Homemade Tractor Craze

Farmers economized by building homemade tractors, resulting in the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

WA Muellin Tractor

Farmers have always been ingenious in inventing what they needed. This homemade manure spreader was made by W.A. Muellin of Maryland.

Photo Courtesy Bill Vossler

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Farmers have always been inventive. So when commercially manufactured tractors became available in the early 1900s, it was only natural that the handy farmer would try to make his own. Such labors were spurred by high prices, tales of defective products and overhyped machines, the desire for equipment customized to meet unique needs, frustration with horse farming, or simply the challenge of creating a useful tool to ease the back-breaking labor of farming.

“May solve the problem”

Farm magazines of the era enthusiastically promoted the idea of home-built tractors by publishing readers’ letters and photos. “As most farmers are handy with tools and machinery,” noted a writer in a 1914 issue of Farm Implements, “homemade tractors for general farming can easily be rigged up. The time is coming when the same engine that pumps water, saws wood, grinds feed, etc., will also be used for plowing and hauling. The new field for the homemade tractor may solve the problem for the man who runs a farm too small in size to justify a regular farm tractor but who appreciates its advantages. When not in use for plowing and hauling the engine can perform its usual tasks.”

The writer went on to point out how enterprising machinery dealers in Larimore, N.D., “evolved an efficient and satisfactory farm tractor from a Fuller & Johnson 5 hp engine (see photo 7 in the Image Gallery). The outfit not only proved a great (exhibition) attraction, but in actual field tests successfully pulled a gang plow and loads that would stall a 4-horse team.”

Benjamin Pittsley, Berg, N.D., was among those who were successful in building their own tractors. From a letter he wrote to Gas Review in 1917: “I am enclosing a picture of my homemade tractor taken in the fields pulling a gang plow 5 inches deep. I made the radiator myself. The tractor works nicely when the ground is dry, but if it is wet the wheel slips. The tractor only weighs 1,800 pounds. This is the third tractor I’ve made. I am using the engine to grind feed for the neighbors. I can clear $6 (about $108 today) outside of expenses when I work all day.”

John E. Wagner, Ensign, Kan., was equally proud of his homemade tractor, which he described in a 1922 letter to Tractor and Gas Engine Review. “This outfit has given me a good service since it was built and, with a few repairs on the motor, it should give service for several more years,” he wrote. “I bought the motor, gearing and other parts from different companies I saw advertised in the Gas Review.”

In addition to regular two-wheel drive tractors, some farmers tackled more ambitious machines, like William Pullman, Rochester, N.Y., who created a four-wheel drive tractor (see photo 4 in the Image Gallery). In a 1918 issue of Tractor and Gas Engine Review, Pullman lauded his tractor’s success at plowing, cultivating, harrowing, “and heavy hauling of all kinds for the past four years and more.

“You will readily see by its design that the power from its engine is applied to all four wheels, so it is extremely hard to mire even in the softest ground (with) no dead weight to push over the soft plowed ground or through the mud,” he wrote. “Therefore, power used in other tractors for that purpose is applied directly to hauling a load. It has handled perfectly an engine gang plow, four bottoms, 9 inches deep, on high gear over land where water stood in the furrow.”

Making lemons out of lemonade

Many homemade tractors were built of what could only be described as junk. In the February 1918 issue of Tractor and Gas Engine Review, Emil Bartsch, Rapidan, Minn., wrote: “I took a 1912 REO (automobile) and built a tractor out of it. When I first started to build this tractor all my neighbors laughed about it, but when I had finished they thought it was all right. The tractor pulls a three-bottom, 14-inch plow in medium soil and timothy sod 7 inches deep at the rate of three miles an hour. This winter I’m going to make three more tractors on just about the same plan.”

Ben Karrels, Knellsville, Wis., built a tractor using old steam engine parts (see photo 9 in the Image Gallery). A 1920 issue of Farm Implements reported that, “The boiler has been taken off and the overhead supporting bar cut off near the rear end, to make room for the engine. All of the driving mechanism has been retained. To get the power from the engine to the driving wheels, Ben did some very good work. On the crankshaft on the engine he fitted a gear wheel, over which a heavy-duty chain runs and transmits the power to the driving clutch. A long lever, that is within easy reach of the driver, controls the clutch.”

In Atascadero, Calif., Ole Hove put an old gas engine to work (see photo 17 in the Image Gallery). “Last fall I tried my hand tractor building,” he wrote in a letter published by Gas Review in November 1916. “I mounted a 3 hp Witte engine on an old mower gear and used the traveling wheel of a header under the rear end of the frame.”

Hove made his own clutch and brake, and added a 26-inch circular saw. “The outfit works nicely going up and down hills and over plowed ground,” he noted, “and travels at the rate of 2-1/2 miles per hour.”

 Young farmers especially appreciated the savings inherent in home-built tractors. In an August 1917 issue of Gas Review, Edward Ryall wrote how his son had always wanted a gasoline engine, “even a small one.” The son bought a 5-1/2 hp Pacemaker engine, which he promptly converted into a tractor he named “Billy,” using master wheels from discarded McCormick grain binders (see photo 3 in the Image Gallery). “That was four years ago,” Ryall wrote, “and Billy, much improved and elaborated, is still on the job. Many and various are the uses to which it has been put.”

