Highlights from the History of Needham in 100 objects
Tools of Needham's agrarian past
c. 19th century
Iron, wood
Scythe: Iron with wooden handle
Sickle: Iron with wooden handle
Pitchfork: Wood
Ice Knife: Iron with wood handle grips

Farming in Needham was always difficult - tucked into a loop in the Charles River, Needham ground is low-lying and damp. The familiar English grain crops could not thrive in Needham's poor soils. Even Indian corn, a staple of the new colony, had limited success. Instead of grain, Needham farmers relied upon the products native to their riverside lands - garden crops, hay, grasses, and reeds.

Until the widespread use of mechanical farm machinery, farmers used hand tools, with forms that had not changed for many centuries. The long-bladed scythe was used for mowing hay or reeds, in an upright sweeping motion. The curved sickle was used for cutting grain or other tough-stemmed plants. Using a sickle was harder work, requiring the reaper to bend over and grasp a handful of stems to cut, but the result was more precise and less scattered than that of the scythe. The pitchfork was used for shifting loose materials - hay and grass, leaves, reeds, or manure.

Death, the Grim Reaper with his scythe, also appears on local gravestones. Epitaphs (based on Revelations 14) refer to the deceased as being harvested like corn. To a community of farmers, this would have made perfect sense.

During the 1800s, ice harvesting was big business. Large saw-toothed blades such as this one, were used to cut the frozen surface of a pond into large cubes, which were then hauled to an ice house for storage. Properly stored, the ice would be used in the summer when it was needed the most and could last well into the fall.

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Farm implementsFarm implements