Happy Days for Happy Farmers

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When the Happy Farmer tractor and the Allis-Chalmers 10-18 tractor hit the market in 1916, both manufacturing companies must've been surprised. The two tractors looked nearly identical, though they differed by 15 inches in length, 1 inch in width, as well as engine details. That similarity raises a question. Did William Hartsough, who designed the Happy Farmer (as well as the Lion, Bull and Big Four tractors) copy the A-C 10-18, or was it the other way around? No one has ever found out, and no legal action ever came of it. The coincidence shouldn't be a surprise, because the history of the Happy Farmer tractor and its associated companies is filled with similar curiosities.

In the beginning

The first curiosity is mentioned in the earliest reference to the Happy Farmer tractor, in a Sept. 30, 1915 Farm Implements article. 'The Happy Farmer Tractor Company has been organized at La Crosse, Wisconsin ... to engage in the manufacture of a two-wheel farm tractor.'

The passage is strange because Happy Farmers came with three or four wheels, but never two.

Another curiosity is mentioned in a Dec. 31, 1915 Farm Implements article, which stated that the office and display of Happy Farmer tractors was 'at La Crosse Implement Company, 324 Third Avenue North, Minneapolis.' The Minneapolis location seems logical because B.F. Hamey, manager of the La Crosse Implement Co. of Minneapolis, was instrumental in the tractor's development and organization of the company. Ads of the time, however, refer to Happy Farmer Tractor Co., Minneapolis, Minn., which implies that's where the tractors were manufactured. However, it's still unclear whether or not Happy Farmer tractors were ever manufactured in Minneapolis.

That same Dec. 31, 1915 issue of Farm Implements contains two full-page ads touting the Happy Farmer as 'the sensation in farm power,' for $550 shipped from the factory, though it doesn't indicate where the facility is located.

Apparently nothing more was written about the tractor or company for 10 months, until the Oct. 31, 1916 issue of Farm Implements reports that the La Crosse Tractor Co. of La Crosse, Wise, was organized. The article combined the Happy Farmer Tractor Co. of Minneapolis and the Sta-Rite Engine Co. of La Crosse. The Nov. 30, 1916 issue of Farm Implements adds that, '...during the past year, the manufacturing facilities (of Sta-Rite) have been devoted largely to making the Happy Farmer tractor.' That probably means very few, if any, Happy Farmers were ever manufactured in Minneapolis. Most were made in La Crosse.

Three months later all Happy Farmer tractor offices were moved to La Crosse, and the selling agent in Minneapolis was renamed the La Crosse Auto Co., which, as Farm Implements says, '... will maintain a display room and sales office for the Happy Farmer tractors ...' in Minneapolis, and also distribute them.

In that same Feb. 28, 1917 issue B.F. Hamey says, 'Our business is growing by leaps and bounds, and the outlook is exceedingly bright for the future. We have only a few jobbing territories open in the east and south and on the Pacific coast; elsewhere the United States is thoroughly covered.' The company hoped to have 1,000 more Happy Farmer tractors manufactured by spring.

Overall, perhaps the greatest curiosity about the Happy Farmer company is that the 1920 Model G line-drive tractor was the only tractor that the company ever presented at the Nebraska Tractor Tests. This tractor, which was controlled with reins, like a horse, was offered in 1920 instead of its better-selling and far more popular models operated with normal pedals and sticks. C.H. Wendel writes in Nebraska Tractor Tests that the Model G tractor was 'equipped with four lines: two for guiding, one for starting, and one for stopping. Upon completion of the tests, Nebraska engineers gave the opinion that a careful operator could safely use the line drive control.'

Unfortunately for the Model G, by 1920 most farmers realized that they could operate tractors, which had many farm work advantages over horses. That realization increased the number of tractors sold each year, and decreased the number of horses on each farm and made the Model G obsolete. Perhaps that's why it was the only line-drive tractor ever tested at the University of Nebraska.

The Happy Farmer tractor

The earliest tractors built by the company were simply called Happy Farmer tractors, but after the offices were moved to La Crosse in 1916, they became the La Crosse Happy Farmer tractors. It's curious that the initial literature about the Happy Farmer tractor's specifications didn't agree. The tractor weighed 3,100 pounds or 3,200; it was 154 inches long, or 156 inches; it was 72 inches wide or 78 inches, depending on the source of information. Those discrepancies lead one to the conclusion that a finished model hadn't been developed in 1916.

After 1916, the company assigned horsepower and model numbers to Happy Farmer tractors. The 8-16 Model A sold for $585 and the 12-24 Model B for $695. The tractors were three-wheeled with similar specifications, though the motor in the Model A was smaller than in the B. In 1917 the price for the Model A stayed at $585 while the Model B rose to $735. A year later the A cost $635 and the B $975.

