Nebraska Tractor Shows, 1913-1919 and the Beginning of Power Farming

McCormick Deering Tractor

T. J. McDivit of rural Des Moines used his 1924 McCormick Deering 10-20 tractor to crush sorghum in making molasses. Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society.

Nebraska State Historical Society

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Piedmont Gardens, 33 Linda Avenue Oakland, California 94611-4816 Reprinted from Nebraska History, Summer 1983, with permission of Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska 68501-2554.

Prior to the advent of the gasoline tractor in the early 1900s, the American farmer had become familiar with power machinery in the form of steam engines. From 1807 to 1849 stationary steam engines mounted on skids were used to saw wood, gin cotton and thresh grain. From 1849 to 1875 these engines were mounted on wheels and were pulled from one location to another by a team of horses. From 1875 to 1920, the steam traction engines were self-propelled and were used for threshing grain, plowing, lumbering and hauling freight. Much of the sod stretching from Canada to Mexico was broken with huge steam engines, some of which weighed 15 tons and pulled 12 plow bottoms.

However, these leviathans needed to be supplied with large amounts of water and coal. They were awkward to handle, presented a fire hazard and required the skill of an expert mechanic. Usually an engineer in the community did custom work for numerous neighbors. These engines were manufactured by such well-known firms as J. I. Case, Avery, Nichols and Shepard, Minneapolis, Frick, Reeves, Holt, Best, Gaar-Scott, Rumely and Port Huron. The prices averaged $100 for each horsepower developed; thus a 20-horsepower steam engine in 1900 would sell for approximately $2,000. However, steam engines ushered in an age of power farming and this trend was accentuated with the arrival of the internal combustion tractor at the turn of the century.

A series of tractor shows staged in the Midwest from 1913 to 1919 encouraged the growth of power farming in the United States.1 These public demonstrations tended to prove that tractors rather than horses and mules would be the wave of the future in American agriculture. The special events were held at selected sites reaching from Texas to the Canadian border.

On certain days as many as 60,000 people watched tractors working under field conditions. During these exhibitions some farmers were so impressed that they pulled out their checkbooks and bought tractors on the spot. At a four-day tractor show at Fremont, Nebraska, in 1915, one manufacturing company sold 100 tractors.2

However, this type of advertising was not original. For many years the manufacturers of farm machinery had demonstrated their products at state fairs. In addition the plowing contests held near Winnipeg, Canada, from 1908 to 1913 had proved that field trials could elicit wide public attention. These annual contests sponsored by the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition Association featured a corps of judges who rated the performance of each engine and awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals to the winners. The American Thresher-man in September, 1911, listed the scores of 31 tractors and steam traction engines. Editor Bascom B. Clarke noted that manufacturers, engineers, and farmers had come from all parts of the continent to witness the application of mechanical power to agriculture.3

Meanwhile in Nebraska the owners of the Omaha Daily Bee were also publishing the Twentieth Century Farmer, a weekly journal edited by Thomas F. Sturgess. After observing the Canadian plowing contests, he concluded that these trials had been designed primarily for the manufacturers of huge steam and gasoline tractors built for use on the large farms in the Northwest. He reasoned the time had come to initiate tractor shows which would demonstrate the practicality of smaller tractors on the corn-belt farms of the Midwest.4

With this objective in mind, Sturgess selected Fremont, Nebraska, as a site for a tractor show to be held September 8-12, 1913. George F. Wolz, president of the local Commercial Club, promised substantial support in making local arrangements. Later T. F. Sturgess recalled:

'We selected Fremont as the site of this demonstration and invited various tractor manufacturers to bring their machines and show the farmers. . .what their tractors would do. The manufacturers responded enthusiastically and the farmers turned out by the thousands to see the machines at work.'5

This event was given generous publicity. Writers for the Twentieth Century Farmer boasted that this show would be the largest exhibition of power farming ever shown in America. Forty tractors would plow a 500-acre field. Farmers would see tractors with enough power to plow the ground to a depth of 14 inches, thus allowing the soil to absorb more of the annual rainfall. In addition, tractors would eliminate the hired man, making for a saving of $600 annually, as  well as horses which cost $72 a year to feed.6 The Fremont Herald announced special attractions planned for visitors: a tractor parade down Main Street, an automobile promenade, an evening coronation ball featuring music by the Omaha Symphony Orchestra, a get-acquainted party for factory representatives, dog show, poultry exhibit, comic review by local firemen, and a free watermelon feed (400 melons, each weighing 40 pounds, in cold storage in the brewery).7 The morning ceremonies would begin with the firing of a cannon.

