Antique Farm Tools: Musings on an Old-Fashioned Measuring Wheel

I found on my farm a 5-foot metal wheel with a handle and odometer. Turns out it's a measuring wheel—and I might just put it to use.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

I think it’s a rule that old farms come fully equipped with their own puzzling agricultural artifacts—tools and machines whose purpose is unclear. Or at least it seems that way, as I’m sure many hobby farmers can attest. Every barn and outbuilding is bound to have at least one or two old metal items lying around.

On my farm, one unusual item left behind by the previous owner (or perhaps by a couple of previous owners) is a large metal wheel more than 5 feet in diameter, with a handle for keeping it upright and an old mechanical odometer installed just above the axle.

It doesn’t look like much at first glance (to be honest, it looks like a rusty piece of junk) but as it turns out, this item is an old-fashioned measuring wheel—and a big one at that.

You might be familiar with measuring wheels on a smaller scale. Models with wheels ranging from a few inches to about a foot in diameter are widely available. Their concept and design is remarkably simple—each time the wheel makes a full revolution, the odometer takes note, keeping track of the number of times the wheel has been turned. Modern measuring wheels with digital odometers can tell you exactly how far the wheel has traveled, displayed in inches, feet, yards, meters—you name it.

So why is my measuring wheel so large? That’s an interesting question, because out of curiosity, I did some research on measuring wheels and found that such large models aren’t exactly common these days, perhaps because they’re rather unwieldy to use and take up a lot of space.

However, a measuring wheel of such great size does offer a distinct advantage for farmers. Whereas small wheels are more likely to slip or get caught up in rough terrain, a large wheel is easier to properly maneuver in tricky conditions. More importantly, a large wheel isn’t affected as much by dips and rises in the ground—it can more easily ride over them, resulting in more accurate measurements than those of small wheels, which can be thrown off by the amount of time they spend traveling up and down the tiniest bumps and depressions.

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Because the diameter of my measuring wheel is around 5 ½ feet, I estimate that the wheel is designed to cover a mile with 300 revolutions, or 75 revolutions per quarter-mile.

With today’s modern technology, measuring the distance from one point to another is easier than ever; in fact, with high-quality satellite imagery, you can do it without even stepping outside. But there’s something about this old-fashioned measuring wheel that I find appealing—let’s face it, what could be simpler for measuring a lengthy distance than rolling a wheel from one point to another and reading the result?

So the next time I have a need to measure a long distance—perhaps the length of a new garden or pasture—perhaps I’ll get out my measuring wheel and give it a try. If it has been on the farm for this long, I might as well put it to use.

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