Tractor design was an issue facing manufacturers from 1900 to 1920 when approximately 500 companies built tractors for use in American agriculture. This tractor boom resulted in much trial and error because factory engineers lacked experience in producing tractors for general farming. As a result, they built machines of great diversity ranging from the sensible to bizarre mechanical monstrosities.
At the time no one seemed to know how many wheels should support a tractor, therefore they appeared mounted on two wheels, three wheels, four wheels or caterpillar tracks. This occurred in spite of the fact that farm steam engines had been manufactured for almost a century.
In addition, opinions on how the power from the motor should be carried to the ground varied. Some tractors came out with only one drive wheel. At a tractor demonstration held at Fremont, Nebraska, in August of 1916, fourteen different companies supplied tractors with only one drive wheel. The other 36 companies at this event mounted motors on two drive wheels, four drive wheels or on moveable tracks. Many employed the tricycle principle with one steering wheel in front and the drive wheels in the rear, or the reverse featuring the steering wheel in the rear and the drive wheels out in front.
One of the most radical designs made use of a big drum to replace the conventional drive wheels. The Gray tractor built in Minneapolis was driven by a drum five feet in diameter and five feet wide.
Some engineers thought farmers wanted to drive their tractors like a team of horses with the power out ahead of the operator. The Line-Drive Tractor, built in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was actually driven with a pair of lines, or reins. The motor mounted on two drive wheels did the pulling with the driver seated on a farm implement which trailed behind. The Moline Universal Tractor, manufactured by the Moline Plow Company of Moline, Illinois, in 1915, eliminated the reins but extended the steering wheel on a long shaft which permitted the farmer to sit on a plow and drive the tractor in front of him.
Another innovation placed the plows under the tractor so the operator could look down to see the plow at work, rather than twist his neck to observe the plow being trailed behind. The Square Turn Tractor Company of Norfolk, Nebraska, carried a gang of three plows beneath the tractor frame.
Since the tractor industry was still in the experimental stage prior to 1920, the market was flooded with machines of every description. A farmer could buy a tractor with one, two, four or six cylinders. Transmissions were activated by chains, gears and friction-drive clutches. In size they varied from a tiny Avery 5-10 horsepower costing $365.00 and weighing 1,700 pounds to a behemoth six cylinder Twin City with 60-95 horsepower and weighing 27,700 pounds.
Meanwhile, a crowd of business men entered the race to cash in on this bonanza. They needed little capital to establish a tractor company. A get-rich promoter with a machine shed could buy a few motors and extra parts from suppliers, assemble them on a chassis, print a catalogue, incorporate the firm and sell stock to the public. As a result, tractor companies appeared in small towns scattered across the country. Examples would include the following firms, all of which suffered an early demise:
1. Dayton Dick Tractor in Quincy, Illinois.
2. Waite Tractor in Elgin, Illinois.
3. Ward Tractor in Lincoln, Nebraska.
4. Denning Tractor in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
5. Standard Tractor in Willmar, Minnesota.
6. Lawter Tractor in St. Marys, Ohio.
7. Pioneer Tractor in Winona, Minnesota.
8. Maytag Tractor in Newton, Iowa.
9. Killen-Strait Tractor in Appleton, Wisconsin.
10. Dill Tractor in Harrisburg, Arkansas.
11. Olmstead Tractor in Great Falls, Montana.
12. Yuba Tractor in Marysville, California.
13. Dakota Tractor in DeSmet, South Dakota.
14. LaCrosse Tractor in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.
Eventually the earlier, well established manufacturers of steam engines and farm implements survived the first boom and bust cycle. This list would include companies such as: J.I. Case, Avery, Rumely, Huber, Reeves, Port Huron, Gaar Scott, Buffalo Pitts, Frick, Holt, Minneapolis, Nichols and Shepard, and International Harvester.
Dr. Wik is also author of Steam Power on the American Farm (1953), Henry Ford and Grass-Roots America (1972) and Benjamin Holt: Caterpillar Tracks & Combines (1984).