The Second Tractor Around Wolsey, SD

A contributor recounts part of the life story of his father, who settled near Wolsey, SD early in the early 20th century and made his living breaking sod and threshing grain.

5 H.P. Stickney

This is a 5 hp Stickney, courtesy of the Lawrence TorskeEngine Collection, Mclntosh, Minnesota


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My father, C. G. Peterson, lived most of his adult life near Wolsey, SD. But I'm getting ahead of my story. He was born on a farm near St. Charles, Illinois in 1875. He grew to manhood in the St. Charles area. While a boy, he cut bands for a horse-power thresher. He mentioned Fila Plummer as one of the threshers. My grandfather was considered to be a good hand feeder and also able to stack the type of grain stacks of the era. You had to walk on your knees for one thing.

My father spent a winter in northern Wisconsin working in the logging camps. Then he spent a year in Oklahoma and finally came back to Illinois and took over his father's farming operation.

In the spring of 1901 he moved to a 120 acre dairy farm near Wayne, in Dupage County, Illinois. This farm was known as the Durfee farm and was near the famous Dunham Horse Importing Company.

The local thresher, a Mr. Munger, perhaps had the greatest effect on my father's future life. I never found out the make of equipment that Mr. Munger owned, but he had a 28' thresher and a huge, one-cylinder, portable gasoline engine. This monster was 36 hp. and pulled the 28' thresher with very little effort. My father was immediately convinced that here was something that beat either the horsepower or the steam engines that he had previously experienced. My father threshed with this outfit through the fall of 1904.

In 1902, my father's sister married a "Green Swede" by the name of Oscar Ringheimer. He went into partnership with my father in the spring of 1904. They tired of the year-round daily routine of the dairy farm and decided to go west. Thus they moved to a farm 5 miles west of Iroquois, South Dakota in the spring of 1905.

The Iroquois section of South Dakota was characterized by the large steam threshing rigs of the 36' to 40' variety.

The country was not built up yet following the homestead days and grainers were lacking on most farms. Consequently, they often threshed by letting the grain run on the ground, making sure it formed a cone shaped pile. The farmer would then haul it to the elevator at his leisure. My father reported that there was a surprisingly small loss even in the event of rain. He said that a pile of wheat would shed a lot of rain.

There were also a number of large steam threshing rigs that shipped by rail from one section to the other and followed the harvest from Kansas to North Dakota and even into Canada. These rigs brought the crew along with them. My father cited a few cases where these young harvest-hands fell in love with local girls and remained in the community and became some of its solid citizens.

By the spring of 1909, the partnership of Peterson & Ringheimer had a herd of cattle that numbered 125 head. You could also stand on the door step and count 14 nearby farms that were not there four years before. Land-seekers from the east were fast buying up the land and breaking it up for raising wheat. This created a shortage of pasture, which forced them to liquidate this herd of cattle. They were also of the opinion that better farmland could be found in the area of Wolsey, which was some 30 miles farther west. Accordingly, they moved to the "Preacher Brown" place northeast of Wolsey. They were paying $4.00 per acre for breaking sod around Wolsey at that time, so my father and uncle decided to go into the breaking business. They were well healed after selling the cattle so they purchased a new 22-45 hp Hart-Parr tractor for the sum of $2,250 and a new Emerson 8-bollom plow for the sum of $250.00

This 11-ton monster was a 2 cylinder model and I believe it was the first year that they were made. The governor controlled the ignition. Both cylinders fired at the same time and then it would coast until it slowed to where the governor kicked in the ignition again. It fired about every 7th revolution while plowing and every 10th revolution while threshing. The ignition system consisted of 10 dry cells hooked in series with a coil. When the dry cells became weak, you could notice a decrease in power. A new set of dry cells at the tune of a buck a piece would perk the old girl up again. I still have the original cell tester that he used and have considered exhibiting it in the Pioneer Museum at Huron, South Dakota.

