The Oldest Tractor? Hart-Parr 22-45

Hart-Parr 22-45 owner marks the centennial of what may be the oldest purpose-built tractor in the U.S.

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Tanks designated for gasoline and kerosene are clearly shown on this rear view of the Hart-Parr 22-45.

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When Jerry Swedberg bought a 1906 Hart-Parr 22-45 tractor, it was completely dismantled. Pieces were spread across the seller's shop floor and scattered across the property. It took a year to track down all the parts. In the end, one piece - a turnbuckle on the clutch - was missing. But all's well that ends well. Fellow collector Danny Roen (since deceased) took a turnbuckle off his own tractor and gave it to Jerry, saying "I think you need this." With that, Jerry had the final piece he needed to complete the project, which he describes as the oldest true tractor manufactured at a U.S. tractor factory. This year, the machine celebrates its 100th birthday.

"To the best of our knowledge, it's the earliest," Jerry says. "We do know Hart-Parr was the first company to build a factory to manufacture tractors." It's also possible the word "tractor" (probably an abbreviation of the phrase "traction motor") was coined for this very machine, as W.H. Williams, sales manager for Hart-Parr Co., referred to the company's machines as "tractors" in a 1907 advertisement.

It all started with Mom

Jerry, who lives in Hawley, Minn., says he got into the old iron hobby because of his mother. "I can remember her pulling a 1-1/2 hp John Deere stationary engine to wash clothes every Monday, and then pulling it back so it could pump water for the cows the rest of the week," he says. "I always wanted one, and when I finally got it, I also got the disease. When you get one engine, you want more," says the owner of some 40 gasoline engines.

Jerry had never heard of Hart-Parr while growing up on a farm near Worthington, Minn. His first contact with the company came 35 years ago when he bought a 4 hp stationary Hart-Parr gas engine from a man who'd found it in pieces in a field. "He sold it to me, and then I had in my possession the rarest engine around," Jerry says. "With a running Hart-Parr stationary engine, I needed a Hart-Parr tractor."

Ironically, a Hart-Parr tractor was available - in pieces. Elmer Larson, Fargo, N.D., owned a Hart-Parr 22-45, and had run it at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion (WMSTR) at Rollag, Minn., for years. When he decided to make an exact 4/10-scale model of the Hart-Parr, he took it home to Larson Welding in Fargo and disassembled it. "To make a true model," Jerry explains, "you've got to take the tractor entirely apart and get the dimensions to scale it down." In the middle of the process, though, Elmer died, leaving the Hart-Parr in disarray.

Enter Jerry Swedberg and fellow collector Jim Briden, who bought the tractor pieces and reassembled the unusual machine. What makes the 1906 Hart-Parr 22-45 tractor special? It's a matter of careful distinctions.

First, the word tractor was not really used until 1907, leaving forerunners in the "traction engine" category. Second, the Hart-Parr's parts were made specifically to be assembled into a tractor, unlike other "tractors" of the time, which were in fact big stationary engines mounted on frames. "Companies like International Harvester bought Morton running gears and put their own engines on them," Jerry says. "I don't consider them real tractors. They would pull themselves from place to place, but they weren't good for much else, except as portable stationary power units. You couldn't do a lot of tractor work with them." And finally, Jerry believes his Hart-Parr to be the oldest tractor built to be a tractor, constructed in a factory specifically dedicated to tractor production. Certainly his 22-45 is the oldest of that model known to exist, according to records kept by the Floyd County Museum, Charles City, Iowa.

Jerry's 1906 Hart-Parr 22-45 was originally shipped from the Charles City, Iowa, factory to Lily, S.D. Later it went to Divide County, N.D., where it broke virgin prairie sod. After that, Holver Anderson, Christine, N.D., used it to power a 32-inch Avery threshing machine. Elmer Larson bought the Hart-Parr in about 1960 and restored it to running condition. Jerry and Jim bought it in 1975.

Unconventional design

This early entrant in the "tractor" category has its share of oddities. Among them is its connecting rod, which connects the piston to the crankshaft and operates in a similar fashion to the clutch turnbuckle. "In cars and tractors today, there is a bearing at each end, and when the bearing wears down or wears out, you have to replace it," Jerry notes. "But each connecting rod on this tractor is hinged at each end, so with a wrench you could tighten both bearings a little bit on the crankshaft and wrist pin when they got loose. It was the only tractor that had that. The stationary engine that Mr. Hart and Mr. Parr built when they were learning to be engineers at the University of Wisconsin in Madison has that same kind of adjustable bearing. So they were thinking ahead on how to extend the life of the engine. But it was only on that first engine and this tractor, and after that they went to the standard connecting rod that everybody is familiar with today, so their design probably wasn't strong enough."

