The Manitoba Agricultural Museum has three horse sweeps, one that has been rebuilt and is in use at the annual Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede plus two other sweeps that are stored in the equipment yard in an incomplete condition. All three sweeps were donated to the Museum in the late 1950s / early 1960s and came with the wooden components largely rotted away as the sweeps had been discarded many years previously and left outside.
About 1840, horse power sweeps were developed which could be used to drive machinery. Daniel Massey, an American who was then farming near Cobourg, Ontario imported a threshing machine and power sweep to drive it in 1845. Massey then started a machine shop and foundry and began to manufacture power sweeps around 1848. Massey went on to build other agricultural machinery and in so doing, laid the foundations of the Massey family involvement in agricultural machinery manufacture.
Horse sweeps were built in a variety of sizes from one-horse to eight-horse models. There were even models built which featured a built-in grain grinder or a stationary baler.
About 1875, Manitoba saw its first power sweep which was used to drive a threshing machine. Sweeps spread west with a power sweep and threshing machine being taken to Battleford, Northwest Territories as early as 1878.
The simplest description of a horse power sweep is that it is a right angle gear box that sits on the ground with one shaft pointing straight up. The other shaft was parallel with and close to the ground. On the shaft that pointed straight up was attached an arm or a number of arms to which horses were hitched. The shaft that was parallel to the ground was attached to a long shaft lying on the ground. This shaft was long enough that it cleared the ends of the arms. This shaft drove another right angle gear box with a belt pulley on the output shaft of this gear box. A flat belt could then drive a threshing machine, circular saw, grist mill or other belt driven machine. The horse power sweep at the Manitoba Agricultural Museum uses this arrangement.
Power sweeps had some drawbacks. They were clumsy to move and because the machine took up a fair amount of room were impossible to operate in a building. In the winter during cold weather it may have been useful to operate the sweep inside a building to keep the horses warm and avoid issues with snow and ice. Sweeps also suffered from a built in problem, while the horse was pulling on the end of the beam, the beam as it revolved was moving off the line of draft. Overall, treadmills were more efficient than sweeps on a per horse basis.
Oddly enough, horses were the only animal considered fit to operate a sweep. Oxen were thought to be susceptible to become dizzy from walking in a circle and so could not power a sweep. Oxen were a popular farm traction animal as the beasts while slow, were powerful, did not require as much care as a horse and were capable of getting by on lower quality forage than a horse. A further benefit may have been when the oxen became worn out, they were more acceptable for the stew pot than were horses.
Horse power sweeps were common in Pioneer Manitoba up to the 1900s but rare by the end of the 1920s. Gas engines and gas tractors by the end of the 1920s offered more economical horsepower and were widely understood by this time.
As well as horse sweeps, dog sweeps were also made. Dogs could power washing machines, cream separators and similar light duty equipment.
A four-horse sweep in the Museum has been rebuilt with new wood components. This sweep has been examined however there are no markings present as to who manufactured the machine. When the machine was donated to the Museum in the late 1950s there was no one who had seen the machine in operation so there are details of operation that the Museum is missing. However it does operate at the annual Reunion driving either a baler or a hand-fed threshing machine.