Some farmers capitalized on the market. “I have built two (tractors,) both of which were successful,” reported Fred Jones, Butler, Ky., in a Gas Review article. “I used them a while and sold them. I now have my fourth Economy engine and that is sufficient proof of satisfaction. I am building a gasoline cultivator and when completed I will send you a picture of it.” Another reader, William Jasperson, Tefft, Ind., boasted of having built five tractors.

‘Worked … until I am broke’

But not everyone was convinced. A writer in a March 1918 issue of Tractor and Gas Engine Review counseled against the practice. “Generally, a homemade tractor is a bill of expense,” he said. “One tractor company is said to have spent $75,000 in experimental work on a model with a big engine that was never put on the market. So the amateur is warned to go slow in any effort to make a big homemade tractor.”

Another article in that issue reported on the experiences of a farmer who’d attempted to build a big tractor. “He used friction drive, which proved to be a failure. Then he redesigned the transmission and put in a gear set. After that he had trouble with the steering gear and the rig became too heavy for the work he planned to do with it. He said, ‘I have worked with this rig until I am broke.’”

In the January 1917 issue of Gas Review, C.V. Hull observed that the idea of home-built tractors was widespread but success was elusive. “Many have tried it,” he wrote, “with rather poor results on the whole.” In a 1918 article in Tractor and Gas Engine Review, J. B. Ober, Ada, Minn., sounded the same theme. He wrote that few farmers had the mechanical ability to make their own tractors. Hull concurred: “The man who is planning to build a homemade tractor should study the situation well before he starts the work,” he wrote. “The chances are that he will not attempt the work after he finds what it really means.”

Ober obviously believed he had the ability, as in the same issue he described the process of building a homemade tractor and reported the success of his project. “The tractor is all right in every way and it works just as good as any factory tractor,” he gushed. “I have a steel channel one-piece frame, a 4-cylinder motor, a force-feed oiling system and the tractor is spring-mounted in front with a knuckle axle. The engine pulls two 14-inch plows anywhere. I have used the tractor for harvesting and plowing. I intend to apply for a patent on it.”

Where there’s a will …

For some farmers, the home-built tractor was just the start. W.A. Muellin of Maryland invented a manure-sprinkling wagon (see photo 1 in the Image Gallery). He bought a large barrel at an auction, mounted it on a low truck and attached a length of 3-inch pipe with 1/4-inch holes punched in the bottom of the pipe every 4 inches. “The tank is pumped full of liquid manure out of the cistern near the barn,” according to a 1919 account in Tractor and Gas Engine Review, “and when the outfit arrives in the field, a valve is opened. The liquid is thus allowed to flow out of the holes and distributed onto the field evenly. The outfit, including the work, cost about $20. Formerly much was wasted.”

A Wisconsin man created an early pickup (see photo 12 in the Image Gallery). H.F. Grallop, Wittenberg, Wis., wrote in the December 1910 issue of Gas Review magazine, “I enclose herewith a photo of our gasoline auto truck built entirely by ourselves. It is designed to carry from four to five, has a 2-speed gear, 20-hp, 2-cycle, 2-cylinder engine of the T.&M. make. As you can see from this picture, it is a heavy-duty truck. The platform back of the seat is 14 feet 4 inches by 7 feet wide, or 100 square feet of platform area.”

Creating a market

Sensing a new market, several commercial operations developed early do-it-yourself products. To convert automobiles into tractors, Staude Mak-A-Tractor, Pullford Co., Forma-Tractor and Convertible Tractor Co. made larger rear wheels, and later, additions to prevent engine overheating. Converting back and forth took as little as half an hour, one company claimed.

Victor Traction Gear Co., Loudonville, Ohio, also encouraged farmers to make do with what they had. “Build Your Own Tractor,” the company’s ads read. “Make your portable gas engine earn more money. You can convert it into a hardy, all-around tractor by using our tractor equipment. We furnish differential and transmission gears.” The company offered a variety of components — including drive chain and steering parts — for the enterprising farmer who wanted to build his own tractor.

Loyal Scothan, Otisville, Mich., found it a workable plan. Writing in the August 1918 issue of Tractor and Gas Engine Review, he said he would use Victor gears to make a small tractor with his 6 hp 2-cycle engine. “One of my neighbors made a tractor using his 15-horsepower Alamo engine and Victor traction gears,” he wrote, “and he pulls a 4-roll shredder and a big hay press where I have seen steam traction engines get stuck pulling just their water tanks.”

But it didn’t work for everybody. A “for sale” ad in the same issue of the Review offered used Victor Traction Gear parts. For every home-built tractor that worked there were countless failures. As a writer in Tractor and Gas Engine Review noted, “Some men are born mechanics and get a deal of pleasure from building a homemade tractor. Others should be very slow about trying to do so.” FC 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.