Ever Wondered About GARDEN TRACTORS?

| May/June 1998

  • K Cross motor Case
    Ray Hoffman of Box 85, Blanchard, Iowa 51630 sent this picture of Bruce Wilson of Bolton, Ontario on his model K Cross motor Case. Ray is editor of the J. I. Case Heritage Foundation.
    Ray Hoffman

  • K Cross motor Case

15090 State Route BB St. James, Missouri 65559

I have noticed at shows that there are often a few collectors who have one or two wheel tractors that get paraded or put on static display. I have also noticed that collector interest in these machines is less frantic than that surrounding stationary engines (which is good for me, with engine prices where they are), but I wonder if many collectors are aware of some of these facts. For example, in 1925, while 169, 196 internal combustion engines were made for farm use (about 145,000 of them under 5 horsepower), just 3,456 motor cultivators and garden tractors were made and sold.* Production of garden tractors grew in later years, but look at the collect ability of any one or two wheel machine sold prior to 1925. Some of these birds are rare indeed.

By understanding the times in which these machines were produced, it is easy (now) to see that the garden tractor (or walking-tractor) was a natural for replacement of Dobbin, and not on just the smallest of farms. Consider this: in 1919, truck farms, some in excess of 100 acres, largely used hand labor to plant and cultivate due to the sensitive nature of their crops. Development and application of the garden tractor was, for them, directly translated into a huge reduction in production overhead.

I have developed a warm spot for these tired old one and two wheelers. Show me one resting in the weeds and my pulse beats just a little faster. Recently, while on a photo expedition, I was casually examining a pile of rust surrounded by tall grass and car parts when my wife came over and started asking embarrassing questions about the state of our finances. Her intuition is uncanny.

At any rate, of particular interest to me are the machines manufactured in Minneapolis. Several walking-tractor companies flourished in this city. One of the pioneers of the walking-tractor industry, the Beeman Garden Tractor Company, was getting things rolling here as far back as 1917. While Mr. E. R. Beeman only controlled the company up until 1925, his tractor continued on well beyond that into the late Thirties. By the end of his tenure, Mr. Beeman had placed over 25,000 of his machines around the world. Consider another pioneer, Harold L. Downing of Minneapolis. Mr. Downing was the father of four production companies, all making garden tractors: the American Farm Machinery Co. (AFM), the Standard Engine Co., the Allied Motors Corporation, and maybe the Walsh Tractor Co. (Mr. Downing may not have been the father of Walsh Tractor, but he was surely the rich uncle). I think of these four companies as a syndicate, and together they churned out machines by the thousands. It is a pretty impressive record considering that AFM was founded with a meager $60,000 worth of stock for capital.

In my mind, there are two major distinctions in these old walking tractors: those which used pre-built engines and those which didn't. My interest runs largely to the latter. All of the syndicate machines used syndicate-built engines. The first syndicate-built machine was a one wheeler called the Kinkade. This machine, and the patent that guarded it, was built in no less than 10 different variations. Syndicate two wheelers included the Walsh (2.5 HP), the Standard (later transformed into the Monarch 3.5 HP), the Viking Twins (the B, F, and CF series, all 5 HP) the Viking single (3.5 HP), the Standard Twin (5 HP), and the Edgeton (est. 1.5 HP). Production of one or another of these machines ran nearly continuously from before 1920 (before the Kinkade was made under the umbrella of the American Farm Machinery Co.) until 1952, when the syndicate companies changed hands and production of most of these machines was discontinued.

Mr. Downing seems to have had an incredible sense of timing. A short history of the syndicate looks like this: In 1920, just one year before a depression began which would put more than 100 companies into receivership (including the Beeman company), AFM appeared and began selling the Kinkade. For reference, in 1921, Deere & Co. sold just 79 tractors, down from over 5,000 the previous year.

In 1924 Standard Engine Co. was rolling out its first experimental machines, the predecessor to the soon-to-be popular Standard. By 1929, Mr. Downing was going for market expansion, and the first two cylinder machine for the syndicate, the Viking Twin, was in development.

In 1934, just as the Great Depression was getting up a head of steam, Mr. Downing produced a restructuring of the syndicate with a new model of tractor, and with this model year the Walsh, the Monarch, and the new Standard Twin were all offered by Standard. Most likely as a cost-saving measure, the Walsh Tractor Company was absorbed into Standard Engine, and the three surviving companies settled down to a new lifestyle. AFM furiously sold the Kinkade in one version or another, and Allied was in a nearly continuous state of change as they reengineered and redeveloped their machines. No less than three major redesigns of the Viking Twin occurred between 1931 and 1937. However, the Allied line seems to have always been the Cadillac (Lexus?) of the syndicate lines. Engineering finesse? Maybe not. Built like a tank? Definitely.

In fact, all of the syndicate machines from this period were very carefully designed; designed to be used, maintained, and repaired. Sure, sometimes they made mistakes, like the 'B' model Viking Twin where you could put it in both forward and reverse at the same time, but reverse was an option after all. A forgivable mistake, and one they cured with a simple reverse lock-out mechanism.

Always the innovator, work was done at the Standard works in 1939 to develop a serious riding attachment for the Standard Twin, and this was placed into the market in 1940 as the Standard Twin Convertible. However, in 1941, events in the Pacific had a significant impact on the syndicate's operations.

The beginning of World War II spelled the end for Allied. All Allied Motors production ceased during the war, and it would never again flourish as it once had. The other syndicate companies had a hard couple of years as well, and at least one Standard Twin rolled out with an interesting mix of Viking and Standard parts in place.

Post-war production saw the entire Standard line and the final pre-war Kinkade design in full production, and for a couple of years things were rosy, but the farming paradigm, indeed the whole American culture was changing rapidly, and the small farm's needs were changing too. The era of the unit-construction walking-tractor was coming to an end. The syndicate made a token struggle with the two-cycle Suburbanite and Edgeton, but the writing was on the wall.

The new breed, the modern Briggs-powered belt-drive light-cultivation machines such as the Bolens Power Ho Deluxe (Model 12BB), had been perfected. Though long in production, by this time these machines were cheaper, easier to make, and could and would dominate the new market. Heavy cultivation ended up going to the riding tractors, such as the small Farmalls. Such was the tale of some of the early walking tractors.

While production estimates vary, my estimates for the 32 year production run, and I stress these are just estimates, are that more than 25,000 Kinkades were produced, more than 30,000 Standards and Monarchs, roughly 12,000 Standard Twins, 5,000 Vikings, and an indeterminate number of Walshes, probably in excess of 10,000 units. Low production compared to, say, the Fordson, whose 1923 production of almost 102,000 units would eclipse the total (estimated) 32 year syndicate output on machine count alone.

Still, everybody needs to collect something. I think I'll stick with the old rusty walk behinds. They're cute. As I told my wife on the way into the bank, we could do a lot worse, especially if I was into something expensive, like le femmes.

(Mr. Bookout and his tolerant wife-and-best-friend are in the process of researching, photographing, and writing a collector's documentary on the Minneapolis manufacturing syndicate formed and run by Harold L. Downing. He requests that anyone willing to share information about one of these companies or their owners, the machines, advertising, operator's manuals, or other pertinent information contact him directly.)


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