It seems to me that the top speed of the motor was something like 350 or 375 RPM. There was no manual control of the large fly-ball governor. You had to adjust the governor to the speed you wanted according to the job while the tractor was shut off. My father used to have a half-sized carpenter square. He related that he had originally purchased it for the purpose of setting the pitch of the fly-balls so that they would be even; much like a carpenter cuts a number of boards at the same angle. This did not make sense to me for years but I have since worked at the carpenter trade.

The above mentioned firing caused the local steam engine threshers to persuade some people not to thresh with gas engines. They started a story that this would jerk the threshing machine and cause it to shake over grain which of course went into the straw stack. My father never seemed to have a kind word to say for a steam engine and he claimed that in a tight spot, it was a lugged down steam engine that would jerk over the grain.

As stated above, the setting of the fly-ball governor determined the ground speed. My understanding is that once the tractor was in gear, it was entirely up to the tractor how fast you went. There was no slowing down for corners or something like that. You could slip the clutch a little when easing up to hitch on to a plow or threshing machine. There was only one gear setting and that was either "in" or "out." If you wanted to back up, the clutch was reversable but not the gear train. I understand that you could do belt work in either direction. There was a rumor that you could reverse a threshing machine with it and back a fork out of the feeder. Pa tried it one time and he ran into a host of other problems such as plugged elevators, etc.

The fuel for this old critter was kerosene. They had a 500 gallon tank wagon with a 3-horse hitch to supply it with kerosene. It used between 80 and 100 gallons per day when plowing depending on how dry it was. South Dakota soil usually dry during those years so it usually took closer to 100 gallons at something like 11 cents per gallon.

There was not much know-how around concerning engines in 1909. This placed my father in the position of having some tough times with extremely simple things. A good example is the fact that they started the tractor on kerosene during the first season. In the fall of 1909, Uncle Oscar took a carload of cattle to Sioux City. While en route, he talked to a man on the train who also had a Hart-Parr. This man told him to fill an oil can with gasoline and squirt it into the petcocks of each cylinder as a means of starting. This simplified the starting process. The gasoline of that day did not vaporize like the gasoline of today. You had to squirt the gas into the cylinder and wait for it to vaporize before you tried to start it. Pa worked out a routine whereby he squirted in the gas and then filled some grease cups, etc. and then cranked the tractor. He once started it in zero weather to see if it was possible.

I learned after my father's death that it was even easier than that to start. I talked to a fellow who had a 1910 model Hart-Parr, during the early 1920's. He said that he would roll the cylinders into a certain position and then snap on the ignition. This fellow, Frank Lynch of Iroquois, claimed that he started his nearly every time in this manner. The majority of the old timers that I have talked to were of the opinion that the Hart-Parr was a powerful tractor but extremely hard to start. One old fellow said that they used to kill off a couple guys every morning before they started threshing just cranking the Hart-Parr. I have wondered how many could jump a flywheel today?

I talked to a Mr. Shepersky, who owned a 1910 model Hart-Parr in the Huron area. One time he overhauled it and was having it run in the yard to limber it up as was the custom of the times. His hired man got up on it and looked down into the crank case to see how it went around. No one ever found out whether he got his curiousity satisfied because he got beheaded by the big old cranks. Then the blood ran out the sump hole and the pups ran out and began eating the blood and became ill from the mixture of oil and blood and began heaving all over the place. So all in all it was a sickening mess.

On the other hand the kerosene had a higher flash-point in those days. They transferred the kerosene from the tank wagon to the tractor in an open 14-quart bucket. Marvin Peterson, a cousin of my father, tended plows during the 1909 season. One day Marvin was fueling up while my father was greasing up. My father needed a hand so Marvin set the bucket of kerosene down and came to his assistance. The next thing that they knew the bucket of kerosene was on fire. Pa took a long handled shovel and picked the bucket up by the bail and carried it out on the plowing so as to not set a prairie fire. Neither man smoked so they were at a loss to explain the origin of the fire.

They had one other experience with fire that year. They let grease and dust pile up on the tractor. The late-breaking season was characterized by dry weather. It was during this time that the grease-dust accumulation finally caught fire. They each had a shovel and shoveled dirt pretty lively for a while. It didn't do any damage to the tractor and also taught them to keep the grease cleaned off.

