Dent Parrett's Career In Tractor Design

| August/September 2001

  • Dent Parrett
    Dent Parrett
  • Dent Parrett Tractor
    Dent Parrett on his first-made tractor.
  • Parrett factory

  • Continental Cultor
    Dent Parrett driving a Continental Cultor Co. tractor by rope from the rear.
  • Continental Cultor

  • Bradley tractor Drawing

  • Parrett Tractor Company
    Works of Parrett Tractor Company, Chicago Heights, Illinois, circa 1915.

  • Dent Parrett
  • Dent Parrett Tractor
  • Parrett factory
  • Continental Cultor
  • Continental Cultor
  • Bradley tractor Drawing
  • Parrett Tractor Company

444 S. Olds Avenue, Hartford, Michigan 49057

Dent Parrett was born on Oct. 13, 1886, the son of James and Mae (Stoner) Parrett, in Wenona, Illinois. While still in high school he began working with farm implements for Harry Van Horn, who had a farm implement store in Wenona. Van Horn let young Parrett repair and maintain the steam threshing machines he owned. A couple of Van Horn's customers even had steam-plowing engines, and occasionally Parrett would get to work on them.

In 1908, after spending a year at the University of Illinois, Parrett opened his own machine shop in Wenona. He recalls selling three Rumely OilPull tractors and an Aultman and Taylor 4-cylinder gas tractor during these early days of the tractor era. The Aultman and Taylor tractor pulled eight plows for a progressive local farmer.

Parrett had been intrigued with the possibilities of a lightweight, maneuverable tractor for farm use in place of the clumsy steam-powered engines, when he worked for Van Horn. In his machine shop, he began experimenting with a new tractor design. In his own words, 'I hired a young engineer from the University of Illinois to work out the design details for the first tractor I built. This engineer was a junior and worked during his summer vacation to design the tractor; it was finished about the time he returned to school for the fall term.'

An early prototype Parrett front end; at right, 6 cylinder Waukesha motor Parretta rare tractor. Picture taken at Parrett factory.

The first Parrett tractor was finished in time to help with the fall plowing in 1912. Encouraged by its success and the interest it stimulated, he organized the Parrett Tractor Company in 1913 at Ottawa, Illinois. Some thirty tractors were built there between 1913 and 1915. In 1915 the company was moved to Chicago Heights, Illinois, where over 300 tractors were built the first year, twice that number the next year.

Massey-Harris Limited of Toronto, in 1916 already prominent in the farm implement field, was eager to add a tractor to its line. In 1917 an agreement was reached whereby Massey-Harris would build a tractor from Parrett's specifications and drawings.

Other companies, too, copied Parrett's tractor so meticulously that some of the parts were actually interchangeable with those of the Parrett tractor.

To prove how reliable the Parrett tractor was, Dent Parrett put on a 100-hour non-stop demonstration near Salina, Kansas, during one of the national tractor demonstrations. Parrett's machine pulled binders in the wheat field. It thoroughly demonstrated that while the Parrett tractor could operate non-stop, the then-current horse binders with tractor hitches couldn't and went to pieces like wooden bridges under the big steam rig.

Parrett's demonstration was really responsible for the tractor binder, but he never, until now, got major credit for it.

Parrett's wife Clara driving one of the first Continental Cultor Co. tractors, of Springfield, Illinois.

Parrett was the first to solve the dust hazard for gasoline-driven farm equipment, when he came up with a water filter cleaner, which was later standard equipment on farm machinery. In 1918, Parrett was commissioned a captain in the ordnance reserve corps, in charge of engineering production and inspection of engines and artillery tractors built by Holt Manufacturing Co. of Peoria, Illinois, which after the war became Caterpillar Tractor, a large manufacturer of heavy-duty earth moving equipment. Three different suppliers built engines for these tractors. Military requirements specified that the engines should be designed so that they could be serviced from the same parts, and Parrett had a tough job of working out the details with the various suppliers.

By 1919 there were about 200 firms trying to get rich making tractors, and with Dent Parrett having to pay almost as much for an engine as Henry Ford got for his whole tractor, Parrett sold off his enterprise and took to designing for other folks.

While he was in the service, his tractor company went downhill, and in 1919 he sold out and began working independently as a consulting engineer. Massey-Harris hired Parrett in 1920 to design a larger tractor than the earlier model and to supervise the building of experimental tractors from his new designs. From 1920 to 1923 he was chief of experimental design at Massey-Harris and in 1923, he returned to private consulting and engineering.

In 1923 he designed a light-cultivating tractor, later produced by Continental Cultor of Springfield, Ohio. Parrett used a Ford engine in this tractor... and became a close friend of another imaginative pioneer in the automotive field, Henry Ford. This light tractor sold as part of a complete cultivating unit. One model pulled a single-row cultivator with the operator in the cultivator seat guiding the tractor. Another model had the cultivator mounted on the tractor. Several thousand of these cultivating units were sold. He also designed, for Continental, a mounted corn pickerthe first quickly mountable picker ever produced commercially.

