Pioneer Tractor Co. Lives and Dies Full of Mysteries
The Setran brothers from rural Douglas, N.D., hauling five wagons full of wheat using their Pioneer 30-60, circa 1915. This stylish tractor had a glassed-in cab, 8-foot-tall drive wheels and could cut a 32-foot swath of grain at one time. Its cooling system had a 27-gallon capacity! (Photo courtesy of Richard Birklid collection.)
People crossing the Mississippi River near Winona, Minn., in 1914 must have been surprised to glance down at the sandbars and spot a “war tank with a powerful gasoline engine and top speed of 10-15 mph,” said George E. West, performing maneuvers in the shallow waters there. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been. The machine in question was a prototype made by the Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co. of Winona, an unusual company that was a leader in the highly-competitive tractor manufacturing world before 1920, and a company that would create a series of mysteries that remain unsolved today.
One mystery is why the Pioneer Tractor Co., which incorporated in Minneapolis in 1909, moved to Winona in early 1910, and reincorporated as Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co. “Since the principals of the company were the same in both cases,” writes C.H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. Normally if tractor companies moved, it was to a new investor’s town.
Regardless, Winona was excited about its new business. The Feb. 19, 1910, headline in the Winona Daily Republican-Herald screamed “Gas Traction Engines! This industry is the manufacture of gas traction engines, the coming machine which is already being used to quite an extent in farm work and in time will very largely take the place of horses.”
As railroad cars packed with materials – especially rolled steel – arrived in Winona in the early part of 1910, the Pioneer factory geared up for an initial production of one Pioneer tractor per week; increasing to two per week by June 1, and by July the same year, one per day. The company did not see selling them as a problem, because, as the newspaper gushed, “The tractor manufactured by this factory is entirely different from any other in the field and claimed to be superior to any in every respect. It is made of steel instead of cast iron, and therefore, durable and light as possible. It will travel anywhere upon a farm field in different kinds and conditions of soil readily and may be used all the year around by the farmer for plowing, seeding, harvesting, threshing and hauling to market. It may be used principally for power or operated for speed.”
From the start, Pioneer developed tractors with two different engine styles and four different tractors of 8, 15, 25 and 40 HP; these horsepower ratings were altered as the tractors were actually built.
The first tractor built was the Pioneer 30, a 30-60 machine with four wheels, using the company’s own horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine, with pistons cast in pairs and a 7-by-8-inch bore and stroke. This 23,000-pound machine was designed to break sod in North Dakota and the heavy wax lands of Texas, and was destined to become the company’s most popular and enduring product. The 30-60, with its 8-foot-high rear drive wheels, was also the object of some of Pioneer’s most interesting and unusual advertising. A 1912 advertisement claimed a silver dollar balanced on edge on the crankcase with the motor running at 550 rpm would not fall over. As proof, the photographer swore before a notary public that nothing hidden held up the coin during the 60-second exposure. The advertisement said, “If it is hard to believe, it is only because you do not know the Pioneer.”
In the spring of 1911, the Daily Republican-Herald newspaper wrote that though this was normally the dull season in the tractor line, the Winona enterprise was working night and day. It had already outgrown its original home and was planning to “... be on the market with a replica of the Pioneer 30 with a rating of 15 to 20 HP, for farms unsuited to the brutish 30s,” the newspaper said. Pioneer tractors had already been shipped across the United
A 1911 Gas Review advertisement said that all the tractors in competition at the annual Winnipeg, Canada, tractor contests took home medals. Then the advertisement says, “We Have No Medal: But we have a tractor with all the virtues and none of the vices common to other makes. If you buy, you will have to pay. Therefore, in justice to yourself, see them all, analyze construction, study material; and we will take our chances on your verdict.”
In 1912, despite declining acreages of virgin land, the company increased the 30-60 in size and produced the Pioneer 45, with a 6-cylinder engine of 7-by-8-inch bore and stroke. This 30,000-pound monster, with its 9-foot-high drive wheels, was probably built by special order after 1914. Philip S. Rose, in his Report on Tractor Companies 1915, wrote, “Up to 1913 the company made money, as they had a good machine of the heavy type. Little doing after the slump in big tractors. They now have small machine.”
