The Depression-Era Marsh Tractor

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In the 1930s and 1940s in central Wisconsin where I was born and raised, every small farm contained marshland. Farmers there cut wild marsh hay to feed their animals. The hay didn't have much protein, but it kept the animals' bellies full in the winter.

In years with heavy rainfall, the marshes were too wet for horses to walk in. In the 1920s, farmers put clogs on horses' feet to support them. Then some ingenious farmer came up with an idea for a tractor that worked on ground too soft for a horse.

He started by stripping the body off a Model T Ford down to the running gear. The rear drive wheels were the bull wheels from a grain binder. The axle was a 2-inch, thick-wall pipe from the rear frame of the grain binder. Extensions, made from the front steel wheels of a wooden lumber wagon, were built onto each wheel to make the tread wider. The same diameter as the bull wheels, the extensions were bolted on with 1-inch angle iron. The same 17-inch sprockets were left on the bull wheel to drive the tractor with the original binder drive chain.

The rear springs were removed from the rear axle. The axle was held to the bottom of the frame by U-bolts. On some tractors, the axles were narrowed to 34 inches by cutting the housing off each side. A keyway was cut into the axle for a 5-inch, foundry-made drive sprocket. On tractors with narrow rear axles, the drive chain was next to the frame. (On others, the rear axle remained full-width and the drive chain ran on the outside.

The 2-inch pipe used as the axle for the bull wheel was U-bolted to the bottom of the Model T frame about 4 feet ahead of the rear drive axle. A threaded rod with a 2-inch loop on one end was slipped over the 2-inch pipe, and ran forward to keep the drive chain tight. The 3 1/2x30-inch tires were taken off the front wheels, and wider tires, which gave better flotation, were cut to fit. These were dropped over the front wheels and wired together.

A frame made of rough oak boards around and over the gas tank held the original Model T seat cushion. A white oak 2x6 positioned ahead of the seat and bolted to the frame made a foot rest for the driver. The threaded rod was fastened to it to hold the 2-inch pipe axle and drive chain tight.

Another 2x6 was bolted to the frame on top of the rear axle for a drawbar. It may seem that the drawbar was too high, but it was the right height for a horse-drawn mower with a shortened tongue. The dump rake was pulled with a full-length tongue. It was hooked with a log chain from the frame of the rake and wrapped around the tongue and drawbar on the back of the tractor.

The tractor had no governor, so the driver had to steer with one hand while the other rested on the gas lever behind the steering wheel. The tractor had to be run in high gear, as low gear was too slow. The gearing of the final drive was not low enough.

In the Great Depression years, every farmer in our area had a marsh tractor. The unique machine was used for only eight weeks a year, could not be used on high ground, and had no application outside the marsh. But a farmer could build one for less than $35. The Model T Ford could be bought for $10, and the bull wheels were free: Before the advent of World War II scrap drives, every farmer had used machinery standing around. The only other direct costs were for the two small sprockets made by a local foundry, the U-bolts, the threaded rod with a loop and the keyway in the rear axle.

Some of the marshes where these tractors were used were three-quarters of a mile long with no trees. You'd see stacks of wild hay all the way across. Today, though, the marshes are gone to brush, and it's all hunting land now.

For more information: Ervin Briese, W1767 North Street, Green Lake, WI 54941; phone (920) 294-3352.

Lasting Lessons:

Remembering the Marsh Tractor

I learned my ABCs of internal combustion engines from a Model T Ford marsh tractor: How to adjust the coil, turn the carburetor needle valve for the right mixture of gas and air, and how to advance and retard the spark when pulling a load.

In 1940, when I was about 10 years old, I helped my dad build a marsh tractor. Three years later, it was the first tractor I drove. We used the tractor until about 1948. After farmers in this area began growing alfalfa, no one used wild hay anymore.

In the 1950s, I dismantled the tractor. The engine was left under a tree in a cow pasture, where it laid for 40 years. I used the side rails of the frame for the tongue of a two-wheel trailer, which I still have. The big sprockets from the bull wheels form the base for a stool made from a dump rake seat, and I still have the cut-down rear end and small sprockets. In the 1990s, I returned to the pasture where the Model T engine had been exposed to the weather for 40 years. The valve seats were pitted, but every bolt came loose and, after a bit of cleaning, the starter and generator worked. I put it back together and sold it with other Model T Ford parts.

My brother-in-law listed a Model T marsh tractor in an auction he held about 15 years ago. His tractor had a mower bar mounted right under the tractor. It was driven by a chain from the drive shaft, modified so a sprocket fit on it. The day before the auction, of course, the tractor started. But it wouldn't start the next day. Even then, it sold for $400.

-Ervin H. Briese

The tractor had no governor, so the driver had to steer with one hand while the other rested on the gas lever behind the steering wheel.