Tractor headquarters was located on the Coad Ranch two miles west of town. Here each manufacturing company occupied a tent equipped with running water and a telephone system. In the forenoon company representatives passed out literature, gave sales talks, and supervised their engines as they performed various types of belt work. In the afternoon 40 tractors entered the field and plowed 6 acres in less than three hours while a crowd of 4,000 people watched.8  To get a better view farmers walked behind the plows, often stopping to measure the depth of the furrows. Some of the tractors in operation included the Rumely, Russell, Hart-Parr, J. I. Case, Kinnard Haines, Hackney, Wallis, Holt, Leader, Aultman Taylor, Emerson Brantingham, Ward, and International Harvester. Professor George E. Condra of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln took moving pictures of the action later shown by Pathe News in thousands of theaters across the country.9

The Fremont Tri-Weekly Tribune on September 17, 1913, reported that an agricultural engineer had come all the way from India to witness the tractor meet. Five thousand people had attended a barbecue where four Negro cooks had roasted an ox. The banks in town had closed to permit employees to take part in these special events. The paper stated that 'hundreds of automobiles lined the roads along the field and hundreds of persons were unable to get onto the land at the close of the day's work when the machines were lined up for the moving picture man. Never before in the history of the country has such a large crowd assembled for a similar occasion.'

This spectacular was repeated in the fall of 1914. This time the entrants included 60 tractors built by 30 companies. 10 It was estimated that 2,500 automobiles brought visitors to the grounds, including 500 people from Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas. Large crowds followed a big Caterpillar tractor built by the Holt Manufacturing Company of Peoria, Illinois. Twenty-four behemoths pulled 14-inch plows cutting a swath 28 feet wide and seven inches deep in dry gumbo soil. Experts estimated that it took 115 horsepower to perform this task.11

Another attraction, sponsored by the Dupont Company, consisted of exploding dynamite to loosen up the sub-soil for the purpose of creating a seed bed which would hold more moisture. Meanwhile the Twentieth Century Farmer proudly pointed to the Fremont event in a headline. 'The Largest Power Farming Exhibition Ever Conducted in the World.'12

The Third Annual National Power Farming Demonstration in 1915 attracted 60,000 people to Fremont, where 43 manufacturing companies provided 84 tractors of various models, makes, and sizes.13 Sales during the show reached $500,000. A writer for the Fremont Herald described the city as a 'charming place' where automobiles purred down the streets in a continual procession, while the railroad companies offered special excursions from such Nebraska towns as Norfolk, Hastings, York, and North Platte. In the evenings visitors might listen to William Jennings Bryan on the Chau-tauqua circuit or attend a wrestling match. Pathe News and the Universal Film Company took thousands of feet of film for national distribution.14

Journalists, artists, and photographers were on the scene and the services of the Associated Press and Western Union were available.15 J. B. Bartholomew, president of the Avery Company of Peoria, Illinois, told a reporter, 'I was counting on you to put on the biggest show in the country and you have not disappointed me.' 16  The sales manager for the same company, E. R. Rowe, said, 'The Fremont shows have done more for the tractor business than any one thing.'17 Alexander Legge, general manager of the International Harvester Company exclaimed, 'This has been the greatest demonstration. The number of actual sales will excel everything of its kind ever held.'18

The fourth annual tractor show in Fremont in 1916, however, produced the most spectacular results. Since the previous exhibitions had been so successful, the Tractor Manufacturers Association had decided to sponsor eight shows in eight states in 1916. The first, near Dallas, Texas, July 18-22, was followed by stops at Hutchinson, Kansas; St. Louis, Missouri; Fremont, Nebraska; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Bloomington, Illinois; Indianapolis, Indiana; and finally Madison, Wisconsin, in early September.19

In this series the Fremont extravaganza proved the most impressive. Here 50 tractor companies provided 250 tractors to work 1,200 acres of land. 20  The value of all machinery on the grounds was placed at $1,000,000, while sales reached $1,300,000. During daily demonstrations these tractors, with a combined horsepower of 8,953, plowed 100 acres in 50 minutes.21 It was an awesome sight.

