SELF STARTING AGAIN
A reprint of Chapter Nine of To Gather Together: CENEX, the
First 50 Years, by Leo N. Rickertsen, copyright 1980 by the Farmers
Union Central Exchange, Inc. Sent to us by Mr. Walter A. Taubeneck,
11801 52nd Drive NE, Marysville, Washington 98271.
For twenty years it had been unchanged. Tractors started with a
crank. Broken arms or wrists made it a worrisome farm operation.
Even experienced farmers could be caught. A moment of inattention,
a split-second of vented anger, a final tired, frustrated attempt
and splintered bones or strained muscles resulted. It was the
hazardous human connection to the mechanical beast that allowed the
farmer to twist life into a valved, pistoned, metallic heart.
It would seem as if, like the horse, the tractor had hidden
emotions that could blow up and take over. In a fit of frenzy, a
team of plow horses might bolt and carry farmer and plow from fence
line to fence line. From the horse, this sudden change in
personality was anticipated and visible. From the tractor, such
irritable leanings were mystifying and impossible to pierce. But
suddenly and without warning, it would happen.
Ox-strong individuals could manage to turn the crank all the way
through the circle and move without interruption into a second,
third and even fourth revolution. These individuals enjoyed the
rare experience of starting a tractor quickly. There were others,
younger, lighter, less experienced, who wore themselves out trying
to get a stiff engine started one crank at a time.
This unaltered ritual lulled the farmer, experienced or not,
into an inevitable mistake. An aggressive pull would carry his
weight too far. For a precarious instant he could be leaning on the
crank at the bottom of the cycle. At that instant, the crank would
remain engaged in its socket. Unexpectedly the tractor would cough
on its own. Crank would turn viciously on cranker. Forearms and
wrists would catch in the spinning handle and give way. The
inevitable had happened. And, standing at the business end of a
hand crank with a son’s arm in a cast, many a farmer must have
figured there had to be a better way to get the tractor going.
The catch word was parity. On a par with. Farmers realized that
there had been no parity between automotive improvements and farm
tractor improvements. While cars were continually becoming faster,
more reliable, quieter, easier starting, the tractor lagged behind
as a baffling beast that, in many ways, was unable to handle the
jobs it was supposed to. CENEX, rapidly becoming an extremely
important cooperative resource, responded.
For cooperative farmers, the demands were an echo; quality at a
savings in cost. If it could be done with oil, why not with
machinery? Ralph Ingerson spent seven months investigating in the
possibilities of a cooperatively manufactured tractor. Pushed by
farmers, the tri-elements of cooperation were focused on a tractor
designed to work effectively in the field, built economically to be
sold for a savings, and created by farmers for farmers in a
brotherhood of mutual interest. Dent Parrett, an engineer of
recognized ability in the automotive industry, was hired on as a
designer, builder and tester. Tens of thousands of cooperators
looked over his shoulder.
By the summer of 1935, one group in particular stepped forward.
On July 22, National Cooperatives Incorporated held its regular
meeting in Superior, Wisconsin. Principal discussions revolved
around the feasibility of National Co-ops handling farm machinery
for its members. Although the meeting was regular, the location was
not. Discussion took place in the open air of a field, where farmer
cooperators could take a hard look at the all new CO-OP
It was beautiful to those who laid eyes on it in these, and many
other, unveilings. The fire engine red lent a sporting contrast to
the dark rubber tires, a significant change from all other lug
wheeled tractors. Headlights and battery were standard
Beneath the hood was a six-cylinder, high compression engine on
a par with the advanced principles of automobile power plants. The
demonstrator spent a few minutes making clear these already visible
differences to his audience. All waited patiently, fully aware that
beauty on the outside could hide a beast within. The demonstrator
settled into the seat. A cranking noise began and, lo and behold,
the CO-OP Tractor was running. The day of the self-starting tractor
had arrived. And with that, the farmer-tiring hand crank became a
useless appendage, nothing more than an alternative starting
mechanism. This tractor was more car than tractor. But could it
challenge a field? Farmers, accustomed to a grinding, unvarying two
or three miles per hour, watched as the CO-OP Tractor went through
five forward gears from 1 to 35 m.p.h. It had the low-end power to
pull a plow through mud, the wheel design to do it on slippery
grades or rain-soaked clay, and, at the top end, to speed through
lighter work effortlessly. A technological leap had been made. The
cooperative decision rapidly followed. CENEX would have a Farm
Machinery Department headed by Ralph Ingerson. National
Cooperatives and CENEX would share in the responsibility and
distribution of the CO-OP Tractor.
As had happened during the early cooperative efforts in oil, the
skeptical voice of competition was quick to denounce the success of
the new tractor. Old line tractor makers pointed with authority and
scoffed, ‘This newfangled machine uses a high compression
Chrysler motor. Ridiculous. It burns high test gasoline. Absurd.
The fuel bill alone will break the back of the farmer. Distillate
is the only affordable fuel. It starts itself. Unnecessary. One
more attachment to fail. And a tractor that doesn’t run means a
farm that doesn’t yield. And rubber wheels? Inadequate. Only
steel lugs can handle a field. Why do you think we build roads for
cars? Rubber wheels will be torn to shreds in field work. The CO-OP
Tractor has designed-in failure.’
Once they had loudly vented their criticism at the folly, they
put their energies to catching up. The CO-OP Tractor had suddenly
outdated all existing designs. Private manufacturers had once again
been outdone by a cooperative effort.
CENEX fieldmen began stumping the four states with a CO-OP
Tractor in tow. During September and October, 1935, farmers were
shown this new development in farm machinery. As one story goes, in
a promotion a CO-OP Tractor was driven from Laurel to Billings,
Montana. The tractor driver was pulled over and issued a speeding
ticket by the highway patrol. Public relations, in those days,
seemed to include anything that would bring attention to the CO-OP
Through other cooperatives, demonstrations were taking place in
other states as well; Kansas, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to
mention a few. The ‘CO-OP’ Tractor name was expanding and
gaining visibility through this significant change. In time for the
1936 farming season, sale of the CO-OP Tractor began, and not
always for money. One day Ralph Rice (an early CENEX fieldman) took
several hundred tons of hay as full payment for a CO-OP Tractor. It
wasn’t such a bad idea since the government was then
encouraging a feed and hay rehabilitation program for farms, and
CENEX was able to convert hay to cash.
Not only was cash in short supply for farmers, there was also a
period when the whole idea of a cooperatively produced tractor was
questionable. Originally the tractor had been manufactured by a
privately owned corporation in Battle Creek, Michigan. Cooperative
wholesalers purchased the tractors on a contract basis. But the
arrangement became unworkable to both CENEX and National
Cooperatives and the contract was canceled. Co-ops had an idea and
a prototype and no place to manufacture it. So, cooperative leaders
made a proposal to the Farm Security Administration. The FSA was
involved with the rehabilitation of people displaced by the
depression. By setting up projects for people who had been thrown
out of jobs, the Administration was allowing them work, pay and
survival. Cooperatives suggested that the FSA, ‘Make available
a factory, equipment and initial finances so that COOP Tractors can
be manufactured at Arthurdale, West Virginia. People out of work
would have jobs and cooperative farmers would get better, cheaper
It seemed like a logical, relevant, useful idea. The FSA agreed,
and $325,000 was provided to get the project off the ground.
Hundreds of West Virginia families were taken from poverty to
provision. CO-OP Tractors became available to farmers. Perhaps most
significant of all, the new tractor gave other manufacturers the
incentive to make improvements of their own. Farmers became the
beneficiaries of this new interest in tractor technology.
Cooperation paid extra dividends to its supporters.
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