Tractor Jacks: Small but Mighty Mechanical Lifting Devices

When it came to lifting tractors and equipment, early mechanical lifting devices eased heavy loads.

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Above: An Oliver wood jack. Note the wood frame (which acts as the fulcrum), the notched lifting arm, the small wheel at the front (used for positioning) and the lever at the rear used to raise the implement.

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Farmers had to have 'em - tractor jacks, that is - for their early cultivating tractors. Otherwise, they could not raise the tractor's rear wheels to adjust the width for cultivating, plowing or other tasks.

In the 1930s, when tractor companies began to produce cultivating tractors, most needed the rear axle to be raised to move the wheel in or out, depending on the operation. Unfortunately, tractor manufacturers did not make mechanical lifting devices for raising the tractors. What to do?

Whoa. We're getting ahead of ourselves. Ever since man invented the wheel, he's needed a lifting device to raise the unit to which the wheel was attached. First he used manpower - his buddies - to lift the cart or wagon so he could slide the wheel off, grease the axle and put the wheel back on.

This awkward arrangement required the labor of several men. After much frustration, an improvement was devised: a level and fulcrum. This is nothing more than a long pole and a shorter pole or log (or some other object) to pry against. To lift, the long pole is positioned under the outside portion of the axle near the wheel. Then the long pole was placed over the shorter post. When the long pole was pushed downward over the post, the axle was raised high enough to remove the wheel. The lever and fulcrum served man for many years, even through the great westward migrations.

The lever and fulcrum principle is exactly the principle used to produce mechanical lifting jacks. Early wood jacks were nothing more than a frame (fulcrum) with a notched lifting arm inside the frame and a lever for raising the arm. The jack was set in the "down" position, slid under the axle to the notch that most nearly mated with the axle and then the handle was depressed until the axle was raised high enough for the wheel to be off the ground. Farmers used this simple jack to raise the axle of a wagon or cart high enough to remove the wheel for repair or lubrication.

Many carpenters and planing mills began to fabricate buggy and wagon jacks for commercial distribution. There were as many designs as there were manufacturers. For instance, Oliver Mfg. Co., Chicago, produced a widely marketed wood jack that was a two-piece frame with a lifting arm, lever handle and small wheel at the front to enhance positioning of the jack. Some wood jacks had a metal facing attached to the notched arm to provide a more durable surface, promoting longer life.

With the advent of heavy farm wagons, grain separators and steam traction engines, the need for a heavier jack became evident. Necessity being the mother of invention, the steel jack was born. These heavy-duty lifting devices were made of cast steel. Most had a rather large foot for balance, a steel frame to contain the lifting arm, a lever for lifting and a locking mechanism to hold the unit while lifting. Many of the lifting arms had a rather large knobbed head at the top, one lifting foot at the bottom of the arm and perhaps another lifting foot somewhere along the ventricle portion of the lifting arm. Lifting arms on these metal jacks had either 1/2-inch or 1-inch notches cast all along the rear side. These notches fit the locking mechanism and provided adequate lifting height. When in use to lift a tractor, the head of the jack was slid under the axle for lifting. When in use for a separator, which was much lower to the ground, the lifting foot was slid under the axle.

Levers on those metal jacks were made of wood and metal. On those made of metal, to get enough handle for leverage the handle usually was curved into what was referred to as a "rat tail" shape. This provided a longer handle for a longer lever. For heavier jacks, a longer lever was needed. In that case, rather than a metal lever, a socket was provided to accept a wood handle. Metal jacks came in a wide range of sizes, from the small screw jack for automotive use to heavy railroad jacks.

Since tractor manufacturers did not provide jacks, other manufacturers did, such as the Avery Tractor Co., the Buda Engine Co., the Galion Iron Works, Elward, Barrett, Huber, Malleable Iron, Barth and more. All manufactured a satisfactory jack that farmers could use for many purposes around the farm besides lifting the rear wheels of their tractors (now to adjust the width rather than to lube the axle). They were used to lift portable hog shelters, brooder coops, small buildings and anything needing a boost.

As with the wood jack, the metal mechanical jack has become a piece of agricultural history. It was replaced by the hydraulic jack, which could lift more, took up less space and was safer to use. But tractor jacks do not seem to have become a passion of collectors. You will find one or two of them in various museums, or kept around as single pieces of memorabilia, but serious collectors are few and far between.

James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. E-mail him at Jboblenz@aol.com.