The Shirk gasoline tractor, 1909-1911

By Staff
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Shirk 4 HP tractor with New Holland engine.
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1911 Shirk 12 HP tractor with Otto engine.
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The 1909 Shirk 'Horseless Farm Wagon.'

607 West Lemon Street, Lancaster, Pennsylvania 17603

Peter E. Shirk, proprietor of the Blue Ball Machine Works, Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, was the first successful manufacturer of gasoline-powered motor vehicles in Lancaster County. Prior to 1908 he had conceived the idea of a self-propelled farm vehicle while on weekly trips by horse and buggy to market in Reading. Shirk pitied the horses as they hauled the buggy up the steep road on Trostle’s Hill, north of Bowmansville. Although the motor car was already beginning to supercede the horse as a means of over-the-road transportation, it was useless for farm work. Shirk wanted to free horses from the drudgery of farm work.

During the winter of 1908-09, Shirk designed two dissimilar vehicles and set his fourteen employees to work on them as time permitted. One vehicle, which Shirk called the ‘horseless farm wagon,’ consisted of a 4 x 11 foot wagon-bed fitted with steel axles and steel cleat wheels. Power was furnished by a 3 HP New Holland gasoline engine, with shaft drive to the rear axle. The driver’s seat was at the rear of the machine; controls were a steering wheel and a lever which regulated forward or reverse motion. The ‘horseless farm wagon was completed and tested in June 1909. Shirk stated that it could be used to haul all types of farm products and to furnish power for stone crushing, chopping, and wood sawing. Although he announced plans to manufacture the vehicle after improvements had been made to it, apparently no duplicates of the prototype were built.

Shirk’s second vehicle, a copy in miniature of the huge steam traction engines, was designed for plowing. It was completed in early July and offered for sale in the New Holland Clarion beginning on July 10, 1909. The advertisement, titled, ‘SHIRK TRACTION GEAR,’ stated:

“This is a substantial gear fitted with gearing direct from engine shaft, no belting or sprocket chainused, has strong compensating gear, has forward and back motion and can instantly be reversed while running. Simple in construction and substantially built, it is a good hill climber and as the engine is really a strong 4 HP, it will pull a load of two tons, even up grade. Levers are within easy reach. Machine is nicely under control as to speed and guiding. Handles easily and goes wherever wanted. This outfit should be seen in operation to fully realize its handiness and usefulness.”

This gasoline tractor, like Shirk’s first vehicle, was powered by a New Holland engine. Some duplicates ofthis tractor were built in late 1909 and early 1910. No two were exactly alike, for each was hand-built and Shirk made design improvements as they were developed. The advertisement for the tractor was run weekly in the newspaper until early October 1909.

Although some 4 HP tractors were built and sold, Shirk soon decided that a more powerful engine was needed. The largest New Holland engine at that time was the 4 HP unit; a 5 HP engine was not introduced until 1910. Shirk redesigned and enlarged the tractor chassis and fitted it with the Otto horizontal gas engine, built by the Otto Gas Engine Works of Philadelphia. The work was done over the winter of 1909-1910 so that some tractors could be built and sold in time for spring plowing. The Shirk tractor with Otto engine was built in five sizes: 6 HP, plowing capacity unspecified; 8 HP, suitable for pulling two 12 inch plows; 10 HP, suitable for pulling three 12 inch plows or two 14 inch plows; 12 HP, with capacities similar to those of the 10 HP tractor; and 15 HP, suitable for pulling four 12 inch plows, three 14 inch plows, or two 16 inch plows. The 4 HP model with New Holland engine was continued.

The Blue Ball Machine Works carried on advertising and sales through a New York dealer, H. J. Hush of 39-41 Cortlandt Street. Tractors were shipped from East Earl, the nearest freight station to Blue Ball. The Shirk tractor was advertised as being capable of plowing five acres of land in ten hours, and of having one man control from the driver’s seat.

Peter Shirk had his line of tractors in production by early 1910, for he had made several sales by March of that year. One was sold to J. E. Gall, a farmer near Wakarusa, Indiana, who wrote to Shirk in late March. Gall said: ‘I have used your engine and truck in front of a three-horse plow and it did good work.’ Some ofthe large tractors were built during 1910 for use on the sugar plantations of Cuba and others were built for shipment to Russia.

Although Shirk had developed a complete line of conventional tractors, he continued to experiment. In July 1910 he brought out a new vehicle he called a ‘gasoline traction grass mower.’ The vehicle, similar to the 1909 gasoline tractor, was powered by a 3 HP New Holland engine and had a power take-off which drove a cutting bar attached to the right side. On July 6, Shirk used the machine to mow D. W. Geist’s hay field, located a few hundred yards east of the machine works. The machine, driven by Samuel Martin, did a much quicker job than that possible with a horse-drawn mowing machine and used only twenty-seven cents worth of gasoline.