The attendance doubled that of any previous year, with 60,000 people on the grounds on August 10. The Fremont Herald the following day ran the banner line, 'Enormous Crowds at Tractor Show.' 22  There were 8,000 automobiles parked on an 80-acre field, while traffic backed up for miles. One newsman cheerfully reported that there had been only eight car accidents during the day. Although the heat was intense and clouds of dust moved over the terrain, men, women, and children faced the elements with fortitude. John Wunder-lich of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, vowed he had never seen anything like this:

Fremont and Omaha had been taxed to handle the crowds, Last Wednesday, Fremont was eaten out of house and home. The crowd drank the well dry, ate every sandwich it could find, drank all the pop and soft drinks and even drank the brewery dry. Two wagon loads of hot pop were commandeered by the crowd two blocks from the show ground and it was drunk on the spot. Two carloads of watermelons were sold, each cut in eight pieces and each slice sold for ten cents. One thousand, five hundred chickens were devoured by the largest crowd in Fremont history.23

The Nebraska Farmer said the city had been 'taken by storm.' Restaurants and cafes were unable to feed the mob. Visitors almost bought out grocery stores, bakeries, and butcher shops and left the shelves bare.24  The Omaha Daily News noted that the hordes had come from seven different states.25

Several prominent people made appearances, including Cyrus H. McCormick, president of the International Harvester Company, who thought the tractor show was the best he had ever seen.

Henry Ford, the car-manufacturing magnate, and his son, Edsel, were also on hand. The brought an orchestra which performed each evening at the high school, and motion pictures produced by their company were also shown. During the day Henry Ford spent his time shaking hands with farmers and supervising his mechanics, who were operating three Fordson tractors. However, Ford said they were not taking orders because his machines were still in the experimental stage. In an interview with the Omaha Daily News, he mentioned that his dream was to see the world at peace and a farm tractor which would sell for less than $200.26 One reporter noticed that the 'Detroit Motor King' did not spend his time in the hotel lounge talking to business executives and drinking champagne or smoking cigars. Instead he preferred the outdoors, once sitting on a stack of grain in a field discussing farming with a couple of boys.27

After the United States entered World War I in 1917, the demand for tractors increased because of the need to produce more food. As a result, less advertising was needed to sell farm machinery. Consequently the Tractor Manufacturers Association limited its shows to one in Fremont in 1917, one in Salina, Kansas, in 1918, and a final one near Wichita, Kansas, in 1919.28  There were many other smaller tractor shows sponsored by local implement dealers in most of the grain-growing states. Some of the most important ones were at Champaign, Illinois; Spokane, Washington; Minot, North Dakota; and Sioux Falls and Aberdeen, South Dakota. 29  By 1920, however, tractors had ceased to be a novelty and farmers could observe their operations in most parts of the country. The sales of tractors had risen from 14,000 in 1914, to 36,000 in 1916, to 164,500 in 1918, and to 203,204 in 1920.30

In retrospect it seems obvious that this series of tractor shows accelerated the introduction of power farming in the United States. Not only did these events thrill hundreds of thousands of people, but they spread the tractor news through the press to millions of Americans. The cumulative effect was to assist the pro-tractor crowd in the debate with the pro-horse advocates controversy which raged among the rural folk for many years. The horse lovers insisted that work animals were less costly than tractors because they lived off the land, they reproduced, and they were objects of genuine affection. As one farmer put it, 'I will not stand by and see the horse, which has been a good friend of man since the days of Jesus Christ, become annihilated by a lifeless, spiritless, and unfeeling machine.'31  Detractors pointed out that tractors broke down frequently, requiring expensive repairs, mired down in soft spots, and created a horrible roaring noise. They were luxuries similar to yachts, polo ponies, and private schools for girls. In 1910, the editor of the Wall Street Journal insisted that farmers who bought tractors were 'damn fools.'

