The Square Turn Tractor

The one-man, two-way, all-purpose tractor from Nebraska

Square Turn tractor front view

The design of the Square Turn tractor was revolutionary in its time, providing a two-way tractor said to be “better than a team” when it came to working in the field. The Elkhorn museum’s tractor, manufactured in 1918, is an 18-30 with mounted plow.

Loretta Sorensen

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For a farmer in 1914, the claims made about a new tractor must have seemed too good to be true.

Was the Square Turn tractor indeed the closest thing a teamster could find to a well-broke team? Advertisements promoting the machine boasted it was, noting that “the levers are the lines” and “the Square Turn tractor is easier to drive and handle than a one-horse rig.”

The Square Turn was a progressive, unique tractor for its time. Conceived by two Nebraska men, A.T. Kenney and A.J. Colwell, it seemed perfectly designed for farm use. Kenney was a successful farmer and Colwell had 14 years’ experience as superintendent of construction on the C&NW Railroad. Colwell supplied mechanical genius and Kenney provided practical farming experience. The partners formed the Kenney-Colwell Co., Norfolk, Neb., and began taking customer orders in 1914.

“The two inventors worked untiringly in the shop and in the field until they had produced a one-man tractor that would turn short and square, that would get close to the fence corners, that would carry the plows below and in full view of the operator, and that would handle as easily as any team [of horses],” write Nancy Zaruba and Karen Rogat in their booklet, Norfolk’s Very Own Square Turn Tractor.

A new approach

The Square Turn’s transmission featured radical new technology covered by eight patents. “This invention was called ‘the giant grip drive,’ a new type of transmission never before used in any piece of machinery,” the booklet notes. “Its simplicity, flexibility of control and durability, as well as freedom from repair costs, made it the center of interest at eight great national tractor demonstrations.”

The giant grip drive was designed to provide an entirely new device for transmitting power. Kenney and Colwell claimed the new drive did away with the clutch, differential gears, transmission gears and the universal joint common in other tractors. Advertisements promoted the fact that the tractor’s unique design eliminated a number of common problems. It had fewer parts than other tractors, it carried the plow and other tools in full view of the operator, and it worked on hills and low land, where most tractors could not operate.

Kenney and Colwell powered the Square Turn with a 510-cubic-inch Climax 4-cylinder engine that could run on either kerosene or gas and was rated at 35 hp with 18 hp on the drawbar. The machine’s belt pulley could provide power to a threshing machine, sawmill and other farm machinery.

Inventors step aside

Experiencing the financial challenges common to any start-up, Kenney-Colwell was forced out of the tractor business in just two years. The partners sold their patents to the Albaugh-Dover Co., Chicago, in 1916. The Square Turn Tractor Co. was organized in December 1917 with headquarters in Chicago; the manufacturing operation remained in Norfolk.

Over the next four years, approximately $2 million in common stock was sold to 3,500 investors. Plans called for construction of approximately 2,000 tractors per year. Equipped with a 3-bottom gangplow attachment (an Oliver 3-bottom plow was the standard offering), the Square Turn sold for $1,385. Albaugh-Dover also streamlined the 7,800-pound tractor and added a Waukesha engine.

The tractor’s primary selling point remained its unique ability to make a square turn. The grip drive made it possible for one wheel to move forward while the other wheel moved in the opposite direction, effectively turning the tractor in its own length. A unique foot throttle was used to control speed.

“No other farm tractor is so easy and natural to drive as the Square Turn,” advertisements boasted. “Pull left lever to turn left, right lever to turn right and pull both halfway back to stop and all the way to back up. Anyone can learn to drive the Square Turn in ten minutes.”

U.S. involvement in World War I, however, presented challenges the company could not overcome. Federal restrictions on steel and other critical materials hamstrung domestic manufacturing operations during the war. The company was able to produce nothing more than demonstration models, and customers demanded refunds of cash deposits they’d paid.

Competitive pressures and the Agricultural Depression of 1920-21 sounded a death knell for the company. Although Square Turn sold as many as 50 tractors in 1921, the enterprise was never profitable. By the end of that year, Square Turn Tractor Co. had ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy. The Norfolk plant was sold in 1925.

Plenty of power

The Square Turn also had an uncommonly powerful engine for the era. It was much larger than those used in other tractors and cost a great deal more to produce. But customers determined it well worth the cost. “This liberal surplus of power can be drawn on when field conditions are heavy or when there is an overload to pull,” promotional materials noted. “There is never a feeling of the engine laboring or that you are in danger of stalling.”

Because 70 percent of the machine’s weight sat above the drive wheels, the tractor had excellent traction. A farmer could plow right up to a fence, making tight turns previously possible only when farming with horses. The Square Turn was also advertised as having “a real power lift, operated direct from the engine, raising or lowering the plows at a touch of the foot even when the engine is idling.”

The Square Turn’s top speed was 3 miles per hour. When the tractor was moving forward, its drive wheels were directly ahead of the operator. A caster wheel in the rear followed the furrow and assisted in steering. Attention was called to the simplicity of the tractor’s design, which delivered accessibility through removable cylinder heads and hand holes in the lower half of the crankcase, as well as complete enclosure of all parts, offering protection against dust.

The tractor’s spark plugs were water-cooled, with complete water-jacketing around the valves. The oil system consisted of drilled passages in the main castings. The ball bearing mounting of the idler gear and kerosene-burning devices were all noted to “stand out prominently as advanced and exclusive features.”

Home at last

The Square Turn is the only tractor of any significance manufactured in Nebraska. Because of that, Norfolk’s Elkhorn Valley Museum & Research Center made a rare exception to museum policy: When a 1918 Square Turn was offered at a Dowagiac, Mich., auction in 1991, the museum stepped up to the plate and bought the relic for $19,500.

“It’s the only item the museum has ever purchased,” says museum director Ruthie Galitz. “Since it was manufactured here in Norfolk, it seemed to make sense that one of the last models should be housed here.” The tractor’s original owner is believed to have been a Battle Creek, Mich., farmer who built up the pulley wheel with oak to make his threshing machine run faster.

One of three known surviving Square Turns, the tractor made a triumphant return to its home state in an appearance at the Pierce, Neb., threshing bee and LaVitsef Time parade. (It was previously featured at the Nebraska State Fair during the state’s 1985 centennial.)

One rare bird

Few other Square Turn tractors are known to exist. One is part of the collection amassed by the late Carl Mehm­ke. Carl found the 15-30 with 2-bottom plow in Lewistown, Mont., near his museum in Great Falls. “It hadn’t been used for quite a few years when my dad and I found it,” he said in an interview late last year, before his death in March 2009. “It was pretty rusty and it took us a while to free up the motor and restore it.”

Echoing the staff at the Norfolk museum, Carl said the Square Turn draws its share of visitor interest. “It’s probably the oddest tractor I’ve ever come across,” he said. “Next to our 1-cylinder Hart-Parr, the Square Turn is one of the most unusual tractors in our collection.”

In the Norfolk museum, the gigantic tractor occupies a fair-sized room. A video there shows the tractor’s unique features, and points out its groundbreaking achievement, as noted in an ad for the Square Turn: “It’s an outfit that is astonishingly simple and easy to operate – one that will actually finish the job better than you can do it with horses.” FC