Another peculiarity of the Hart-Parr 22-45 is its leaning radiator, the result of engine torque. "Because the engine was bolted solidly to the frame with no 'give,' like there is in modern cars and tractors," Jerry says, "the continual pounding of the tractor over the years actually twisted the frame into a spiral curve so the front radiator started leaning over at an angle."

To correct that defect, Jim Briden at Larson Welding tied down three corners of the frame, pulled the frame back past center, then welded a plate across the front and back under the engine, as well as 12-foot-long, 5-inch-diameter pipes. "They had to pull it past center so it would spring back to true," Jerry says. "But I've worked with metal all my life and I was confident in what they were doing. When they let it go back, it was still a little twisted, but I didn't mind because I didn't want it perfect. I wanted a little lean to it."

Hart-Parr corrected the problem on its 1908 models, Jerry says, by using a much thicker I-beam on the right side. "You can see the difference when you compare the 1906 tractor with later models."

The ignition system on the 1906 Hart-Parr 22-45 tractor uses two Ford Model T buzz coils and two spark plugs with 3/4-inch pipe threads, battery, wiring and insulated strips of thin flexible sheet metal, which contact at the right moment. "Crude, but it works good," Jerry says. "The belt-driven generator supplies electricity to save on the battery when the tractor is working all day."

Grease cups on the Hart-Parr are best filled every year for the bearings on the axle. The engine is lubricated by a mechanical oiler that pumps oil through little copper tubes to several points in the engine. "The radiator has oil in it instead of antifreeze," Jerry says. "Oil allowed the tractor to use kerosene, which burned as well as gasoline but was much cheaper. Kerosene burns hotter than gasoline, so water would boil, but the thin oil they used instead wouldn't." Hart-Parr used oil in the radiators until 1917, when water was used to make the machines lighter.

"Today we run strictly gasoline in the tractor, because we don't pull it hard," Jerry says. "Some people put their old tractors on the dynamometer or plow with them, but this tractor is an old man and shouldn't have to work hard."

The workmanship on the old Hart-Parr is really pretty good, Jerry says, considering the builders didn't have the precision measuring instruments available today. "I think what they did was called 'selective assembly,'" Jerry says. "The same parts were a few thousandths of an inch different in size, and they'd pick through the parts until they found one that fit." It's an approach Jerry can relate to: As a young man learning the trade, he used a steel rule and magnifying glass to measure down to 0.005-inch.

Birthday hoopla

With the tractor's 100th birthday approaching, Dan Brown and Shelly Tix of Waterloo, Iowa, young friends of Jerry's who run the machine during parades, had it steam-cleaned. "Unfortunately, those old tractors spit and smoke out more oil than modern ones do," Jerry says. "They shouldn't, but that's the nature of the beast. So when they drove it to line up for the parade, it spouted enough oil that it got its face dirty."

The Hart-Parr had already undergone a bit of cosmetic work. Jim Briden had taken on the task of completing Elmer Larson's unfinished 4/10 model. In the process, he fixed the full-size tractor's clutch, worked on odds and ends and gave the 100-year-old treasure a fresh coat of paint.

Meanwhile, Jerry thought he should do something a little different for the tractor's landmark anniversary. "At birthdays you always have cake and coffee, so I thought I'd have them for my tractor at WMSTR," he says. "My wife's mother made the cakes."

To celebrate the tractor's centennial, Jerry climbed up on the machine. "I got my foot on the flywheel and turned it over, and it started real easy," he says. "I hadn't been up on that tractor in 10 years, so I drove it ahead and back to say I drove it one more time."A breed apart

Jerry relishes the crowd's reaction when the Hart-Parr's engine fires. "It's a hit-and-miss engine, not a throttle and governor tractor, so it just smokes and belches and fires, and people wonder if it will quit on its next stroke," he says. "They wonder how it's got enough power or strength, or fires often enough, to pull itself. They are truly amazed that it runs at all."

Jerry says he has a buyer interested in the 1906 tractor, but he's in no particular hurry to sell. "I told him I paid about $3,000 for it, but if he wants to buy it, it will cost better than $100,000, and he never batted an eye. But I never sold it, did I? He's waiting for my call, but if I've got food for my face and a few dollars in my pocket, and no other engine that I want to buy, why should I sell it?"

For now, he's happy to show the tractor and enjoy the hobby. "Most of us come to these shows to socialize and visit and have a good time, and see who's got something new. That's the way we meet good people in this hobby," Jerry says. "Like I've said, this is the earliest production tractor of all, to the best of our knowledge. We don't know of another one, and have never seen another one. I think it is (the oldest), but I can't prove it. Maybe some others will crawl out of the weeds. But that's OK, because I want to know."  FC 

For more information, contact: Jerry Swedberg, (218) 937-5404; email: rollagee@rrt.net 

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at: email: bvossler@juno.com