A reprint of Chapter Nine of To Gather Together: CENEX, the First 50 Years, by Leo N. Rickertsen, copyright 1980 by the Farmers Union Central Exchange, Inc. Sent to us by Mr. Walter A. Taubeneck, 11801 52nd Drive NE, Marysville, Washington 98271.
For twenty years it had been unchanged. Tractors started with a crank. Broken arms or wrists made it a worrisome farm operation. Even experienced farmers could be caught. A moment of inattention, a split-second of vented anger, a final tired, frustrated attempt and splintered bones or strained muscles resulted. It was the hazardous human connection to the mechanical beast that allowed the farmer to twist life into a valved, pistoned, metallic heart.
It would seem as if, like the horse, the tractor had hidden emotions that could blow up and take over. In a fit of frenzy, a team of plow horses might bolt and carry farmer and plow from fence line to fence line. From the horse, this sudden change in personality was anticipated and visible. From the tractor, such irritable leanings were mystifying and impossible to pierce. But suddenly and without warning, it would happen.
Ox-strong individuals could manage to turn the crank all the way through the circle and move without interruption into a second, third and even fourth revolution. These individuals enjoyed the rare experience of starting a tractor quickly. There were others, younger, lighter, less experienced, who wore themselves out trying to get a stiff engine started one crank at a time.
This unaltered ritual lulled the farmer, experienced or not, into an inevitable mistake. An aggressive pull would carry his weight too far. For a precarious instant he could be leaning on the crank at the bottom of the cycle. At that instant, the crank would remain engaged in its socket. Unexpectedly the tractor would cough on its own. Crank would turn viciously on cranker. Forearms and wrists would catch in the spinning handle and give way. The inevitable had happened. And, standing at the business end of a hand crank with a son's arm in a cast, many a farmer must have figured there had to be a better way to get the tractor going.
The catch word was parity. On a par with. Farmers realized that there had been no parity between automotive improvements and farm tractor improvements. While cars were continually becoming faster, more reliable, quieter, easier starting, the tractor lagged behind as a baffling beast that, in many ways, was unable to handle the jobs it was supposed to. CENEX, rapidly becoming an extremely important cooperative resource, responded.
For cooperative farmers, the demands were an echo; quality at a savings in cost. If it could be done with oil, why not with machinery? Ralph Ingerson spent seven months investigating in the possibilities of a cooperatively manufactured tractor. Pushed by farmers, the tri-elements of cooperation were focused on a tractor designed to work effectively in the field, built economically to be sold for a savings, and created by farmers for farmers in a brotherhood of mutual interest. Dent Parrett, an engineer of recognized ability in the automotive industry, was hired on as a designer, builder and tester. Tens of thousands of cooperators looked over his shoulder.
By the summer of 1935, one group in particular stepped forward. On July 22, National Cooperatives Incorporated held its regular meeting in Superior, Wisconsin. Principal discussions revolved around the feasibility of National Co-ops handling farm machinery for its members. Although the meeting was regular, the location was not. Discussion took place in the open air of a field, where farmer cooperators could take a hard look at the all new CO-OP Tractor.
It was beautiful to those who laid eyes on it in these, and many other, unveilings. The fire engine red lent a sporting contrast to the dark rubber tires, a significant change from all other lug wheeled tractors. Headlights and battery were standard innovations.
Beneath the hood was a six-cylinder, high compression engine on a par with the advanced principles of automobile power plants. The demonstrator spent a few minutes making clear these already visible differences to his audience. All waited patiently, fully aware that beauty on the outside could hide a beast within. The demonstrator settled into the seat. A cranking noise began and, lo and behold, the CO-OP Tractor was running. The day of the self-starting tractor had arrived. And with that, the farmer-tiring hand crank became a useless appendage, nothing more than an alternative starting mechanism. This tractor was more car than tractor. But could it challenge a field? Farmers, accustomed to a grinding, unvarying two or three miles per hour, watched as the CO-OP Tractor went through five forward gears from 1 to 35 m.p.h. It had the low-end power to pull a plow through mud, the wheel design to do it on slippery grades or rain-soaked clay, and, at the top end, to speed through lighter work effortlessly. A technological leap had been made. The cooperative decision rapidly followed. CENEX would have a Farm Machinery Department headed by Ralph Ingerson. National Cooperatives and CENEX would share in the responsibility and distribution of the CO-OP Tractor.
As had happened during the early cooperative efforts in oil, the skeptical voice of competition was quick to denounce the success of the new tractor. Old line tractor makers pointed with authority and scoffed, 'This newfangled machine uses a high compression Chrysler motor. Ridiculous. It burns high test gasoline. Absurd. The fuel bill alone will break the back of the farmer. Distillate is the only affordable fuel. It starts itself. Unnecessary. One more attachment to fail. And a tractor that doesn't run means a farm that doesn't yield. And rubber wheels? Inadequate. Only steel lugs can handle a field. Why do you think we build roads for cars? Rubber wheels will be torn to shreds in field work. The CO-OP Tractor has designed-in failure.'
Once they had loudly vented their criticism at the folly, they put their energies to catching up. The CO-OP Tractor had suddenly outdated all existing designs. Private manufacturers had once again been outdone by a cooperative effort.
CENEX fieldmen began stumping the four states with a CO-OP Tractor in tow. During September and October, 1935, farmers were shown this new development in farm machinery. As one story goes, in a promotion a CO-OP Tractor was driven from Laurel to Billings, Montana. The tractor driver was pulled over and issued a speeding ticket by the highway patrol. Public relations, in those days, seemed to include anything that would bring attention to the CO-OP alternative.
Through other cooperatives, demonstrations were taking place in other states as well; Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to mention a few. The 'CO-OP' Tractor name was expanding and gaining visibility through this significant change. In time for the 1936 farming season, sale of the CO-OP Tractor began, and not always for money. One day Ralph Rice (an early CENEX fieldman) took several hundred tons of hay as full payment for a CO-OP Tractor. It wasn't such a bad idea since the government was then encouraging a feed and hay rehabilitation program for farms, and CENEX was able to convert hay to cash.
Not only was cash in short supply for farmers, there was also a period when the whole idea of a cooperatively produced tractor was questionable. Originally the tractor had been manufactured by a privately owned corporation in Battle Creek, Michigan. Cooperative wholesalers purchased the tractors on a contract basis. But the arrangement became unworkable to both CENEX and National Cooperatives and the contract was canceled. Co-ops had an idea and a prototype and no place to manufacture it. So, cooperative leaders made a proposal to the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was involved with the rehabilitation of people displaced by the depression. By setting up projects for people who had been thrown out of jobs, the Administration was allowing them work, pay and survival. Cooperatives suggested that the FSA, 'Make available a factory, equipment and initial finances so that COOP Tractors can be manufactured at Arthurdale, West Virginia. People out of work would have jobs and cooperative farmers would get better, cheaper tractors.'
It seemed like a logical, relevant, useful idea. The FSA agreed, and $325,000 was provided to get the project off the ground. Hundreds of West Virginia families were taken from poverty to provision. CO-OP Tractors became available to farmers. Perhaps most significant of all, the new tractor gave other manufacturers the incentive to make improvements of their own. Farmers became the beneficiaries of this new interest in tractor technology. Cooperation paid extra dividends to its supporters.