Hip to be Square

Square Turn tractor has mottled history


It appeared the Square Turn came with an underslung Oliver 3-gang plow, as shown on this early Albaugh-Dover tractor, probably about 1917. A couple of minor differences are apparent on this tractor – a gear cover (the dome-shaped object above the word “square”) where there was none earlier and the lack of a front wheel brace (which appeared to be on earlier tractors).

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The years between 1910 and 1920 were unusual and exciting years in the agricultural manufacturing field: Which farm engines would work best? Sideshaft, air-cooled, water-cooled, gasoline, kerosene - the list of possibilities seemed endless.

How would they best work and be most useful? Stand-alone, portable, in tractors, cars or trucks? Everything was in flux, not only in the engine area, but also in the tractor field.

Companies, especially small ones, were sensitive to farmers' cries for change, so it was no surprise when A.J. Colwell, a machinist in Norfolk, Neb., heard the call of farmers for a small tractor with a sharp turning radius.

For years one of the major complaints about the lumbering steam engines and large tractors like the Rumely OilPull and Twin City tractor was their large turning radius. This wasn't a problem in the great Kansas wheat fields, or in North Dakota or Montana, but on Nebraska's smaller 80- to 160-acre farms, it was.

So in 1913, Colwell patented his own tractor design, working on the tractor in his machine shop with farmer Albert Kenney. They called their company the Kenney Colwell Tractor Co. and the tractor the KC. (This KC was not related to the KC tractor manufactured starting in 1909 by the Kansas City Hay Press Co.) But Colwell and Kenney dawdled for three years, distracted by their own work at making a living. In 1916, Albaugh-Dover Co. of Chicago, a mail-order house, bought the rights to the machine, an 18-30 front-wheel-drive tractor with a single steering wheel in the back. Shortly thereafter, it appears Albaugh-Dover bought the Kenney Colwell Tractor Co. as well, bringing it under their name, as a 1917 ad indicates Albaugh-Dover had factories in Chicago and Norfolk. The tractor was renamed the Square Turn probably about this time.

Literature in 1917 touted, " … any woman or boy can fill a man's place with a Square Turn tractor." But the greater advantage, ads said, was that the tractor could make a square U-turn, which allowed it to plow the corners of fields.

At first glance, the Square Turn tractor appeared to run backwards, with two large drive wheels in front, and a small, single guiding wheel in back. Ads said, "The Square Turn tractor operates equally well in either direction. All you need to do is swing the driving seat around to the direction you want to go and you drive with the same two handy levers and in the same manner as you would drive a team."

This mention of a team of horses showed another facet of agricultural manufacturing during this time: Manufacturers wanted to show that operating an internal combustion engine machine could be as simple as running horses, as well as playing on the sentimental attachment many farmers had to their horses.

The Square Turn tractor probably came with a standard underslung three-gang Oliver plow. Again, literature said, "The adjusting levers for your plows are right at your side, and you can instantly stop, lift your plows by power, back to clear trash, set plows any depth you wish, and go ahead - all without leaving the driver's seat."

Another ad plugged how all the working tools were within full view of the operator. "Your work is always in plain sight. No twisting of the neck to watch the plow ... Reverses instantly and lifts plow by power to clear trash or turn corners. Has fewer working parts than any other tractor; having no clutch, no differential and no transmission gears, hence no expensive parts to replace. Every part accessible, easy to get at, operates successfully on either gasoline or kerosene, will work in all kinds of soil, in wet places and on side hills too steep for a binder. Is the most completely power controlled tractor on the market, 90 percent of the turning being done without the operator touching the steering wheel."

The Square Turn used a system of fiber-faced driving cones, which allowed the drive wheels to travel different directions when making a sharp turn, thus the name of the machine. One ad says the machine had two driving levers (one for each hand), and that was all that was used to stop, start, turn or back the tractor. "It's just as easy as handling the reins of your team and much quicker. You have no footwork to do, no clutch to throw in or out, no steering wheel to spin - just shift the two levers and the tractor itself does everything by power. No other tractor will turn so short and quickly."

While the rights to the tractor were owned by Albaugh-Dover, the ads weren't afraid to use jargon making the machine sound important. It was still the practice of companies to send experts to farms to offer help, as farmers were still learning about engines: "The two fiber-faced cones are gripped firmly between two large gray iron faces shifted in either direction separately or together by a positive eccentric throw, giving six times the frictional contact necessary to perform the heavy duty without slipping."