In 1931, one of his tractor jobs, which he produced for Sears Roebuck when they were working their way into the implement business, went out to Nebraska and pulled (on steel wheels, of course) within 10 pounds of the operating weight of the tractor plus the operator, oil, water, lugs and all. It was a world's record that has never been beaten or equaled.

The Parrett-designed rubber tired tractor hit the market, just about the same time in 1932 as one built by a competing company. Records aren't clear on which tractor can claim the honor of being first, but it was obviously a pretty close race.

In 1932 there were some Parrett tractors being used, but they officially came out in 1935-36. The 1932 had rubber tires on it, and a four-cylinder motor. Accompanying this story is a picture of an early Parrett No. 6 tractor with a Hercules 1XB four-cylinder motor with an early front end on it; and a rare six-cylinder Parrett tractor at the Parrett factory (a division of Ross Carrier Corp. in Benton Harbor, Michigan). Serial numbers are stamped on top of the frame on the right side. The tractor color was dark green, darker than the Oliver tractors.

Also in 1934, Parrett sent a cotton chopper to a Dixie firm of Dallas, Texas, for testing, from the Ross Carrier Co. in Benton Harbor.

Parrett worked at Ross Carrier from about 1927 to 1938, and also in 1934 he was an engineer for Duplex Machinery Co. in Battle Creek, Michigan. He maintained his office at Ross Carrier at the same time that he engineered the design for Co-Op Nos. 1, 2 & 3. At that time they used Chrysler IND-Motors truck rear ends, because parts were available locally for maintenance and repair.

Parrett in 1938 became associated with Auto Specialties Manufacturing Co. in St. Joseph, Michigan, to work out an adaptation of a disc brake for tractors. Evolving out of this assignment was the Parrett-designed double-disc brakenow standard on about half of the wheel-type farm tractors built in this country.

In 1946, also for Auto Specialties, he developed a high-capacity clutch that could interrupt the drive to the final drive pinion to give the tractor a continuous running power takeoff. With little basic change in tractor design, thousands of these clutches are in use today.

Also out of Auto Specialties came a brush chopper for a three-point hitch. It is not known if Parrett designed it or not. We used one on our farm in the mid-1950s.

My father, the late Robert Hall Sr., was employed at Auto Specialties for over 40 years, the last 30 at the Hartford, Michigan, plant, where they made car jacks and disc brakes. He would always talk about the tractor brake, and about trying to develop some for airplanes. He was employed as maintenance foreman there.

Auto Specialties also had plants in St. Joseph, Michigan; a large foundry at Riverside, Michigan; a machining plant in Hartford, Michigan; and a plant in Canada.

Parrett had enough patents to paper his home on Lake Michigan. I saw several patents of his, starting out in 1907 with his patent on improvements on compound engines. Also added to the list of achievements must be an item to cover the inspired leadership Parrett has given to two young engineers fortunate enough to work with him. One of these went on to become chief engineer at Ford Motor Co. and another became chief engineer with Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Co.

His son, John Parrett, followed his father's lead and was a consulting engineer.

Parrett and his son, John, designed and built a golf cart in from 1959 to 1964, to be driven by gasoline and electricity. One of his last inventions, it was called NASSAU and was three-wheeled.

Parrett's tractor manufacturing history may be summed up as follows:

1913-20 Parrett Tractor Co., Chicago, Ill. (4 models)

1919 Parrett Motors Corp.

1920 Hicks-Parrett Tractor Co.

1932 Parrett #6, Benton Harbor, Mich.

Parrett's engineering career includes:

Engineer for the Wilson Tractor Co., Peoria, Ill., in 1919

Designed and engineered tractors for Continental Cultor Tractor Co. in 1926

Engineer for the Bradley Tractor Co. (Sears Bradley)

Patent drawing filed September 13, 1930 for the Bradley tractor made at Ross Carrier in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

(Ross Carrier Co.), Benton Harbor, Mich., 1928 Engineer for 4-wheel drive (Fitch 4-Wheel Drive), Big Rapids, Mich., 1930 Designed the Massey-Harris #15-22 in 1931 Designed the Co-op #1, #2 and #3 for Duplex Machinery Co., Battle Creek, Mich., in 1934-36 Designed the Cockshutt #30 for Cockshutt Plow Co., Brantford, Ontario Engineer for the Graham-Paige Motor Co., Detroit, Mich., 1938-39

He was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers for more than 35 years. He also was a member of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers and the Farm Equipment Institute.

He was the recipient of the Cyrus Hall McCormick Gold Medal from the ASAE for his work on the Lambert disc brakes and his high capacity clutch.

Parrett died March 24, 1962. He enjoyed playing golf, pheasant hunting, and canoe trips on the Manistee River in Michigan. He was an avid fisherman and was an advocate of forest conservation.

Special thanks to his son, John Parrett, for providing this information on the history of Parrett Tractors. His records are the only ones left from the Parrett factory. Special thanks also to Jill Rauh at the Benton Harbor (Michigan) Public Library. When requesting information, please send a #10 self-addressed, stamped envelope to Robert Hall Jr., 444 S. Olds Ave., Hartford, MI 49057-1355.


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