Nineteenth century farmers used pairs of oxen to pull heavy loads. The neck yoke style rests on top of the animals’ necks, secured with bent wooden oxbows.
The typical Illinois farmer made his own ox yoke from a large beam of wood. He carved two curved neck seats into the beam. The hickory bows threaded through the yoke. A blacksmith made the hitching assembly, a staple and yoke ring, attached to the bottom of the yoke. This placement causes the yoke to rotate during hauling, distributing the load in part to the bows that press against the animals’ shoulders.
Although they are the same basic shape, the two neck yokes shown below differ significantly in size and proportions. A yoke specifically fitted for the oxen using it ensures it will work properly without incurring injury to the animals. The space between the oxen depends on the type of work. Putting the animals close together helps them work as a unit for heavy work like plowing.
Adolphus “Dolf” Phillip Wolf used the larger ox yoke shown above on his father’s farm in Edwardsville for about a year in 1861-1862. He was 20 years old and back home after serving a short term of infantry service at the beginning of the Civil War. When it became evident that the war would continue, Dolf helped form Company F of the 117th Illinois Infantry and left the farm to fight again.
Samuel P. Gillham made the iron staple and hitch for the smaller ox yoke in the photograph above (note that the yoke is oriented upside-down in the photograph). Samuel grew up on his grandfather’s farm south of Wanda. He purchased his own farm less than a mile away in 1834. Two years later his half-brother Ryderus Clark Gillham was born. Ryderus expanded the family homestead to 600 acres. He made the wooden parts of this ox yoke.
Conroy, Drew. “Ox Yokes: Culture, Comfort and Animal Welfare.” Workshop, Common Ground: Moving Forward with Animals, World Association for Transport Animal Welfare and Studies, Silsoe Research Institute, April 15, 2004. Accessed August 17, 2018. http://www.taws.org/TAWS2004/TAWS04-Conroy-040419-A4-all.pdf