Shirk had put the traction grass mower together on short notice and after the first test he made several improvements to it. He made the cutting bar detachable so that the machine could be used to pull wagons or provide a power source for farm tasks. A. B. Groff, a farm implements dealer from New Holland, observed the mowingmachine in action and stated that he felt it would find a ready market.

Over the winter of 1910-11 production of Shirk tractors was greatly curtailed, although several machines were built in November1910.  It was apparently in late 1910 that the 4 HP New Holland and 6 HP Otto models were discontinued as Shirk concentrated on the larger machines.

Production increased for spring sales in 1911. Among the machines sold was one purchased by Isaac Kauffman of Leacock Township, Lancaster County. Kauffman used his tractor to plow his fields and then hitched the tractor to a double action cutaway harrow and prepared the fields for planting. The last mention of the production of tractors by Shirk was in August 1911, when the New Holland Clarion noted that the Blue Ball Machine Works was busy making tractors and appliances. One popular model, as mentioned in the newspaper, featured a Shirk tractor fitted with two plows and a land roller. An illustration of that model was used on one of the advertising flyers for the Shirk tractor.

Peter Shirk didn’t have sufficient capital or a large enough shop to expand production to meet the increasing demand for his tractors. He apparently sold the manufacturing rights for the tractor to the Otto Gas Engine Works in the fall of 1911. A brochure on the ‘Otto Gasoline Tractor,’ published before the end of 1911, included a photograph of a tractor with Peter Z. Martin, Peter Shirk’s son-in-law, at the wheel. This photograph, used earlier in a flyer put out by the Blue Ball Machine Works, was of a Shirk tractor. Such use of the photograph would seem to indicate that Otto took up production of the tractor without finding it necessary to alter Shirk’s design.

Specifications of the Otto gasoline tractor, designed by Peter Shirk, show the type of vehicle which Shirk had been building for almost two years prior to selling out to the Otto Company. The frame was made of steel channels and the axles were cold-rolled steel shafting. Drive fromthe Otto engine to the transmission was by a shaft with bevel gears. The transmission, which was in constant motion, provided forward speeds of 2? and 5 miles an hour as well as reverse. The constant mesh transmission required only the clutch shaft, the master wheels, and the axles and tractor wheels to be stopped and started when the vehicle was reversed. The gear change from high to low gear was simple and straight-forward: the driver had merely to shift from high gear to neutral and then press the ‘palm trip’ on the shift lever to engage low gear.

Otto guaranteed their tractors to deliver fifty per cent of the engine’s brake horsepower to the draw bar. The tractor bulletin stated: ‘An attachment can be furnished for mowing.’ No doubt the mowing bar attachment for the Otto tractor was supplied by Shirk, who had been manufacturing it since mid 1910 asan optional extra for his own line of tractors.

The Otto could be converted for any kind of farm work by merely loosening a set-screw and putting the gears out of mesh. A friction clutch could then be used to power a thresher, sheller, shredder, buzz saw, or other equipment.

The Otto line, to which was added just one model not previously offered by Shirk, is shown in the table:

Model Brake HP Engine speed (RPM)

Shipping weight (pounds)

4-A 8 300 5,600
4-A 10 300 5,900
5-A 12 260 7,400
5-B 15 260 7,800
6-A 21 240 9,700

After discontinuing the manufacture of tractors, Peter Shirk concentrated on his other inventions, manufacturing a tobacco cutter called ‘The Handy Tobacco Shear,’ which permitted anyone to cut tobacco without stooping over. It was basically a long-handled shear with one-wheel support and could be pushed down a row of tobacco. One specialty of the Blue Ball Machine Works after 1911 was the installation of electric light plants in homes andbusinesses throughout eastern Lancaster County. Peter Shirk kept two Shirk tractors for use around the machine works. The tractors wereused in 1914 to drag a large boiler weighing several tons to the shop for repairs. No Shirk tractors are known to have survived to the present day.The Blue Ball Machine Works is still in business at the present time, now operated by Peter Shirk’s grandson, George P. Newswanger.

I would like to thank Mrs. Esther Newswanger, Peter Shirk’s daughter, who provided brochures on the Shirk and Otto tractors and all of the photographs used to illustrate this article. The other major source of information was the back file of the New Holland Clarion available for research at the Lancaster County Historical Society, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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