Early Crawler Tractors

Crawler tractors were almost unstoppable with their substantial track surfaces but were difficult to repair.

Allis Chalmers Crawler

Every mechanical detail appears intact – with the exception of the rolled-up tracks.

Photo by Clell G. Ballard

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In areas like ours, where deep winter snow usually doesn’t melt until late March or early April, prompt preparation of the soil for spring planting is difficult. Level ground is plenty moist, and lower areas are often super wet and sometimes still have standing water.

In the first six decades of the 20th century, dryland grain was the major agricultural endeavor and, of necessity, fields were quite large. Farmers naturally utilized crawler tractors because their substantial track surfaces made possible travel over most field surfaces, with the exception of the wettest areas.

Having grown up in such an area, I never saw a crawler that didn’t have wide agricultural tracks. In fact, when, in my teens, I saw a Caterpillar with the narrower regular tracks, I was almost amazed. I didn’t know crawlers could be bought that way. The average small farmer had limited resources, and machinery was expensive, so a crawler was his only tractor. That meant that it was used in roles that wheeled tractors usually filled. When it was time to mow hay, for instance, wood blocks that were higher than the grousers were bolted to the track pads to protect fields from being torn up during turns. A crawler tractor mowing hay may have looked unusual, but it worked very well.

No proper facilities

Those same small farmers rarely had a shop of any kind. What served as a shop often was just a small outbuilding or part of a barn. Tools, lubrication items and repair parts were kept inside. The entrance to many such buildings was just a walk-in door. A door wide enough for a tractor wasn’t necessary, because the building itself was too small to hold a vehicle. The farmer was a rugged individual who was able to maintain his equipment out in the open in all types of weather.

Unfortunately, one needed repair couldn’t be taken care of in the ordinary manner. Whenever a problem arose with a tractor’s internal transmission gears or final drive, a major repair effort was necessary. Wheeled tractors with those types of problems are really hard to repair because they have to “be broken in two.” The actual supporting framework of most tractors is the huge casting that houses all the gears. To get to those gears, the two major parts of the tractor have to be unbolted and separated. As difficult as that is, since both the front and back of the tractor have wheels, when the unbolting process is complete, the two halves can be rolled apart. Of course, support must be provided for the two parts so they remain approximately level with each other. A flat, even work surface is essential.      

Major repairs uniquely challenging

A crawler, on the other hand, is a different breed of cat (no pun intended, although my early years were spent driving Caterpillars). They, too, can have transmission and final drive problems. In addition, because crawler steering clutches are heavily utilized, they are likely to experience wear and occasional breakage. If a crawler has problems with any of those components, it will have to be “broken in two.”

Breaking a crawler in two requires a Herculean effort. Obviously, the extremely heavy tracks have to be taken apart and laid flat on the floor. The tractor at that time looks like it is sitting high-centered on the surface where the work is being done. Of course, that isn’t true, but the drive sprockets and front idler wheels are so small in diameter that the body of the tractor sits very low.

At that stage, the huge castings need to be unbolted and separated. The heavy support for the track rollers on either side complicates that effort. When everything is unfastened, even though there are front and rear steel wheels, providing the necessary support in the middle for the front and back halves is difficult, as is the process of rolling the two parts away from each other. Unless working conditions are such that the front of the tractor is the only part that is moved, the rear sprockets must turn as they are pulled back along the laid-out track.

Insurmountable obstacles

Once an examination of the now-exposed internal workings is made and the problem determined, repair parts need to be obtained. When everything is finally back to perfect working condition, the crawler needs to be reassembled. Even someone who has never attempted that can guess it is harder to get back together than it was to get apart.

What was the small farmer with no place to work on his tractor supposed to do? Financial resources to pay someone to repair it probably weren’t available. And even if they were, an immobilized crawler – with dozens of grousers pressed down into the ground – is worse than a dead weight. A method of transporting a broken down crawler, particularly in the early days, was rarely available and even if it was, loading was almost impossible.

I think I ran across at least one answer to that question: The farmer gave up on it. As the accompanying photos show, an Allis-Chalmers crawler (which decades later appears to be in quite decent shape) sits forlornly without its tracks, far from the nearest signs of civilization. The dry Idaho climate has been kind to it, and the exhaust pipe’s curl at the top means the engine escaped being flooded with rain and snow all these years. Even the air cleaner, which doesn’t have a top on it, shows no indication that the bottom is rusted out, maybe because of it having oil in the bottom pan. Only the fragile driver’s accommodations deteriorated into nothingness.

Answer lost to time

The fact that the tracks had been removed and rolled up suggests some internal problem needed repair. One person with a helper could have gotten the tracks off, but the really difficult “breaking in two” process required a hard surface and decent working conditions. Obviously, that couldn’t be completed. Knowing very little about Allis-Chalmers tractors, I cannot identify the model, but the steering wheel directional control is intriguing. The fact that it has a headlight makes me think it was built in the 1930s.

Even using modern equipment, rescuing the old AC would be a major undertaking. There is a good chance the voracious scrap collectors have already gotten to it. Back when the tracks were taken off, if it had been possible to get access to its internal workings, a relatively simple repair may have put it back to work in the fields. We will never know when or why it was abandoned. FC


A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email.