My father ran the breaking rig with the help of hired labor and Uncle Oscar ran the farm. Pa had a tent and an oil stove and they camped right out on the prairie where they were breaking. The result was that my father developed a life-long dislike for canned pork and canned beans. He related one time when a man was pretty tickled that he had such a set up. He was a Mr. Tobin, the Standard Oil Company bulk man from Huron. Mr. Tobin hauled a load of kerosene from Huron out to Sand Creak township (with horses) and bucketed it into Pa's tank. He got this done just in time to set down for dinner. Geographically, he was about 12 miles west of Wolsey and 28 miles west of Huron.

My father did not have a plowing guide like the later large tractors that I remember. He had to learn to drive so the wheel was about 11" from the furrow in order to make the plowing smooth. The most upset creatures used to be the gophers. The big old plow would turn over such a wide swath that the gophers were confused as to where home was. They used to run in droves down the furrow until they became exhausted and the big furrow wheel of the plow would catch them. One would very seldom jump out of the furrow and run to safety.

The plow tender had a platform that he walked back on and lifted the plow with levers. Each lever lifted two bottoms. Then he would walk forward and drop them into the ground again at the rate of two at a time. Marvin and my father broke 1,000 acres before the dry season shut them off in the summer of 1909.

There were several notable experiences during the 1909 season. Pa broke 65 acres on a farm one mile north and 3 miles west of Wolsey. I was born on this farm 10 years later and he rented it for a period of 28 years altogether. He had no thought of renting it at the time. The back-furrow that he threw up in 1909 was visible as long as we lived on the place and perhaps is still evident.

While he was plowing the above mentioned field, a young married couple came on a sight-seeing trip to see the big new tractor plow. It will never be known what was in their minds that day. This couple was Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Larsen. Their farm was 2 miles north and I later witnessed many firsts on this farm. The first 15-30 Titan that I can recollect was on this farm. Lawrence and his brother Carl owned a 23' Altman-Taylor thresher that was one of the earliest that I can remember threshing for us. In 1924 Lawrence and Carl each got a new 15-30 McCormick-Deering and Lawrence also got the first Regular Farmall that I ever saw. Along with the Farmall came some other firsts such as the first tractor cultivator, first power mower, first tractor bucker, first 4-row cornplanter and in 1928 the first combine and first wind-rower. The first trucking done for my father was by Lawrence Larsen just to name a few of the firsts.

Pa broke a piece of land in the north western part of Broadland township. This quarter showed signs of having been broke during the homestead days (during the 1880's). It looked as if no other tillage practices had been used on the land and it was well sodded over. Pa was apparently plowing the same depth as the old homesteader. Pa ascertained that he had plowed with oxen during an extremely wet time. The oxen tracks were still visible at the bottom of the furrow.

During the same year, Pa was breaking a quarter in southeastern Broadland township. A man on adjoining an farm was breaking sod and making bricks of it much like the homesteaders did. The only difference was that he put his sod blocks between the studding of the house that he was constructing. He then boarded it up on the inside and the outside. The report was that this fellow had a very warm house as compared to houses of that day. I am of the understanding that the roof of this house was allowed to get bad during the "dirty-30's" and rain seeped in during the "wet-40's." The result was that this house was allowed to go to ruin and has been torn down.

The old Hart-Parr could pull 8-14" bottoms on back-setting and stubble plowing and 6-14" bottoms while breaking. The last two bottoms were not dropped down while breaking. In 1910, it was extremely dry during the last of the breaking season. Pa had to take off one bottom from the second two rear bottoms and plow with just 5-14's in order to finish the last job. Pa broke 800 acres during the 1910 season and back-set 600 acres of the 1,000 acres that he broke in 1909. So the old Hart-Parr converted 1,800 acres of prairie the first two years. The slogan in South Dakota at that time was, "Break it up and put a fence around it."