In rebuttal, the tractor owners claimed their engines would reduce hard labor, encourage young people to stay on the farm, eliminate hoboes and transients looking for farm work, and would work unremittingly, without asking for holidays, shorter hours, or a raise in wages. They would not step on farmers' toes or switch a tail in his face. A writer for the Twentieth Century Farmer on July 19, 1916, attempted to praise the tractor in verse:

Boys now take life rather easy Not so many chores to do. Only half as many horses To attend the whole year through. Not a shoulder to gall to worry Not so many nags to clean. They can sleep a little longer Since we plow with gasoline.

The Old Sol may do his damnedest He can't make the tractor sweat. Horse flies stop to look it over But they do not make it fret. Do not need to waste time resting Cannot flounder that machine. We can turn the soil right lively Since we plow with gasoline.32

Furthermore, the tractor shows proved that this industry was still in the experimental stage. Since engineers would not agree on how to design successful tractors, they built machines of great diversity the results of trial and error. At the Fremont show of 1916 the tractor sizes varied from the tiny Avery 5-10 horsepower to the six-cylinder Twin City weighing 27,700 pounds and rated at 60-90 horsepower. This leviathan was equipped with a step ladder on the side of the motor in order that the operator could reach the spark plugs. The Big Four tractor built in Minneapolis had drive wheels eight feet in diameter and tanks which held 110 gallons of water, 77 gallons of kerosene, and five gallons of oil. The flywheel alone on some tractors weighed over a  ton.33

Some companies produced tricycle models with two rear-drive wheels and one steering wheel in front. These included the Wallis, Happy Farmer, Peoria, Albaugh-Dover, the small Avery, the Case 10-20, and the Bull, which was advertised as the 'Bull with the Pull.' Some tractors such as the Lawter and Moline 8-12 had two drive wheels in front and a steering wheel behind. The Pioneer, Hart-Parr 15-22, and the Emerson Brantingham 12-20 had only one rear drive wheel, while the Gray engine was driven by a drum five feet wide. The Joliet, the Hackney, and the Rumely 12-24 tractors had plows bolted under the tractor frames, while the Moline and Joliet machines featured an extended steering wheel which permitted the driver to sit on the cultivator and still steer the tractor. The Line Drive Tractor built in Milwaukee was driven with a pair of lines just as one would drive a team of horses. Tractor motors varied from one, two, four, and six cylinders while transmissions were powered by gears, chains, and friction-drive clutches. Speed of travel ranged from two to three miles an hour and prices varied from an Avery model at $365 to the Caterpillar at $3,000.34

Obviously, this diversity confused farmers, making it difficult to distinguish between machines of merit and junk. At Fremont in 1916, there were 50 different tractor companies displaying models, while another 100 firms scattered across the country were not represented. Between 1915 and 1920 over 400 new tractor companies had been established.35  Many businessmen made honest efforts to produce engines of quality, but others, imbued with a get-rich-quick mania, merely purchased motors, magnetos, carburetors, and radiators from other companies and assembled them on a chassis.

During the 1913 Fremont show 21 tractors equipped with Waukesha motors built in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, provided power for one-third of all tractors in the demonstration.36 A visitor's guide to the Fremont exhibition in 1916 provided a short description of each manufacturer's models which revealed that many firms had bought various tractor parts from sub-contractors. For example, the Tom Thumb tractor built in Minneapolis had a Waukesha motor, a Bennett carburetor, a Dixie ignition system, Splitdorf spark plugs and a Perfex radiator. The Parrett tractor made in Chicago came with a Buda motor, Kingston carburetor, Champion spark plugs, a Perfex radiator, and SKF ball bearings, while the Ford tractor from Minneapolis was equipped with a two-cylinder Gile engine, a Wilcox carburetor, a Madison Kipp oil pump, a Kingston ignition system, and J. D. Petticoat spark plugs.37

Some shady characters sold stock in fly-by-night outfits which might consist of little more than a machine shed, one hand-assembled engine, an attractive catalogue, and a fast-talking promoter who collected the cash, declared bankruptcy, and then fled the scene. One ingenious firm hired a carpenter with the name of Ford and made him a director of the company, then advertised its works as the Ford Tractor Company of Minneapolis clever but unsuccessful business venture.

