Sarasota History Alive – Webb Clearing Plow

By | July 1, 2014

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webb-clearing-plow_medIn January 1917, Henry C. Webb applied for a patent on a specialized plow. The African American resident of Bradenton had devised a machine for cutting the palmetto roots that were a major impediment to road construction in this part of Florida. As described in the March 15, 1917 edition of the Sarasota Times, the plow “is coupled onto the rear of a large tractor engine, and the way that it goes through the roots is good to behold.” The clearing plow incorporated three cutting surfaces. A vertical cutting disk (#13 above) was the first instrument to cut the palmetto. It was followed by a vertical blade that cut through the above-ground plant and curved down and back (#14 and 15) just ahead of the V-shaped horizontal blade (#16) that severed the palmetto roots several inches below the ground’s surface. The roots and stems could then be easily removed and burned. The Times reported that the plow opened a path nearly five feet wide while the tractor moved at its high speed of four miles per hour. The journalist estimated that it would have taken fifty hands with axes to do the same amount of work in that time.

Webb’s invention came at the right time. Travel between communities was difficult at best. Auto and wagon wheels sank into the sand “roads” during the dry season and mired in water-logged sand in rainy periods. As a result of efforts of community leaders who advocated “good roads,” in March 1915 voters approved a $250,000 bond issue for 34 miles of hard surfaced roads. Clearing palmetto roots by hand made road construction a time-consuming process.

The U.S. Patent Office patented Webb’s clearing plow on May 15, 1917. In “One Man’s Family” A.K. Whitaker, grandson of early settler William Whitaker, recalled that his father, who had helped fund the development of the plow, purchased the first successful model and lent it for the clearing of World War I airfields in Arcadia in the spring of 1918. When that work was completed, A.K. Whitaker and a friend, both recent graduates of Manatee County High School, worked with the plow on the construction of the first paved road between Sarasota and Venice. They initially set up camp near Osprey and then moved with the project to the Nokomis area before leaving for college.

Whitaker wrote that the work was “hard, hot, dusty and dirty…. Up at five – breakfast – clean up camp – at work by seven – a sandwich for lunch – work until five – a bath in the nearby creek – supper – by dark into bed under mosquito bars to keep from being eaten alive.” He and his friend Donald Beck worked with the tractor and plow; other crews hauled dirt by mule team, set wood forms for the concrete curbs, brought hot asphalt in Model T dump trucks, and spread the asphalt by hand. Whitaker’s tractor and Webb plow were used for the duration of the road’s construction. Although the road was only nine feet wide and passing cars needed to move one set of wheels off the road to proceed, users were so impressed by the improved roadbed they nicknamed it the “Velvet Highway.”

Whitaker learned later that the Orange State Motor Company had obtained a manufacturing license from Henry Webb and sold the plow until it became obsolete with the production of large caterpillar tractors with heavy duty scraping blades.

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!

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