My father's Hart-Parr had the distinction of being the second tractor around Wolsey. The first tractor was owned by Frank Fanger. It was also a Hart-Parr but was a one-cylinder model. I understand that it was approximately the same HP as my father's. Augie Anderson told me that it must have been about 1907 when Mr. Fanger purchased this tractor. Mr. Fanger came over and looked over my father's new tractor and decided that the 2 cylinder was superior to his. Mr. Fanger bought a 2-cyiinder Hart-Parr that same year. He sold the one-cylinder to someone east of Wolsey.

In 1948, my father was reading some USDA statistics that stated that there were 1,000 tractors on U.S. farms in 1910. My father said that you could leave Wolsey on a saddle horse in the morning, make a big loop and visit 7 of those tractors and arrive back long before dark. It seems to me that his count was five Hart-Parrs and two Moguls.

While the Peterson-Ringheimer partnership resided at Iroquois, they lived on a farm where there was no well. They made a large tank wagon out of plank to haul water for their stock. They had no use for it at Wolsey so they sold it to Frank Fanger. It would hold 125 bushels of grain, so Mr. Fanger converted it to a grain wagon and hauled grain to town with the Hart-Parr. This made another first, for Frank Fanger and the elevators used to have a hard time dumping such a monsterous load with the equipment then in use. I wonder if any one in the Wolsey area realizes that grain was hauled to town with a tractor in 1909.

Not many of the present residents of Wolsey remember the creamery in the east part of town. For several years, including 1909-1911, it was operated by the late Oliver Raddiff. Mr. Radcliff had a high-wheeled IHC Power-Wagon to haul fresh cream from the country into town and ran a regular cream pick-up with it. Cream trucks have been a common sight since but I wonder how many towns in South Dakota had them back then.

The first Automobile in Wolsey was owned by a then land salesman by the name of A.D. "Duke" Simpson. It was painted white and was a Carter by make. The Carter of that day transmitted power from motor to wheels by means of a flat belt. Duke is better remembered by most people as a cattle buyer.

In the summer of 1909, the partnership of Peterson-Ringheimer purchased a new 36 x 60 Rumley threshing machine. It was equipped with a Ruth feeder, a gearless wind stacker, and double grain spouts. The double grain spouts allowed them to fill wagons on either side of the machine. These threshing machines equipped in this manner cost $800.00 at that time. According to the salesman from the M. Rumley Company, it was the first new Rumley thresher ever unloaded at Wolsey. However, there were a great many of them unloaded at Wolsey during the next 23 years. Incidently, The Avery and the Huber had been the most numerous makes in the community up until this time.)

My father continued to run the engine and Uncle Oscar ran the threshing machine. They at one time employed John Newman as oiler in addition to this. They had first the run of grain threshing and later in the fall they had the flax run.

During small grain threshing, while they were threshing on the Andrew Karnstrum farm, a gear broke that ran the weigher. They had Art Thompson, the local implement dealer wire into the company for a new one. It took about 3 days for a new one to arrive. In the meantime they continued to thresh and measured the bushels by the wagon box load as best as they could be estimated. The community identified Andrew Karnstrum as a close friend of the Peterson-Ringheimer families. When they pulled to the next place, the new gear arrived but the fellow insisted that his grain also be measured out by the wagon box as he figured that they were trying to "help Karnsturm out." They obliged to keep peace in the crew.

The second place that they pulled to after the Karnstrum job was an old German by the name of Erion. This same character tried to get Mr. Erion to do the same thing and told him not to let those damned Swedes put one over on him. Mr. Erion refused to go along with this line of thinking and that ended that rumble in the crew.

There was an Avery steam outfit threshing in the Wolsey area that same year. It was owned by a man named Stegeman who was a thresher of many years in the community by 1909. Augie Anderson ran the engine and a young fellow named Mike Christopherson ran the separator. This was one of the popular rigs in the community. There was a fellow who wanted my father and uncle to thresh his straw pile after this Avery outfit had threshed. They refused on the grounds that it would be unethical to pull in on another thresher. Inquiry around the neighborhood brought out the fact that this fellow was a habitual "bitcher." Also this Avery rig had threshed a large percentage of the grain around Wolsey for a number of years and they had satisfied customers in every other case that my father knew of. (Incidentally, I heard my father and Augie Anderson discuss this incident in 1942 while we were threshing at the Fred Anderson Farm.)

