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Dent Parrett’s Career In Tractor Design

Author Photo
By Robert Hall Jr. | Aug 1, 2001

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Dent Parrett
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Dent Parrett on his first-made tractor.
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Dent Parrett driving a Continental Cultor Co. tractor by rope from the rear.
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Works of Parrett Tractor Company, Chicago Heights, Illinois, circa 1915.

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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