79 Elm Street, Ansonia, Connecticut 06401
As a young boy my friends and I would watch the freight trains go by from the hill above the tracks. Far below, on the opposite side of the tracks, was the Baird Machine Company. Being an inquisitive child I asked my parents what they made in that factory on the other side of town. 'Tractors,' they answered, along with 'What are you doing so far from home?' Needless to say it was a few years before I saw the Baird Factory again.
My next contact with U.S. Baird was in 1970, in my senior year at Stratford High School. I finally got to see the inside of the Baird Factory along with my industrial arts class. In awe of the overhead cranes and other large machinery, I completely forgot the tale of the tractors from years before. Un-known to me at the time, it had been ten years since the last tractor was made there. A few months later an offer of an apprenticeship followed. I declined and went off to a state technical college.
It would be more than two turbulent decades before Baird and I made contact again. After working at and watching the demise or decline of many factories, such as Bullard Company, Farrel Company, and Consolidated Diesel, it was the collapse of aerospace giant Avco-Ly coming that finally brought me back to U. S. Baird. It was in May of 1993 that I was employed at Baird.
Now being an inquisitive adult, I began to ask about the long history of this company. Founded in Connecticut in 1846, it has become one of the world's largest producers of high production metal forming machinery which includes multiple and four slide machines, multiple transfer presses, horizontal chucking machines and more. And also I was told we used to make tractors here. Bingo!!!
By now you must be wondering where the tractors fit in? It was at the company celebration of 150 years in business (1846-1996) that I displayed two Beaver tractors. Company President Charles Warner, whose great-grandfather, Charles Warner, bought the company from Mr. Baird in the late 1800s, related this story to me about how the Beaver was born.
It seems that the Warner family owned land in the area in the 1940s with several fields separated by very narrow trails. Full size tractors had difficulty in negotiating these trails, so the decision was made to see what kind of small tractor could be made on the factory floor. The design proved to be so rugged and popular that the decision was made to go to commercial production in 1950. Keep in mind that these tractors were designed and produced by a machine tool builder. They designed them the only way they knew how to last for fifty years. This also accounts for the industrial look of the early tractors and the unique evolution of the design as time progressed. In short, they did it their way.
Owning a few stationary engines previous to Baird, I was already interested in this field. Asking around I found a few old-timers who remembered that Beaver production was ending just about the time that they started. I then made the acquaintance of Charles Choun, whose father worked on the Beaver production line. Charley had four tractors and was willing to part with one. It was a 1957 and I was hooked. With a little work this tractor served as my snowplow for the next four years. Its unique floating pulley pedal design with a toe forward, heel reverse made quick work of snow removal. This was a Beaver exclusive no shifting of gears to go from forward to reverse and back.
Beaver number two came soon after. Answering an ad in a local paper I was surprised to find a Beaver. It was under a tarp in a backyard and it didn't look anything like my first Beaver. It had no steering wheel, a tiller for steering with a black ball knob on the end. In place of the foot pedals was a hand-operated forward and reverse lever.
This tractor was fairly complete and with some fresh gas and a dozen pulls on the starter rope, it ran well enough to drive it under its own power into the back of my pickup. This somewhat crude appearing tractor had the serial number 4470-226. This 226th Beaver was produced in the fall of 1950.
By now I had Beaver fever and had picked up several non-running Beavers for parts. The one from near the Canadian border in New York State was my first three-speed transmission. This was later grafted with my first Beaver to produce a complete stock Beaver. Talking to the owner I found out that at one time he had lived within twenty miles of my home. This time it was four hundred long miles back home.
Beaver number three was found in response to an ad I placed looking for Beaver tractors. Two towns over, up on a hill, between two trees was a 1957 Beaver B model, tiller steering, single speed forward and reverse and no compression. I wrestled it into the back of my truck. At home I discovered a stuck exhaust valve was the reason for the lack of compression. A little more work and it was running. This model Beaver, although basic, showed me how far the design had advanced from the early model #226.