They had broke 350 acres on the "Preacher Brown" place that year (1909) and had it into flax. Flax made around 17 bushels per acre in the Wolsey area that year. The flax on the "Preacher Brown" place made about 3 1/2 bushels per acre due to a hail storm. The rest of their crops suffered similar hail damage. Peterson & Ringheimer suffered hail damage seven times during the first 21 years that they lived in South Dakota. Violent hail storms also came on the day of both of their funerals just like the Almighty was giving them a last send-off. Their funerals were a little over a year apart. (1951 and 1952)

There was a character named Smith living in the vicinity of the "Preacher Brown" place. This Smith had inherited money and owned a farm. He was a little off in the head and imagined things concerning religion. He claimed to have an "in" with the Almighty so that it could stop it from raining on those people's farms that he did not like. I asked Pa if he had anything to do with the hail storm but he didn't figure so. Smith was an all around crack-pot but he did have some flax and was in the flax threshing ring.

The "Preacher Brown" place got its name from the fact that it was the homestead of Rev. Brown, the pioneer minister in our Wolsey Presbyterian Church. Rev. Brown had sold the farm to a man in Massachusetts. This man placed the rental in the hands of a landman named Mattis at Huron. The honesty of Mr. Mattis was a big joke to all who knew him well. Peterson & Ringheimer rented the farm from the Mattis Land Agency.

When it came time to thresh flax, Mattis was too busy watching someone else to come out and see if Peterson & Ringheimer were honest. Therefore, Mattis sent out an old retired farmer neighbor of his out to watch them. This old fellow never went close enough to the machine to get dirty and made all kinds of remarks about a crooked old s.o.b. like Mattis not trusting anyone else. Pa noticed that he had a couple Bemis grain sacks in his buggy. Finally in the afternoon he took these sacks and held them under the grain spout and filled them up. He told my Uncle to set the weigher back enough to compensate for this amount. Then he took them to the elevator in Wolsey and bought beer with them. He brought this beer out to the crew just as they pitched in the last bundle of the day.

The above mentioned Smith claimed to be too religious to drink alcoholic beverages. When there was free beer involved, he changed real fast. Several days later they were threshing Smith's flax. They got a 3-box high wagon full and then put the oil tank three-horse team on it. One of the fellows got up on the spring seat and whipped up the team and started "lickety-split" across the prairie towards Wolsey. Then he hollared back, "Now we are going to have some more beer, boys."

Smith hollared, "No you ain't," and started to run after him. The tank team was of good life and could trot the load all the way to Wolsey. Poor old Smith ran all the way to Wolsey trying to catch up with the load so that no beer was bought with his flax. This was a distance of something like six miles.

There were some of the things about managing a thresher that was different in those days. Most of the belts were laced with whang leather. The rest were sewed. A canvas tarp came with the thresher and it was tarped every night and during the off season. There were very few steel threshers then as people thought that the wood ones were best. There were grease cups instead of zerks and greaseless bearings were not heard of. A good oil can was the most necessary item.

Uncle Oscar tended to be more for books than my father. In the winter of 1909-10, Uncle Oscar sunk $2.50 in a book in the hope that it would enlighten my father on a few things about gas motors. The title of this book was Gas, Gasoline, and Oil-Engines Including Producer-Gas Plants by Gardner D. Hiscox, M. E. It is copyright 1910 and strange as it may seem it is the 18th edition. It was published by the Norman W. Henley Publishing Company, 132 Nassau Street, New York. It mentions nothing about a tractor, or a gas traction engine for that matter. It does state that the best automobile engine is a 2-cylinder horizontally opposed that is timed to fire both cylinders together as a means of reducing vibration.

This completes the first year of this venture. I will attempt to write the other four years at some later date. My father soon was called upon to start cars and tractors around the country because of his experience with this tractor. He said that the two most common problems were first the lack of gas in the tank and second the failure to keep wires from vibrating against something and wearing the insulation through and shorting out.