Naturally, many of these companies folded and their names never became famous. Such a list would include the Dayton-Dick Company of Quincy, Illinois; the Tom Thumb and COD tractors of Minneapolis; the Hay Press Tractor of Kansas City; the Waite tractor of Elgin, Illinois; the Ward of Lincoln, Nebraska; the Western built at Tulsa, Oklahoma; the Denning of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and the Standard tractor of Willmar, Minnesota.

Since most farmers knew little about tractors, they often bought mechanical monstrosities which had never been tested. Reliable information was usually unavailable. The Nebraska Farmer on August 18, 1917, claimed that the manufacturers of tractors offered little specific information, leaving farmers in the position of 'buyers beware.' More testing by agricultural engineers should have been done before the engines were put on the market. Tractors might perform well on land which was level as a billiard table, but perform poorly in hills, rocks, and brush. Farmers were left in 'confused and bewildered.38  The Cedar Rapids Gazette on August 15, 1916, complained that the whole tractor market was flooded with various types of freak machines.39

During these years the American farmer subsidized the tractor industry by purchasing unreliable machines until the factory officials were able to make improvements. However, the price for research and development was often high. A farmer writing to the Nebraska Farmer in August, 1918, complained that he had bought a highly touted tractor. A salesman had told him that the engine would provide power to plow nine inches deep and would last for eight years. It proved a lemon. It worked for seven days, then stood idle in the field. On the first day the fan belt flew off due to a defective pulley. On the fifth day the transmission gears went out, while on the sixth day the connecting rods punched two holes in the crank-case. He reported these facts to the company officials but was told that there had been no failure in the materials and workmanship. He then asked for the help of a company expert, but this request was promptly denied. He fumed, 'You see, we are suckers. There should be some way of taking such fellows to the cleaners.'40

The author's own family shared some of these woes. In August, 1918, my oldest brother loaded most of his 10 brothers and sisters into a Stud baker automobile and drove 60 miles to a tractor show near Aberdeen, South Dakota. On arrival we saw the tent village with flags flying and crowds milling about the grounds. Some companies advertised by offering free cold drinks, some dispensed literature and watch fobs while others gave away walking canes calibrated for measuring the depth of the plowing. In this carnival atmosphere 82 tractors roared off to plow 160 acres every 80 minutes. We bought a 15-30 International tractor for $1,900, which soon proved a mechanical disaster real 'dog.' The engine weighed five tons, and was 10 feet high with drive wheels almost seven feet in diameter. Its cross-slung motor was turned over with a three-foot crank, but this had to be done when the operator raised himself off the ground, and while in mid-air and with one foot braced against the angle iron lugs of the drive wheel threw his entire weight against the crank. If this acrobatic feat were successful, the motor started. The tractor ran on some days, on others it ran part-time, and at times it failed to fire an explosion all day long. Its clumsy steering system made it difficult to turn around at the end of the field without knocking down fence posts. It taxed nerves and depleted the pocketbook. During the hard times of the early 1920s, my mother often alluded to our bad judgment in buying an expensive tractor before its merit had been proved.

During these years it became clear that farmers needed access to some solid criteria on which to judge the advertising claims of manufacturers. Cognizant of this need, Wilmot R. Crozier in 1919 introduced a bill in the Nebraska State Legislature which stipulated that no manufacturer could sell a tractor in the state without obtaining a permit. Permits could be issued only after the same make and model tractor had been officially tested and its performance had borne out the manufacturer's claims. This bill became law in 1919 and thus Nebraska established one of the first consumer-protection agencies in the nation.41 Subsequently Nebraska University tractor tests became a yardstick for comparing tractor performance anywhere in the United States.42 Perhaps it is not surprising that this legislation should appear in Nebraska where the Fremont tractor shows had first generated so much attention to this new industry.

Above all, the tractor shows during this seven-year period had been part of a technological revolution dramatic shift from animal power to mechanical power farming in American agriculture. This transition reflected growing pains in a time of experimentation, but it also was a time of excitement, a period full of human interest events and withal an era when rural Americans adapted to major changes in their way of life.

1. This paper was read at the 24th Annual Conference of the Western Social Science Association meeting in Denver, Colorado, April 21-24, 1982. The best research materials on this topic are located in the Nebraska State Historical Society, 1500 R, Lincoln. Here are the files of Twentieth Century Farmer, the farm journal that sponsored the first Fremont tractor shows; the Fremont Herald; and Omaha Daily Bee.

