Horse Sweep

Recently a small crew of museum volunteers had occasion to get up close and personal with a horse sweep. Variously termed “horse sweep”, “horse powered sweep”, “power sweep” or “sweep power”, this 19th-century agricultural tool was the portable generator of its time, changing the power of horses walking in a circle into the turning of a drive shaft. The drive shaft could then be used to power a variety of implements including threshers, balers and grinders. The horse sweep, despite its size and weight, was also relatively portable and could be moved to where the work needed to be done.

Figure 1: Brushing and vacuuming wood

The work required of the volunteers was to assess, clean and ensure that the materials of the sweep were stable for continued storage. It is made of untreated wood as well as cast iron that is both raw and painted. We needed to take the needs of the materials into account and clean accordingly, at the same time making as little negative impact on the parts as possible. Neither iron nor untreated wood should be subjected to water if it can be avoided (iron rusts and wood soaks it in and is more likely to develop mould). Therefore, most of our cleaning consisted of brushes of various stiffness and a shop vac (fig. 1).

Figure 2: Brushing and oiling cast iron

Occasionally a toothpick was used to dislodge stubborn bits of detritus. Following the brushing and vacuuming, the painted parts of the iron were wiped lightly with a damp cloth and the raw iron was treated with a light oil to discourage rust (fig. 2).

It was around that point in the operation that curiosity overcame us. We could see that all the pieces were in relatively good condition, but it was all in parts and not having the benefit of 19th-century agricultural experience, we wondered how it fit together and if it was complete. We pondered, and paced to view from a variety of perspectives. Then we had several “aha” moments and moved gears into place with satisfying ease (fig. 3).

Figure 3: The pinion gear sitting in place

We were quite excited when we discovered that a mysterious “wheel” served to hold the gear level and prevent binding of the teeth on the opposite side (fig. 4).

Figure 4: The wheel that serves to balance the gear

We could see that this horse power sweep could actually function again, with the addition of some wooden sweeps to fit into the cast iron bull gear. We were impressed by the elegant design of this heavy cast iron device that eased the labour of farmers.

Besides finding ourselves able to reassemble it, the other exciting thing about this horse sweep is that it was manufactured by a Paris company, Maxwell, on Willow Street, that was in business from 1857 until 1869, so it has real local agricultural and manufacturing significance.

We are not quite finished ensuring that the materials are stable for storage. The raw cast iron would benefit from some more attention to deal with rust on it and to stop more from forming. All in all, the horse sweep remains in good condition and the volunteer crew learned a lot. We are looking forward to temporarily placing the bull gear and seeing it all together.

Figure 5: A horse sweep demonstration

If you are interested in finding out more about horse sweeps, check here: for a museum in Manitoba, or watch this video from Glengarry:

By Judy Moore, member of The Paris Museum