The True Universal Tractors: Stillwater Universal and Moline Universal

While many tractors claimed to do it all, only two lived up to the "universal" billing

A front-side view of a Universal tractor.

A front-side view of a Universal tractor.

Bill Vossler

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For early manufacturers eyeing the market, it didn’t take long to figure out that a multi-tasking tractor had enormous commercial potential.

Delivering the goods, however, was another matter. Many tractors over the years have carried the name “Universal,” but only two came close to the ideal.

The Universal of Stillwater, Minn., and the Moline Universal, both launched before 1920, were designed and used for a broad variety of farm chores at a time when the definition of the word tractor was still evolving. “The Universal is well-suited to the running of the clover huller, corn shredder, corn sheller, feed grinder and many other various uses,” notes a booklet published in 1917 by the Universal Tractor Co., Stillwater, Minn., “as well as in pulling binders, manure spreaders and hauling heavily loaded wagons and in fact for all general purposes on the farm.”

The early 4-wheel Universal

The first mention of the early 4-wheel Universal came in 1909 from the Universal Tractor Co. “offering a tractor by year’s end,” built in Crookston, Minn., but supported by Stillwater-based capital, according to R.B. Gray in The Agricultural Tractor 1855-1950. That machine, which resembled a smaller version of the Pioneer tractor built in Winona, Minn., had a 2-cylinder opposed engine with a 7-1/2- by 8-inch bore and stroke and was capable of producing 18 hp.

Even before it was finished, the tractor drew industry interest. “The engine is not completed yet,” noted an account in Power Farming, “and the test Saturday was made with two ordinary gang plows, and the engine showed all kinds of power. The test was made on Timothy sod that had not been plowed for six years and was very tough. The plowing was done 6 inches deep and was an excellent job.” The writer credits A.O. Espe with engine design, and reports that manufacturing took place at the Espe foundry in Crookston.

The landscape changed quickly for the Minnesota-type Universal. In May 1910, Gas Engine magazine (unconnected to Farm Collector’s sister publication of the same name) announced, “The property of the Universal Tractor Co. has been taken over by the Northwest Thresher Co., Stillwater, which will continue to manufacture the tractors and place them on the market.”

In 1911, Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. started selling the Universal as the “Minneapolis Universal Farm Motor.” That company’s 1914 catalog shows the tractor as a beefed-up 20 hp machine; 1915 was the last year the company sold the Universal.

Meanwhile, in about 1911, the Ski­bo tractor was launched and sold by Union Iron Works, Minneapolis. The Skibo – simply a renamed Universal – was dubbed an 18-25 and sold for $1,600 ($36,500 in today’s terms). Although all other Universal engines were of the same size (7-1/2- by 8-inch bore and stroke), Union listed its Skibo as a 7-1/2-inch bore and stroke tractor, a noteworthy distinction.

Rumely gets involved

A year later, in 1912, Rumely Products Co., LaPorte, Ind., bought the rights to the tractor (but not to the company producing it) and partnered with Northwest Thresher to enter the tractor sales business in a big way. From a report in Gas Engine: “The company announces it will hereafter sell in all its branches in the U.S. and Canada the GasPull tractor, which is the new name given by this firm to the Universal tractor. The Northwest people will still manufacture the engine and the arrangement is only a selling one, but the extensive (Rumely) selling organization expects to provide a greater outlet for the output of the Stillwater plants than before.”

A report in the September 1912 issue of American Thresherman took note. “This was a very successful small tractor which has been on the market for several years under the name Universal,” the article comments. “Rumely Products Co. is preparing to sell a large number in other countries next year. The Northwest Thresher Co. continues to do the manufacturing. The name of the tractor has been changed to GasPull, which is considered more distinctive and which fits well with the names OilPull and TigerPull which have been given to other Rumely gas tractors.” In 1913 the GasPull was re-rated a 15-30; it remained in production until 1917.

Logically, as C.H. Wendel writes in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, it would seem that “when Rumely of LaPorte took over Universal of Stillwater, the other builders lost their license to build Universal tractors.” However, the agreement didn’t appear to affect Union Iron Works, as that company continued to market Universals as late as December 1913, when Gas Review magazine ran a Union Iron Works ad selling the Universal farm tractor. Perhaps extenuating circumstances (such as unsold stock or Union’s apparently smaller engine) allowed the company to continue sale of the Universal.

