam engine. It was part of a pair, where two self-propelled steam engines would run at either side of a field, pulling the plough forwards and backwards between them (see the drawing below). Under each steam engine, there is a winch with a rolled-up cable. The cable leads the plough in one direction or the other, depending on which winch is connected. The system was developed by John Fowler during the period 1854-64.


Damppløjningslokomobilet omkring 1910

The steam traction engine around 1910


Damppløjning med John Fowlers dobbelt lokomobil system

Steam ploughing with John Fowler's double traction engine system. © C. & P. Design. Ltd.


The steam engine was the third steam cultivation device in Lolland, purchased by sugar beet cultivation pioneer Erhard Frederiksen. In 1872, he and his brother, Johan Ditlev, founded Denmark's first sugar mill under the name 'Lolland' in Holeby. The brothers dared not bank on sufficient beet supplies from the neighbouring farmers. Instead, they leased the two Lolland farms Højbygård and Nøbbøllegård in close proximity to the mill, and established huge sugar beet fields. The Fowler steam engines were each in use between 500 and 1,000 hours per year on the two farms.


In 1929, the steam engine was worn out and was ceded to the museum. The steam engine's twin had worn out back in 1925 and was scrapped and discarded.


Lolland's early attempts at mechanising agriculture

The idea of utilising steam power in agriculture originated in England, and experiments began as early as the end of the 18th century. These experiments resulted in the development of the steam plough at the end of the 19th century, which was internationally one of the first attempts at mechanising agriculture. In Denmark, Lolland was the only place where this new method was given a go. Steam ploughing and grubbing - a method that, in contrast to the breaker plough does not turn the underlying clay soil up into the topsoil - was an efficient and labour-saving way of preparing Lolland's stiff and heavy clay soil prior to e.g. beet cultivation. However, steam power never really gained ground as a tractive force. The Frederiksen brothers, who had started the sugar mill 'Lolland' in 1872, were the only ones to make it work, and they did so with success through to the 20th century.


In order to make it worthwhile to use steam ploughing in agriculture, three things were needed. First, it required large sections of fields with uniform crops. At the end of the 1800s, most farms were too small and mixed for this to be feasible. Secondly, steam ploughing required a small, but specialised labour force. A stoker on a steam engine needed to be knowledgeable about machines as well as about agriculture. Towards the end of the 1800s, the agricultural labour force was still large and unskilled. Thirdly, there was a variety of technical problems. The Frederiksen brothers managed to resolve these because it was feasible for them to do so, but for small farms, this was just another reason to reject mechanisation.


All of this contributed to preventing the steam engine plough from gaining practical significance in Danish agriculture. The time was simply not ripe yet. When the need for mechanical tractive power arose in the course of the first half of the 20th century, steam power was outdated - beaten by the combustion engine.

Ploughing with steam