Early in 1917, the Happy Farmer tractor got an unexpected boost from a user in Bethany, Minn., who received his new La Crosse Happy Farmer tractor at the railroad depot after a 3-foot snowfall. 'The heaviest fall of snow experienced in Minnesota for forty years,' Farm Implements wrote. The buyer wrote, 'I had one mile of road where the snow was anywhere from two to four feet deep, and we moved right through on her own power ... (I) made the three miles in about two hours.' That happy farmer also said he won a $100 bet for succeeding, although the article didn't indicate which Happy Farmer model he drove home.

The company followed with other tractors. The Model F sold for $1,075 in 1919, and the non-line-drive Model G, which was a Model F with four wheels, instead of three, in 1920. In 1922 the company released the four-wheel Model H. Models F, G and H were all 12-24s, and upgraded models that carried the same engine and similar body size, weight and other specifications. The motto for the 12-24s was 'Sell one to your enemy and make a friend.'

The La Crosse Happy Farmer Tractor Co. also curiously produced a second line-drive tractor, the Model M, a 7-12 four-wheeled machine, in 1920, when the variety of the company's other models suggests that its tractors sold well. Though the Model M's rear frame design was similar to other Happy Farmer tractors, the front half of the four-wheel design made it look different. Most notably, its radiator and gas tank were in entirely different positions. The M was recommended as a single-plow tractor - as opposed to three for other models - and used a 4- by 6-inch bore and stroke two-cylinder engine compared to the 6- by 7-inch two-cylinder engine in the others.

Perhaps the introduction of the Model G and Model M line-drive tractors are a clue that the La Crosse Tractor Co. was struggling financially, and it tried to gain another share of the market, especially since most other tractors companies had abandoned the line-drive concept.

The Great Agricultural Depression struck in 1920, and the company limped along for two more years, until the Oshkosh Tractor Co. was organized to take over the La Crosse Tractor Co. in 1922.

Negotiations, however, weren't successful, and a short piece in Farm Implements & Tractors from Jan. 31, 1922 sounded the Happy Farmer death knell. 'It is announced that the Oshkosh Tractor Company, organized at Oshkosh, Wis., to take over the business of the La Crosse Tractor Company, formerly of LaCrosse, will not carry out its agreements although a factory site has been purchased and the foundation of the plant put in. The new corporation will liquidate as rapidly as possible, paying such obligations as have so far been contracted. It is reported from La Crosse that the original owners of the business will resume under the name of the La Crosse Tractor Company.'

A grand and happy wish, but it never materialized. Like hundreds of other 'orphan tractors' from the time, the Happy Farmer tractor soon went the way of the farm horse.

Making a tractor engine in 1920

The Sta-Rite Engine plant, the forerunner of the La Crosse Tractor Co., manufactured the Happy Farmer tractor line. This story about how engines were made was printed in the La Crosse Times, Aug. 30, 1912:

'At the south end of the plant on the ground floor is the foundry. In this department a score of men are continually working with clay, forming molds which are used for casting the iron parts which are later used in the construction of the engines. All of the cast iron parts, which are used in the Sta-rite engines, are manufactured in this department.

'In making the molds, several large planks are placed on the floor so as to form a quadrilateral figure, of a size sufficient to contain the pattern to be used. Into this form is placed a fine black sand which is spread about within the form. The pattern is then placed in the sand so as to be on a level with the top and the sand is smoothed and packed. Much time and labor is spent on this as it is necessary that the top of the sand be on a perfect level.

'A small quantity of water is then sprinkled along the edge of the pattern in order that the sand may acquire sufficient adhesion to permit the removal of the pattern. A sharp instrument is then stuck into the pattern at short distances and tapped slightly in order to loosen all particles of sand which may have become attached to the pattern. After this, two nails are driven into the pattern and by taking hold of these, it is removed, leaving the design in the bed of sand.

'The work of removing the pattern is the most difficult operation in the making of molds. The molder must be a man of nerve or rather without nerves, as the smallest side movement, when the pattern is being raised, will spoil the mold and hours of labor will have been wasted. It often requires as long as three moments to remove a pattern from the soil and during this entire time, the least unsteadiness on the part of the molder will ruin the mold.

'Occasionally small particles of the sand will cling to the pattern despite all the precaution that can be taken. If the part of the mold which is thus removed is not too large, the sand is replaced by small instruments. This requires the utmost skill. It is often necessary to use mirrors in looking for defects in the lower parts of the molds.

'After the molds are completed molten or liquid iron is poured into them and left to cool and harden. Then the iron is removed from the mold, and sent to the machine shop for finishing.'

- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320)253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com