At this time I had just subscribed to GEM, and was looking through the want ads when I found Beaver #4. I called, got directions, packed the kids in the truck and off I went. What made me so excited about this Beaver? It would be my first electric start Beaver. I sure didn't expect much for the sixty dollar asking price and I wasn't disappointed. The owner of this Beaver had bought it at a farm auction three years earlier. It had been stuck in a field where its steering cable had broken years before, and I was buying it as it stood, sunken in the ground in his field. I paid him the full price because he wrapped a chain around it and pulled it out of the frozen earth with a backhoe and put it in the back of my truck. After defrosting it in my garage for a few days I realized just how bad it really was. All the sheet metal was deeply pitted or rusted through, along with part of the frame. I figured there was still hope because the engine was free. It had a 6-volt positive ground system with a separate Bendix type starter and generator. Too far gone for a restorationI decided to make a snowplow out of it so I could restore Beaver #1. Well, I can never do anything halfway and spent the whole summer turning it into the beautiful orange machine you see here. Nothing like electric start at zero degrees. The only thing that bothered me was the odd serial prefix number 5424. I was told all Beaver serial numbers started with 4470. More research was needed.
By now I was on the hunt for a Beaver 750. This was the last and most advanced Beaver and also the least produced. No one seems to know how many 750s were produced before the tractor franchise was sold around 1960. A separate company was formed by a new owner in New Hartford, Connecticut, to produce Beavers, known as Beaver Industries-Greenwood Plantthis is where Beaver #5 came from.
Garaged for all its years, it was in good condition and showed refinements that come with a mature design. A full-tilting Fiberglas hood, 12 volt starter/generator, a more accommodating angle to the steering wheel and locking levers for the side mounted gearbox rounded out the improvements in its design. It is rumored that the Greenwood plant burned to the ground, never achieving full production as hoped.
Besides the innovative reversing wheel instead of a gear, the later Beavers had another truly inspired design. The cable-controlled steering design gave the flexibility to put the steering squarely into the operator's hand. Aircraft counter-wound directional control cable was adapted to serve this purpose. The continued use of Wisconsin engines added to the durability of this line. I have never seen one with any cylinder bore wear.
Beaver tractors were a fairly expensive item due to the high quality engine and differential gearing. Most Beavers were sold mainly on the east coast. It was popular locally because you could buy it direct from the factory floor. Just back your truck up and drive it on. I was told that all those years Baird never made much money from the tractor line because of the high build cost and the need to keep prices competitive. Over 4,500 Beavers were sold over 10 years of production. One large order of 300 was shipped to India. Many attachments were made for the Beaver including a cultivator, harrow, scarifier, roller, rotary tiller, rotary mower, sidebar sickle mower, snowplow, triple gang reel mower, dump cart, mold board plow, lawn spiker, and dual wheels.
One day, talking to engineer Dave Knight, I found that one of his first assignments at Baird was to design a transmission to complement the Beaver's then single-speed rear axle. Told that this was a design exercise for tradeshow demonstrators, he went to work. The result was a three-speed sliding gear transmission which would mount on the side of the axle housing. Aircraft quality gears were used throughout. Total reduction in first gear was 219 to 1. These show machines were such a hit that in the late '50s they went into production. It is unclear if the serial number was changed to 5424 for all models or just the transaxle units. After some research it was found that 606 tractors were sold under this serial prefix. That tractor I pulled from the frozen field was 5424-1. The first of three show machines (see invoice sheets) used as demonstrators. Still in service as my trusty plow, it will be restored someday to original condition.
The late Fifties were a time of great change at Baird. During the brutal recession of that time there were few orders for machine tools, and making Beavers kept the factory going for a year. In 1957, Baird Company acquired U. S. Tool Company of New Jersey and became known as U. S. Baird. An addition to the factory doubled manufacturing capacity floor space and the increased business no doubt played a part in the decision to sell the Beaver tractor franchise. Still, 35 years later, when I mention that I worked at Baird, the next question is 'Hey, do they still make tractors there?'