September 1989

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The Boss Digger


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

There were once a great many more acres of potatoes grown in Steuben County than there are now. The Census lists 30,524 acres in 1909. That was about the peak, but in 1919 there were still 19,013 acres, or more than three times what there are now. In those high-total acreage years early in this century potatoes were grown all over this county, from West Union to Pulteney, from Caton to Wayland, not concentrated as they are now in the Northwest sector.

There were more potatoes north of Bath than south of it, but no town was without commercial acreages, and there were concentrations in the southwest towns like West Union and Greenwood as well as in Hornby.

There were no 300- or 400-acre growers then. Individual farms had from one to ten acres predominantly; fewer had twenty or thirty acres, and still less frequently, more than that. Harvest of these smaller acreages was done by family or neighborhood labor, not by migrant crews as in years recently past, nor by enormous machines as today.

These smaller plots still needed something faster than a fork or a potato hook to dig them. They needed a machine. But it had to be not too expensive a machine to acquire and maintain in order to be within suitable economic limits. This need was long and admirably met by the Boss digger.

On the larger acreages, potatoes were dug with an elevator-type digger. With this, a blade lifted them along with a cushion of soil onto a jiggling continuous chain which elevated them over its axle and deposited them on top of the ground behind. In so doing, it sifted and shook out loose soil and vines. It was a fairly complex machine as such things went, could not be called cheap and had components of chains, cams, idlers, and sprockets that periodically wore out and had to be replaced.

By contrast, the Boss digger was much simpler. It claimed Steuben County around the turn of the century as its place and time of origin, but was manufactured in volume for decades at Leroy, New York. What it did was to lift potatoes with a blade and drop them on a horizontally-revolving fingered reel which flung them aside, like the spinner on a highway-sanding truck that is familiar to us all. It had two drive wheels, two separate drive gears, and a pinion which could be shifted from one drive gear to the other. This reversed the direction of the reel with each back-and-forth trip across the field, causing the potatoes to be thrown always to the same side. There were handles, as it was a walk-behind machine, and not much else. It was made with generous proportions of cast-iron and steel, sturdy and massive with no skimping of materials, thus slow to wear out and not likely to fail. It could be purchased for a fraction of the cost of an elevator digger.

It had character, a personality of its own. That has to be why it is almost invariably recalled with an amused chuckle by those who remember it. In fact, if such a quality can be ascribed to a lifeless machine, this one was a "character."

Compared to present-day potato-handling equipment with its carefully-engineered gradients and angles, all designed to treat potatoes gently, the Boss digger was a rough-and-tumble brawler. It flung potatoes and stones ten or twelve feet in a general direction. If the potatoes escaped being walloped by something and landed on a cushion of soft dirt, well and good. If they didn't, there were some cut and bruised tubers. This feature may have contributed a share to the slightly inferior reputation Steuben potatoes once held in the markets, compared to those from, say, Maine and Idaho.

This digger was not notably kind to the operator, either. The first thing local farmers did upon acquiring a new Boss digger was to equip it with a wooden shield, made barn-door fashion. This hung down from the handles ahead of the operator and protected his legs from the barrage of potatoes and stones thrown by the implement. If a certain-size stone became jammed between the blade and the reel, things happened fast. Not only could the wheels lock and the whole thing go into a slide, but the operator could be thrown against the handles, or even over them. Potatoes were not the only thing that received bruises from the Boss digger. Human flesh and bone got their share. Also, when the soil was dry, the Boss was the equal of any such machinery at creating its own portable dust storm to envelop the operator as it moved forward.

But for all that, its low cost, simple design and low maintenance requirements stood strongly in it favor. It did, after all, effectively put potatoes on top of the ground where they could be picked up. It could readily be drawn by two horses, the standard farm team, while the elevator digger often required three or more. These features endeared it to the smaller-acreage grower. They insured its distribution all over Western New York and gave it a secure place on farms all over Steuben County for a long time.

Its massive design did, however, contribute to its rapid disappearance from the scene during the scrap drives of World War II. For its size, there was a lot of iron and steel in one by-then-obsolete Boss digger.

Should this account have aroused your interest enough for you to want to see one, there is a specimen of the Leroy-made Boss digger in excellent condition in the Curtiss Museum in Hammondsport which you may examine.

© 1989, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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