A Brief History of the Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Company

| March/April 1997

  • Ben and Myrtle Huntley
    Ben and Myrtle Huntley, a well-known photographer and model, were hired by the Pioneer Tractor Company to make a motion picture in Canada of their Pioneer tractor, probably to be used for sales.
  • Myrtle Huntley

  • Catalogue Illustration
    Also from the Huntley Collection at the Winona County Historical Society came this picture, which appears to be a catalogue illustration.
  • Unidentified photo
    Another unidentified photo from the Winona County Historical Society.
  • Pioneer Manufacturing Company plant
    Pioneer Manufacturing Company plant at far right, Empire Lumber Co. in background. This photo, taken around 1914, shows the plant at Front and Carimona Streets in Winona, when E. M. Wheelock was vice president. The picture is used courtesy of Joe Brosig.

  • Ben and Myrtle Huntley
  • Myrtle Huntley
  • Catalogue Illustration
  • Unidentified photo
  • Pioneer Manufacturing Company plant

Reprinted with permission from Winona Post and Shopper, Winona, Minnesota. The article first appeared there in September 1995, and was sent to us by Ron Olson ,4179 Thornhill Lane, Vadnais Heights, Minnesota 55127. Photos courtesy of the Winona County (Minnesota) Historical Society's Huntley Collection.

At the turn of the century, as the great forests of West Central Wisconsin were cut down, came the decline of the great lumber mills along the upper Mississippi. Winona, having four large sawmill operations, was especially hit by not having logs coming into the city. With a 1910 population of 20,000 and more banking done than in any other city of the same size, the desire for new industry was great.

Pioneer Tractor Company had just incorporated in Minneapolis in April, 1909. The company's prototype tractors were an instant success but they needed larger manufacturing facilities. Winona's wealthy financiers provided the opportunity the startup tractor company required and in March of 1910, the Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Company was incorporated in Winona.

The new Winona tractor company initially leased the Sash and Door Factory building from the Empire Lumber Company located at the S.E. corner of Front and Carimona. This building (presently occupied by Winona Dray Line) is all that remains of the tractor company that expanded with buildings extending two blocks east and one block north toward the river.

Production of the Pioneer tractor began in the summer of 1910 as partially assembled tractors were brought to Winona. As new equipment, supplies and some skilled machinists were relocated in Winona the company was producing about two tractors per week at the end of 1910.

The 'Pioneer 30,' a 30 drawbar and 60 belt (30-60) horsepower was the first tractor model Pioneer produced. This tractor was unusual in that it boasted a fully enclosed cab. The Pioneer 30 was 21 feet long, 10 feet wide, 11 feet high and weighed 23,000 pounds. The big tractor also carried a big price tag, $3,000. The Pioneer 30 featured a four cylinder horizontally opposed engine with a fully enclosed drive train with a three-speed transmission. Lighter weight structural steel was used where possible instead of cast iron.

A Pioneer sales advertisement claimed 'our one hobby has been to rank in the Tractor World as does the Packard or Marion in the Auto World.' The Pioneer 30 also claimed to 'absolutely have lowered the world's record for fuel economy and maximum efficiency' at the 1912 Montreal trials.

To proclaim how vibration free the engine was, company ads had a photographer's certified statement showing a sixty second time exposure photo of a tractor running at 550-rpm with a dollar coin balanced on the crankshaft bearing.

Production continued to increase over the next couple years, peaking around 1913. The factory was running seven days a week and 24 hours per day with over 120 employees.

Numerous Pioneer tractors found their way into Canada as Winonans set up land companies buying blocks of the Canadian plains of Saskatchewan, taking tractors with them. These tractors were primarily suited for breaking land and hauling several wagons on the prairies of the great plains of the U.S. and Canada but were too cumbersome for most of the hills around Winona.

Although Pioneer had a branch office in Regina, Saskatchewan, a manufacturing plant (Pioneer Tractor Company, Limited) was set up in Calgary, Alberta, to provide tractors for the Canadian market. Canadian custom duties were stiff and this move would considerably reduce the price to Canadians. Information on this Canadian branch is lacking.

As the prairies came under the plow, the need for the large prairie tractor started to decline. The trend was toward the smaller, more maneuverable tractors aimed at replacing the horse. Although a 1912 Pioneer produced a low quantity of gigantic 45-90 tractors having a six cylinder engine with nine feet tall drive wheels, most of the subsequent development efforts were toward the smaller tractors.

In late 1912 the Pioneer Junior (a 20-40 tractor) came out. This tractor looked similar to a huge race car of the time and came fully spring mounted. In . 1913, Pioneer patented and sold many dump wagons for use with the tractors making road construction 'trains.' A few years later in 1916 the Pioneer Pony came out. The Pony had only one drive wheel in the back and carried a low price tag of $765. The Pony was rated at 15-30 horsepower.

In 1917, the Pioneer Special was introduced. This tractor soon became the main tractor sold through the company as the large prairie tractor demand continued to decline. The Special was also rated at 15-30 horsepower.

The Great War was having an impact on the Winona Company as it was for most industrial manufacturing companies. To aid the war effort the Pioneer Tractor Company led by E. M. Whee-lock, designed a prototype 'Spider' tank for use on the European battlefields. This tank consisted of a three-man armor clad box surrounded by a six inch pipe structure on which the track would run. The concept allowed the pipes to be replaced if hit by enemy artillery. The tank prototype was not produced; however, an attempt was made to claim a prize put up by the English government for the first successful tank design.

After the war ended industry flourished as the factories retooled from wartime to peacetime. By 1919 there were over 180 tractor manufacturers. Pioneer introduced the streamlined 18-36 in about 1919. This tractor had the same four cylinder horizontally opposed crossmounted engine design of earlier models.

Unfortunately for Pioneer, the country was going through a post-war depression in 1921. This plus the competition from Henry Ford's cheaply priced, assembly line built Fordson tractor made tractor sales very difficult. Fordson had over 50% of the tractor market in the early 1920s.

The Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Company continued to produce the smaller 18-36 and the big Pioneer 30 models through 1927 when the Winona plant closed. In 1925, the company was reorganized as Pioneer Tractors, Inc.

There is little doubt the Pioneer 30 was the best tractor of its time; this tractor was produced with very few design changes from 1909 through 1927. Although designed primarily as a farm tractor it found a niche being used for hauling loads and road construction. While most of the early tractors had forward speeds around two or three miles per hour, the Pioneer 30 featured a speed of over six miles per hour. This, plus the enclosed cab proved very beneficial for roadwork. A Pioneer 30 was used for road construction in East Burns Valley, and then sold to farmers in the Witoka area who used it until it was scrapped in 1950.

Only about a dozen Pioneer tractors remain today. Many are in Canada and most are not running. One of the featured events of the Winona County Historical Society's Victorian Fair is a running 1910 Pioneer 30 owned by Irvin King of Artesian, South Dakota.

Mr. King has been available to answer questions about his tractor and provide talks and starting demonstrations throughout the fair. A list of 150+ Winona employees of the Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Company has been compiled and was displayed at the Fair. Anyone with additional information is requested to contact the Winona County Historical Society.


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