Convincing Horse Farmers to Switch to Power Farming

Horse farmers were reluctant to make the switch to power farming, but tractor manufacturers had some tricks to convince them

Right front view of the LaCrosse Model M owned by Dwight Shellabarger

Right front view of the LaCrosse Model M owned by Dwight Shellabarger, and exhibited at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. The control cables pass through the horizontal red tubes at the top of the tractor and then go around the pulleys on the upright post, after which they are attached to the control levers.

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At the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, a few years ago, the featured tractor was a LaCrosse Model M, a spindly little machine controlled by a pair of leather reins, just like you'd use on a team of horses. Several tractor builders tried this novel method of control, one as late as the 1940s! 

By the end of 1919, there were close to a quarter million tractors on American farms, but there were also more than 20 million horses and mules. Most farmers acknowledged the advantages of power farming, but to many, the thought of doing entirely without horses was unacceptable, like the man who declared in 1940 that "No tractor would ever run in my cornfield!" And we've all heard a story about the old horse farmer who loudly kept yelling "Whoa!" as his new tractor tore through the fence and ran into a creek.

There were thousands of die-hard horse farmers, and tractor manufacturers were desperate to sell them on power farming. One of the more interesting gimmicks was to make the tractor seem as much like a horse as possible. Several machines were built that could be controlled from a horse-drawn implement by using leather reins, or lines. This meant that the horse farmer didn't need to learn new ways of driving his "iron horse."

Of course, even with a line drive machine, the farmer still had to figure out how to get the engine started, as well as how to fix the thing when it broke down, which it inevitably did. The sales pitches never mentioned those drawbacks.

The Detroit Tractor Company of Lafayette, Ind., sold a few line controlled machines in 1914-15 that were powered by a four-cylinder Waukesha engine. The company's assets were acquired in 1915 by the Line Drive Tractor Company, Milwaukee, Wis.

The 1917 Line Drive tractor was rated at 15 hp on the drawbar and 25 hp on the belt. Weighing 2,500 pounds and powered by a four-cylinder Waukesha engine (4 1/2" bore and 5 3/4" stroke), the machine was advertised as being capable of pulling three 14-foot plows, or a 32-foot separator. Started forward, stopped, backed up, or turned right or left with a pair of lines, only a few of the tractors were sold at a price of $1,185. In late 1917, the company was taken over by the Automotive Corporation of Fort Wayne, Ind.

The Automotive Corporation brought out their 12-24 hp in 1919. This tractor, priced at $1,450, weighed 3,200 pounds and was supposed to pull two 14-foot plows. Powered by a 3-3/4" x 5-1/8" four-cylinder Hercules engine, the machine was controlled by three lines instead of the usual pair. Two were for starting, stopping and steering, while the third was used to shift gears. An advertising picture of the time shows an Automotive tractor hitched to a high-wheeled box wagon, on top of which is mounted three spring wagon seats, one behind the other, making a six-passenger vehicle. The driver is dressed in work clothes, and wears a soft, flat cap. The five passengers, wearing suits and hats and proud smiles, are undoubtedly officers of the Automotive Corporation, out for a spin behind their new tractor.

In 1929, the Automotive Corporation moved to Toledo, Ohio, and redesigned their tractor, increasing the weight slightly, while using a larger Hercules engine. In about two years, the company was out of the tractor business.

Based in LaCrosse, Wis., the LaCrosse Tractor Company built the Happy Farmer tractor for several years, and then introduced the 7-12 Model M in 1920. Powered by a LaCrosse two-cylinder engine (4" bore and 6" stroke), the M was rated to pull one 14-foot plow. The machine was driven from the trailed implement and controlled by two reins. Snap both lines and the tractor moved forward; pull back on either line to turn; pull back on both lines to stop; and pull back even further to reverse. The Model M cost about $750, but it seems not many were sold, since they are very scarce today. In 1922 the Oshkosh Tractor Company announced it had bought the LaCrosse firm, but then backed out of the deal. Nothing more was heard of LaCrosse tractors.

Last month I mentioned the Samson Iron Horse that was built by General Motors in Janesville, Wis. The Iron Horse was meant to be controlled with a pair of reins by a driver perched on the trailed implement. I'll be writing about the ill-fated Iron Horse in a future column.

Finally, long after demand for such a machine would seem to have disappeared, the Bonham brothers of Salt Lake City designed and built a line drive tractor. Bond and Bert Bonham decided in 1937 that a small tractor was needed to replace the remaining horses on the small farms and ranches of the West. The prototype is shown in a 1937 Popular Mechanics article, and consisted of a small Allis-Chalmers four-cylinder engine driving all four wheels through roller chains.

Production models used the A-C Model B gas tank, hood and grill, definitely giving the machine an A-C appearance. In fact, the example in the Tired Iron Museum at Cuylerville, N.Y., is painted A-C orange with A-C decals, although the original paint was copper-colored.

The Eimco Machinery Company of Salt Lake City built the little (2,500 pounds, 80" long and 51" high) Power Horse for the Bonham brothers up until World War II, when production was curtailed. Allis-Chalmers may have taken over the design at that time, but never produced any. I don't know how many Power Horses were built, but there aren't many around today.

None of these attempts by tractor builders to fool the farmer into thinking that a tractor was really a horse were very successful. Apparently, farmers weren't the "rubes" that the "city slickers" imagined them to be. FC 

Ever since his days as a boy on a farm in western Pennsylvania, Sam Moore has been interested in tractors, trucks and machinery. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.