Change comes hard. That's what the inventors of the Power Horse tractor - a tractor steered with reins, and designed to pull horse-drawn equipment - banked on. In the 1920s, tractors were increasingly common on farms throughout the United States. But vast numbers of American farmers remained highly suspicious of the newfangled invention. The Power Horse, at least to its inventors, must have seemed the best way to straddle the past and the future.
Today, of course, the Power Horse tractor is but a quirky footnote in the history of the American farm tractor. But it's a footnote that Paul and Bertha Hadden, Desert Hot Springs, Calif., relish. The Haddens are the proud owners of three Power Horse tractors: one an Eimco, and two Harries. The unique design, Paul says, simply came both too late, and too early.
"It works real well, if you know how to use it," Paul says. "I think it just came along too late. As late as 1918-19, the Samson company had tried something similar. The Eimco Power Horse was made from 1937 to 1942. But by 1937, you could buy a nice John Deere or Farmall, for less."
The tractor's design, though, was ahead of its time.
"It was a good idea," he says. "It's where they got the idea for the Bobcat. If they had put a seat and a scoop on the Power Horse, I don't think they could have made enough of them."
The hybrid tractor made farming easier, but at a definite cost.
"It would be an improvement over farming with horses, but it was dangerous," Paul says. "When the farmer said 'whoa,' it wouldn't 'whoa.' If he wasn't used to driving a gas tractor, he'd pull back on the reins to stop, like you would on a horse, and it'd put it in reverse.
"When I was learning to use ours, I drove in low gear for a long time," he says. "I've never had any spills, but I've come close."
What would become the Eimco Power Horse was made in Salt Lake City by Albert and Bond Bonham. Bert had an extensive background in horse farming. That experience was the inspiration for the Power Horse.
The Power Horse cast around a bit before finding a place to call home. Starting in the mid-'30s, the tractor was built at various locations in Utah: in Clinton, then Ogden and, by 1939, by Eimco in Salt Lake City.
The end of the Great Depression, and the hint of war, made the period a volatile one for American manufacturers. As Eimco's international business picked up, the company had no resources left to devote to farm tractors. The Bonham brothers purchased all of the tooling and materials from Eimco, and set up their own production facility. Production goals of three tractors per week were reached in 1941 when war-related materials shortages halted production.
The Bonhams had worked with the Allis-Chalmers company for some time (AC supplied the engine, transmission, gas tank and sheet metal for the hood), and the relationship appeared to bloom in late 1942. At that time, AC agreed to take over the patent. Bert Bonham was to work with AC to design a new model that would go into production at the end of the war. In the next year, it is believed that at least one prototype Power Horse was built.
But in the post-war tractor boom, AC officials opted to stick with the models they were already equipped to build.
The Power Horse was next produced by the Harris Manufacturing Company in Stockton, Calif. Production there ran from 1949 to 1964.
"The Harris Power Horse was a bigger tractor, and was controlled from the tractor seat," Bertha says. "There was a front driver's seat for the industrial model, and a rear driver's seat for the farming model."
A Harris is the newest addition to the Haddens' stable of Power Horses, which started with the purchase of the Eimco about 10 years ago. They get a kick out of showing their Power Horses.
"It is a little odd to see a tractor driven with reins," Bertha says, "but we hope people enjoy seeing it as much as we enjoy showing it."
It's not a tractor you see at every show.
"People who see it say 'I've been farming all my life, and I've never seen anything like that,'" Paul says. "There's maybe 20 running, and another 10 or 15 we know of that aren't running."
The Power Horse was built for a short time, in limited production, on a shoestring.
"It was kind of a backyard operation, even from the start," Paul says. "They just didn't have the money to get it going. The cheapest part was the part they used."
Even the tractor's color was dictated by economics.
"They came in whatever paint they could get cheap," he says. "Some were light tan, but there was also black, orange and copper."
Paul, a house painter all his life, was born and raised on a farm.
"We moved to town when I was 11," he says, "but I drove a John Deere tractor before we moved. Then, 10 years ago, Bertha let me have a tractor. It was a '49 John Deere B - newer than what I had driven as a kid, but it was close enough."
The couple's collection includes a 1921 Cletrac ("Bertha's tractor," he adds), an Empire Leader bought from the late Ed Spiess, an unidentified garden tractor, John Deere, McCormick Deering orchard tractors, and a 9N Ford on stilts.
"The Ford's steering wheel is nine feet up," Bertha says. "These tractors were used for spraying corn and other tall crops. But some people said they were for farmers who wanted to 'get up' in the world!" FC
For more information: Paul and Bertha Hadden, (760) 329-7657.