Motor cultivator offered alternative to tractors … just not a very good one
Sometime ago, I received in the mail a copy of an old photograph of a young man cultivating corn, using an unusual, steel-wheeled tractor. Helen Gillis of Scenery Hill, Pa., discovered the original photo in the attic of her farmhouse. Helen's husband, Lindsey, believes the picture was taken in Burlington, Iowa, about 1920 or '21, and that the man driving the tractor is his uncle, Harry Cleaver. Lindsey wondered if I could identify the make of tractor that Uncle Harry was operating.
The tractor in the photo isn't really a tractor at all, but a motor cultivator made by the Bailor Plow Manufacturing Co. The first motor cultivators appeared in the mid-teens and, by the time of the Great Depression, most had disappeared.
Tractor builders of the day believed they could wean the farmer from his horses by developing light, engine-driven machines that could take over the duties of planting and cultivating row crops, jobs that were impossible with the heavy, awkward tractors then in use.
Motor cultivators never caught on, mostly because of their expense. The average price of a motor cultivator in 1920 was more than $500, a large expenditure for a machine that would be used only during the short cultivating season. In addition, many motor cultivators were poorly designed, suffered from mechanical problems and upset easily on hilly ground. The machines were difficult and tiring to operate, requiring both hands to steer while the feet were used to control the shovel gangs for close cultivation.
One of the firms that tried to cash in on the motor cultivator craze was the Bailor Plow Manufacturing Co. of Atchison, Kan. Little information on the company is available. A 1916 history of Atchison County tells us that the Bailor Plow Co. was started in 1910 to manufacture a 2-row cultivator invented by S.E. Bailor. Mr. Bailor, then of Beatrice, Neb., had developed a 2-row cultivator, horse-drawn, of course, in about 1890. A wealthy Tarkio, Mo., farmer named David Rankin bought 50 of Bailor's cultivators in 1905, and put them to work on his 25,000-acre farm. Rankin liked the cultivators and convinced Bailor to build a manufacturing plant in Tarkio.
Five years later, the Atchison (Kan.) Commercial Club was casting about for profitable businesses to augment the local economy. Somehow, these community boosters convinced Mr. Bailor to relocate his operation to Atchison. The relocated firm sold just 100 Bailor cultivators in the first year of operation, but by 1915, things were looking up. That year, Bailor sold $250,000 worth of machinery from its 25,000-square foot facility. The firm paid its 40 employees more than $50,000 per annum, a fact proudly pointed out in the 1916 History of Atchison County.
For a while at least, Bailor cultivators were sold by the Oliver Chilled Plow Works of South Bend, Ind. A 1916 Oliver catalog lists Bailor 1- and 2-row cultivators, but they are not listed in a 1925 catalog.
In 1919, Bailor introduced a 2-row motor cultivator, closely resembling later tricycle tractors, with two large, wide-set driving wheels in the rear, a front-mounted engine and a single front steering wheel. The machine was powered by a LeRoi 4-cylinder side-valve engine that developed 15 hp. Drive was through a 2-speed and one reverse gear box, to a cross shaft right in front of the operator. A roller chain from each end of this cross shaft drove a short final drive shaft on each side. From the final drive shafts, a roller chain drove a large sprocket inside each rear wheel. All these chains and sprockets, which appear to have almost surrounded the operator, were open and unshielded. Individual rear brakes assisted in making short turns at the ends of rows.
A conventional 2-row cultivator was mounted underneath the high frame and between the rear wheels. Each rear wheel was attached to the end of the axle frame by a swivel joint similar to the king pin on a conventional front steering axle. There was also a universal joint in the center of each final drive shaft. This allowed the rear wheels to be steered by a pair of foot pedals under the operator's seat. This feature was supposed to aid close cultivation, although it couldn't have been an easy task to use the foot pedals to steer the rear wheels against the torque from the drive chains.
In 1920, the 2-row machine was modified to give the front end more flotation and improve steering by the addition of a second front wheel. Designated as the Bailor Model A, this is the same model shown in Mr. Cleaver's photo where the two close-set front wheels can be seen.
Bailor also made a narrower, single-row machine called the "Standard," initially powered by a Cushman 2-cylinder engine and with two wider-set front wheels to straddle the row. Later, the Standard was given the same LeRoi engine as the Model A.
When introduced in 1919, the 2-row model cost $850, while the 1-row went for $675, although those prices were down to $500 and $400 by 1923. Besides various cultivating attachments, a Black Hawk corn, cotton or bean planter (made by the Sechler Implement & Carriage Co.) was available.
Bailor motor cultivators were equipped with a rear hitch. Some advertising claimed they could be used to pull light horse-drawn implements, such as harrows, mowers or binders, although they weren't recommended for plowing. Bailor claimed that the 2-row Model A could replace four horses on the average farm.
It's unknown how many Bailor motor cultivators were manufactured, but there probably weren't very many. At least a few were shipped overseas; there's a 1923 model in the Tractor Museum of Western Australia located at Whiteman Park in Whiteman, Western Australia. Bailor 1- and 2-row motor cultivators were still listed in a 1930 Buyers Guide put out by Farm Implement News, but they disappeared soon after.
Lindsey Gillis and his family have accumulated a large collection of antique tractors and farm equipment, which they display every August at the National Pike Steam, Gas & Horse Association Show near Brownsville, Pa. Lindsey helped start the show back in 1980, and their annual shows at the club grounds along U.S. Route 40, east of Washington, Pa., are always full of interesting exhibits.
I'll bet Lindsey would love to have his Uncle Harry's Bailor motor cultivator to exhibit.
- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at: email@example.com