One of those first small machines built about this time was the 4-cylinder Pioneer Jr., about which next to nothing is known. In 1916, the company made the 15-30 Pioneer Pony, a three-wheeled machine with a single drive wheel designed to meet the small tractor trade, weighing only 5,500 pounds and selling for $765. It was perhaps inspired by the stunning success in 1914-15 of one of its area competitor companies, Bull Tractor Co., and its Little Bull. After only a year, Pioneer abandoned the Pony for the Pioneer Special, another 15-30, but with four wheels. Its engine was a 4-cylinder, of 5-by-6-inch bore and stroke. It weighed 8,500 pounds and was sold in Canada as the “Winona Special.” It was rated for four plows. This was their fastest-selling tractor in 1918, during which a night crew was added and the work force increased to 160.
In 1919, the Special was abandoned for the Pioneer 18, an 18-36 with the identical 5-by-6-inch bore and stroke engine, which, the company literature proclaimed, “Because of correctness of design, excellence of material and workmanship, perfect lubrication and proper protection of wearing parts, makes certain the elimination of motor trouble and assures continuous, satisfactory service for Pioneer 18 purchasers.” It ran at 750 rpm.
These were heady years for the company. Overseas, Romania, Austria-Hungary and Russia were steadily buying Pioneer tractors. The Pioneer 30 won a first, second and third in three different overseas contests.
After about 1920, little is written about the Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co. in agricultural journals, and advertisements are absent, except for one in 1924. 1920 was about the beginning of the Great Agricultural Depression that destroyed so many tractor companies of the time, and the Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co. was saddled with a couple of drawbacks: First, the size of their large tractors, and second, the prices of their machines. The 30-60, for example, sold for $2,700 in 1911, and five years later almost double, at $4,500. In 1920 many tractors were selling for well under $1,000.
Little is known or heard until 1925, when the company was reincorporated as Pioneer Tractors Inc., with an entirely new slate of company officers. The incorporation papers at the time say the purpose of the company remained the same as earlier, “ ... to manufacture and sell gas tractors and agricultural implements,” but at this time, also “ ... road building and contractors equipment,” as the 30-60 had become popular for working on roads.
During the company’s years in business, Pioneer was a leader in several developments. The most important was enclosing critical working parts. As William Lierboe, president of the First National Bank of Turtle Lake, N.D., wrote: “During the Minnesota State Fair this fall (1910), I had an opportunity to see a number of farm tractors work. I was quite favorably impressed with your engine, the Pioneer tractor, both as to its construction and to its work. It was the only tractor in which the motor and all the drive gears were entirely enclosed in dust-proof cases: This is a very good feature, for there is nothing so hard on the working parts of a traction engine as the dust and grit which gets into them.” Even three years later, the market’s top tractor, the Little Bull, did not enclose its working parts, and was tossed onto the scrap-pile of oblivion because of it.
Pioneer was also a leader in giving ease of access to the engine. Not all early tractors were designed to be worked on, but the Pioneer was. As Farm Implements wrote, “The design of the motor is such that the entire top of the crankcase may be easily removed, giving ready access to all working parts. The motor itself is exceedingly simple.”
Additionally, the Pioneer tractor was a leader in comfort. The tractors came with enclosed cabs, “ ... protecting the operator from sand, dust and inclement weather,” Farm Implements wrote. Modern Gas Tractor of the times added, “ ... a comfortable upholstered seat is provided for (the farmer).”
Pioneer also led in guaranteeing their machines with warranties, a feature that may in fact have led to the company’s downfall. The warranty is vague, stating the machine must “do good work, to be well made, of good materials,” and, “if upon trial, with proper care, the engine fails to work well, the purchaser can get company help.” But “if the engine cannot then be made to work well,” the tractor could be returned for full repayment. It’s possible, but unclear, that many tractors might have been returned to Pioneer under these terms as the Agricultural Depression deepened and farmers did not have the money for payments.
Whatever happened, the company that had probably invented the war tank (the plans appear to have been stolen by the British), ceased operations in 1927. And even today, a number of mysteries about the company remain: How could a company that manufactured tractors as large as elephants in a plant of several hundred thousand square feet with a projected work force of 500 in a small Minnesota town lack a mention in the centennial history of Winona, as well as numerous county histories?
Oddest and most mysterious of all: Why, when Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co.’s first president, C.M. Youmans, died Nov. 24, 1946, was the company not mentioned at all in his obituary or in the lengthy newspaper article about him and his businesses? Even Youmans’ grandson had never heard of the company.
In the end, the parent company that manufactured Pioneer tractors met the fate of nearly 900 other tractor manufacturing companies. It died out, and its wonderful-looking Pioneer tractors were left as orphans.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; firstname.lastname@example.org