About 1918, the company was renamed Square Turn Tractor Co., and shortly thereafter reverted back to the Norfolk manufacturers, possibly because Gilbert R. Albaugh, the main mover in Albaugh-Dover, seemed to be a man of whims with a love of engines. After working for Rambler, Olds and Peerless auto companies, he built the Star automobile in 1902, with H.C. Robinson, who had left the chocolate-making business, as The Automobile magazine said, because "the progressive automobile industry was more to his taste." Together they built the Star, with a single-cylinder, 4-stroke engine mounted under the center of the car beneath the floorboard that produced a whopping 8-1/2 HP.

By 1904, the Star had disappeared, but Albaugh started on a new car, the Wolverine, including 2- and 4-cylinder models with a driveshaft and selective sliding transmission, which harkened to the transmission that would eventually be used in the Square Turn. By 1906, the Wolverine (with the odd motto of "like the deer, swift, graceful and beautiful") was no more.

In 1910, Albaugh built the Aldo, named after the first two letters of Albaugh and Dover. The Aldo was a high wheeler, two-passenger motor buggy with a 2-cylinder air-cooled engine with planetary transmission and double chain drive, and tiller steering. A year later, that car was dead.

Albaugh got into manufacturing cream separators and other items as well, so it was no surprise when he lost interest in the Square Turn.


The KC and perhaps early Square Turn tractors had different, although generally minor, vital statistics: two large 60-by-12-inch drive wheels in front, while later Square Turn tractors possibly had 61-inch drivers. (One ad says 70-inch.) Early tractors were 192 inches long, 102-3/4 inches wide and 76 inches high, while later ones were just slightly longer, narrower and higher. Early tractors weighed 7,400 pounds, later ones 7,800. Early manufacturers recommended a 28-inch thresher, but later, no thresher was recommended. All were rated for three 14-inch plows, while speeds were 2.25 MPH early, 2.33 MPH later. (Another ad said 3 MPH, 4 on the road.) Even the belt pulley was a different size: 12-by-8 inches early, 12-by-10 inches later. Early KC and Square Turn tractors ran on either gasoline or kerosene, but later tractors don't specify. They also had Splittdorf magnetos, and later, a Dixie H.T.

Different engine

The Square Turn was the first tractor using a Climax engine to be tested at the Nebraska Tractor Tests, Sept. 27-Oct. 7, 1920.

Unfortunately, that first vertical 4-cylinder Climax, of 5-by-6-1/2-inch bore and stroke, was defective when submitted, so another tractor had to be brought in.

This turn of events seems almost inconceivable and tells a lot about the company. How could Square Turn Tractor Co. allow a tractor with anything less than a perfect engine out of the factory? This was very risky considering the jaundiced view most farmers had of tractor companies' shady behavior. And more incredibly, how could they offer a tractor with an engine that had problems - or more likely had not been properly tested - to be at the Nebraska Tractor Tests (where many farmers determined which machine they wanted to buy for their farm)? A tractor whose engine did not work did not bode well for a company that hoped to sell many tractors.

P.S. Rose, in his Manufactured and Estimated Report, printed sometime after Aug. 1, 1918, listed 72 Square Turn tractors manufactured in 1917, 102 during the first six months in 1918 and a quite realistic estimate by the company for the second half of 1918 of 180 Square Turns. Square Turn Tractor Co. evidently figured their tractor would really catch in 1919, as they predicted 1,000 would be built. Perhaps the debacle at Nebraska scotched any real hopes for the company becoming a player in the tractor field.

One other oddity is worth pointing out: The turning radius of early company tractors was listed at 8 feet and literature said it could turn completely around within its own length, a tremendous advantage over other machines (" … no clutch to slip, no gears to strip, no expensive repairs, travels either direction at full speed and power."). Later literature did not have this information, which is surprising when that "square-turn" was supposed to be a major selling point of the tractor.

Unique transmission

The transmission, called the "Giant Grip Drive," had never been used in any piece of machinery, say Nancy Zaruba and Karen Rogt in Norfolk's Very Own Square Turn Tractor. "Its simplicity, flexibility of control, durability and freedom from repair costs has made it the center of interest at eight National Tractor Demonstrations. No other farm tractor is so easy and natural to drive as the Square Turn. Pull left lever to turn left; pull right lever to turn right; pull half way back to stop and all the way back to back up. No hard to turn steering wheel or pedals to push. The Square Turn tractor turns completely around in 5 seconds. The driver's seat rotates 180 degrees to allow the forward and backward driving. It is simple to operate and it is said anyone can learn to drive the Square Turn in 10 minutes."

The Square Turn sold for $2,075 in 1918 and $1,875 in 1920. The Square Turn Tractor Co. dissolved in 1925.

One of three Square Turn tractors in existence is in the Elkhorn Valley Museum and Research Center in Norfolk. Contact the museum at: 515 Queen City Blvd., Norfolk, NE 68701; (402) 371-3886; www.elkhornvalleymuseum.org

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; bvossler@juno.com