Universal similarities

The Universal was said to be able to pull up to six 14-inch stubble plows and handle a 32-inch separator. Ads boasted of the tractor’s light weight: “(The Universal) can be run over soft ground and will not pack it.” All advertised Universal models featured drive wheels measuring 61 inches in diameter by 20 inches wide, a 50-gallon fuel tank and steering “of the automobile type, quick action and absolutely positive, requiring very little attention from the operator.” Operating speeds were the same on all Universals: plowing speeds (via idler gears) of 2 and 2-3/4 mph and road speeds of 2-1/2 and 3-1/2 mph.

Horsepower of the various Universal tractors has variously been described as 15-30, 18-35 and 20-40, depending on who was selling the tractors, though there is little indication (other than with the Union tractor) that the engines varied.

When M. Rumely Co., LaPorte, Ind., reorganized in 1915 into Advance-Rumely Co., Rumely Products Co. (a company-owned subsidiary) apparently continued to sell the GasPull until 1917. After that, it appears that Universal Tractor Co., Stillwater, regained rights to the Universal tractor, as in 1917 that company resumed sale of the tractor. In a 1917 booklet titled The Universal Tractor Company, Stillwater, Minnesota, an unidentified writer notes that, “the merits of the Universal, as a general purpose farm tractor, have been so thoroughly demonstrated that it became necessary to secure more capital and greater manufacturing facilities.” It remains unclear when this type of Universal tractor went the way of other orphan tractors.

The 2-wheel Universal tractor

The 2-wheel Universal tractor story begins with the Universal Tractor Mfg. Co., Columbus, Ohio, which sold a 10 hp cultivator outfit for $385 in 1914 ($8,300 in today’s terms). The cultivator was built at Ohio Carriage Mfg. in Columbus; its Reliable engine was built at Portsmouth, Ohio.

Moline (Ill.) Plow Co. bought the company in November 1915 and continued production of the 2-cylinder model for the next two years. That model was “one of the earliest practical approaches to a general purpose-type tractor,” Gray says.

The early Moline Universal, a 2-wheel tractor, weighed 2,800 pounds and was rated as a 5-10 or 6-12. It sold for $700 in 1916 ($13,900 in today’s terms). Because the tractor had no seat for the operator, the buyer was also compelled to purchase a 2-wheel truck (or cart) for an additional $35 to attach to the driving wheels. The 2-wheel Universal was intended for use with a mowing machine, hay rake, harrow or cultivator. Other manufacturers’ implements could also be adjusted to fit the Moline Universal.

In The American Farm Tractor, author Randy Leffingwell writes that old-time farmers remember flipping a coin the first day the Universal tractor was taken to the farm. The loser drove the horses; the winner got the Universal. But perspectives changed after just a day’s use. “With its engine placed so high, a tight turn on even a slight hill invited frightening sensations,” Leffingwell notes. The tractor proved so difficult to drive that, on the second day, the coin-flip loser drove the Universal and the winner got the horses.

The 4-cylinder, 2-wheel Moline Universal Model D was introduced in 1917, and was “about the first tractor to make use of the storage battery for ignition, starting and lighting,” Gray says. It continued with the front two wheels as drivers, with the rear supported on two wheels on pulled machinery, at 3/4 to 3-1/2 mph. Tellingly, factory-added concrete ballast was added inside the drive wheels, preventing tips by lowering the center of gravity.

By 1920 the Universal was priced at $1,325 ($14,300 in today’s terms). Competitive pressures drove tractor prices down in the early 1920s, and in 1922, that price was slashed to $650. The Moline Universal held on for another two years before production ended in 1925.

Several companies manufactured their own Universal tractors over the years, but met with only limited success. Universal tractor companies were organized in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Indianapolis, but nothing else is known about the companies or their tractors. Newcastle, Ind., was home to the Universal Tractor Mfg. Co., which went into receivership in 1913. Universal Tractors Ltd., Bartonville, Ontario, Canada, built the Universal garden tractor in 1947. Most notable in the bunch is the Minneapolis-Moline Universal line produced in the 1930s. Only the two early Universals hold claim to the title of the true universal tractor. FC