2. Twentieth Century Farmer (Omaha, Nebraska), September 1, 1915, 11.

3. The American Thresher man (Madison, Wisconsin), September 1, 1911,3-9. The judges checked 27 factors in making their decisions. The intense competition resulted in considerable ill will among company officials, which led to a waning interest in the Winnipeg trials.

4. Twentieth Century Farmer, July 19, 1916, 19.

5.  Ibid.,20.

6. Ibid., August 30, 1913, 2. 7 Fremont Herald, (Fremont, Nebraska) September, 1913, 1.

8. Twentieth Century Farmer, August 30, 1913, 6; October 4, 1913, 5.

9. Fremont Herald, August 14,1914,4; August21, 1914, 1.

10. Nebraska Farmer, August 26, 1914, 809.

11. Ibid., August 5,1914, 770. This statement was placed in an advertisement by Twentieth Century Farmer.

12.  Twentieth Century Farmer, June 30, 1915, 2; July 21, 1915, 4; July 14, 1915, 2.

13. Ibid., September 1, 1915,4.

14- Fremont Herald, August 6, 1915, 1. Joe Stecher, the famous wrestler of this era, appeared in matches in Fremont, and William Jennings Bryan appeared on the Chautauqua platform on August 9, 1915.

15. Ibid., August 13, 1915, 1.

16. Twentieth Century Farmer, September 1,1915, 4.

17. Ibid. ,10.

18.  Ibid., 10. F. Lee Norton, of the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company of Racine, Wisconsin, stated that the Fremont Tractor Shows were the greatest educational event of their kind ever held for the American farmer.

19. Ibid., July 19, 1916, 5.

20. Fremont Herald, August 11, 1916, 1.

21.  Twentieth Century Farmer, August 23, 1916, 7.

22. Fremont Herald, August 11, 1916, 1.

23. Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 12, 1916, 1.

24. Nebraska Farmer, August 19, 1916, 863.

25. Omaha Daily News, August 9, 1916, 3.

26. Ibid., August 7, 1916, 1.

27. Fremont Herald, August 11, 1916, 6.

28. Nebraska Farmer, August 17, 1918, 1; August 2, 1919, 1571.

29.  Dakota Farmer (Aberdeen, South Dakota), August 15, 1918, 10.

30. R. B. Gray, 'Agricultural Tractor Development in the United States,' Part II, 1920-1950. United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Agricultural Engineering Research Branch of Beltsville, Maryland, 1956, 1.

31. John Edwin Lamborn, 'A History of the Development of Dry Farming in Utah and Southern Idaho' (MA Thesis, Utah State University, Logan, Utah, 1963), 123.

32. Twentieth Century Farmer, July 19, 1916, 8.

33.  Twentieth Century FarmerFremont Demonstration Visitors' Guide to Farm Tractors, Bulletin No. 21, Omaha, August 1,1916,31-page booklet.

34. Ibid.

35.  Archer P. Whallon, 'There Were Giants in Those Days,' Farm Quarterly, Spring, 1947 (Cincinnati, Ohio), 24. The author states there were a total of 593 tractor companies in the United States from 1900 to 1947.

36.  Twentieth Century Farmer, August 29, 1914, 4- It is interesting to note that almost all of the 21 tractors equipped with Waukesha motors in 1913 failed to stay in business very long. Companies that failed to survive include the Herder, Hume, Killen, Knapp, Lawter, Denning, Strite, Gray, Chase, Joliet, Kuhlert, McKinney, Smith, Nebada, Petro-Haul, Elliott, Swaney, and the American Gas Company. Two exceptions are Allis Chalmers and Rumely Company.

37. Twentieth Century Farmer, Fremont Demonstration Visitors' Guide to Farm Tractors.

38. Nebraska Farmer, August 18, 1917, 823.

39. Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 15, 1916, 1.

40. Nebraska Farmer, August 27, 1918, 1055.

41. Michael Williams, Farm 'tractors in Color (Dorset, England), 1974, 18-21.

42. Louis I. Leviticus, 'Tractor Testing in the World,' Agricultural History, January, 1980, 167-169.