The Lone Little Oak

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Ralph Hall

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In 1915, A.F. Tolasana disgustedly abandoned his brand-new Little Oak tractor in a field near Glascow, Mont. Little did he know then he would sell that very same tractor - out of that same field - 50 years later to Everett Cabarett, a tractor collector from Scobey, Mont. Good thing he returned for it, too, as that 1915 Model TNS Standard Little Oak 22-44 tractor remains the only one in existence.

In 1993, Ralph Hall of rural Atwater, Minn., happened upon a sale bill for the Little Oak at Everett Cabarett's estate sale. 'As a kid I'd heard stories that a tractor had been manufactured 12 miles up the road in Willmar,' Ralph says. 'But until that auction, I'd never seen one.'

When he finally saw the tractor, Ralph decided to bring it home. 'It had been manufactured here in Willmar, so here was where I thought it belonged.'

One of Cabarett's granddaughters had a different idea. On that same July day in 1993, the bidding for the rare machine grew higher and higher, until only Ralph and the granddaughter remained. Ralph says he finally reached the limit he had set for buying the machine, and reluctantly threw in the towel. 'It didn't seem like the granddaughter and her husband were going to quit until they got it,' he says.

Ralph felt sad, but figured he'd wait until the next time it was for sale. 'At least I'd seen it,' he says.

Opportunity knocks again

Nine years later, the opportunity to buy the rare tractor returned. By that time, Ralph was 72 years old and unsure if he'd ever have a chance to buy the Little Oak. In the years since he'd been outbid, Ralph's research had essentially proven what he suspected: The farm machine abandoned in Big Sky country was the only Little Oak tractor still in existence.

But in late July 2002, Ralph heard the Little Oak was again for sale. A few other Willmar-area collectors were interested, but most thought the price was too high. One man thought the price would come down in a month, but Ralph was skeptical. By that time, he figured the Little Oak would be in California or someplace else, out of his reach forever. When Ralph finally talked to Cabarett's granddaughter, the collector was ready to make a deal. 'We agreed on a price, and I said I would talk to my banker and let them know if we could do it.'

An hour later, Ralph returned the call and said he'd come out for the Little Oak the next day. By Saturday night, the Little Oak sat on Ralph and Caroline Hall's farm near Atwater. 'It wasn't cheap, but it wasn't outrageous either,' Ralph says. 'I thought it was reasonable for something that rare. I was pretty happy to get it.' People near Willmar, Minn., are happy, too.

A checkered history

Little Oak tractors were built by Humber-Anderson Mfg. Co. of St. Paul, Minn., beginning in 1913. Like many tractor companies of the time, Humber-Anderson morphed into other companies. It moved to Willmar in 1914 as the Willmar Machine & Foundry Co., and was known shortly thereafter as the Willmar Tractor & Mfg. Co.

Judging by the headline 'Big Industry For Willmar' in the August 12,1914, Willmar Tribune, the city was excited about the company. A new building addition was erected in September 1914, even as castings for the Little Oak were being made in the adjoining building on Benson Avenue. By the end of 1915, more than 50 people were employed at the plant.

For unknown reasons, the company shut its doors in 1916 and moved back to Minneapolis, where it was renamed the Standard Tractor Co. In December 1916, the firm again relocated to Stillwater, Minn., under the same name, where it apparently suspended manufacturing the Little Oak tractors and began making auto-tractor conversion kits for the Auto Pull Co.

Oddly enough, and not surprising from such an oddball company, Little Oak tractors were again manufactured at the Standard Tractor Co. plant in Minneapolis in 1917. Despite confusion about the actual production dates, records show the last Little Oak tractor was manufactured in 1920.

An oddball for the ages

It's difficult to determine where Ralph Hall's Little Oak tractor was built. Sketchy information about the company's tractors indicate it built 20-40-, 22-45- and 25-47-hp models, as well as Ralph's 22-44. Yet, it's certain that Ralph would like his tractor to be a Willmar-made model. 'But there's not a thing on it,' Ralph says about his tractor. 'No tags, no serial numbers and no dates. No way to find out [where it was manufactured].'

Some clues to the tractor's origin are discernable. For example, the word 'Standard' is painted on the hood, which could be a model designation or may indicate that it was built when the company was called Standard Tractor Co., but the truth isn't discernable.

One thing is certain: Ralph's Little Oak tractor is different from the one depicted in the scanty literature on the tractor, with pistons cast in pairs instead of singly, and straight bars supporting the plows instead of the curved ones shown in promotional photos.

Ralph's Little Oak also differed from other tractors of its era in significant ways. The tractor has two carburetors, one for gasoline starting and a second for kerosene, on which the tractor actually ran. Most other tractors ran both fuels through the same carburetor, shutting one fuel off when the other began to flow.

The Little Oak has a cross-mounted engine, which wasn't uncommon - Twin City four-cylinder tractors and some Case tractors, among others, used similarly mounted engines toward the front of the chassis - but the Little Oak's engine is located between the machine's rear wheels. The company's literature crowed that the design offered much easier access when making adjustments, without leaving the driver's seat.

The engine location prevented normal hand cranking, because the crank couldn't be inserted if the rear wheel spokes stopped in the wrong place. Thus, the Little Oak cranks from the driver's seat with a lever. The disadvantage to such a design is the piston slips back when the lever is released unless it's held for 30 seconds, in which case the compression bleeds away. Three pulls with three 30-second pauses, and the Little Oak starts pretty easily, Ralph says.

The system that raises and lowers the plow is odd, too. When the proper lever on the operator's platform is engaged, a cone clutch raises the front end of the plow 6 inches, at which point a linkage is released. That allows the driver to pull the lever further, which activates another clutch that raises the back end.

Gearshift levers are also unusual for tractors built during that era. Most tractors of the time had a single shift lever, but the Little Oak has two. A protective plate between them prevents shifting into two gears simultaneously. Additionally, water cannot be added to the kerosene. 'Tractors of that era had a water feed on them to combine with the kerosene, but this one doesn't have one, and I can't see where it ever had one,' Ralph says.

Plows built for the Little Oak tractor had pins that could shear off if the plowshare struck a rock, saving on damaged or broken shares. Other oddities include the hood louvers, which were hammered out by hand rather than done on a press. 'You can feel the hammer dents in them,' Ralph says.

Once In 50 Years

Like many aspects of the orphaned Little Oak, its pedigree is truly unique. Originally purchased by A.F. Tolasana in 1915, he plowed a mere 400 acres before he left it sitting in the field.

'I can only speculate about what happened,' Ralph says. 'But it was fairly common that it was just left out there where it quit when something went wrong with one of those old tractors.'

Ralph discovered the Little Oak's clutch had been welded, so he imagines that a bolt came loose and busted the clutch, after which Tolasana dumped the machine in 1915. It sat out in that same field for the next half century, and has a few bullet holes in its sheet metal to prove it.

After Everett Cabarett restored it in 1966, he moved it into a museum in Glascow, Mont. 'I know it wasn't used much,' Ralph says. 'The sprockets don't show any wear, and the machine looks just like new.'

Its original paint had faded in the Montana sun, and was repainted at some point, he says. 'No information is available about what color the tractor originally was,' Ralph says. 'But I'd guess Mr. Cabarett saw enough of the original color of the machine so he repainted it correctly.'

Ralph runs his Little Oak tractor only during the annual Atwater Threshing Days parade the weekend after Labor Day.

'Other shows have asked if I would bring it there,' Ralph says. 'But I just tell them if they want to see it, they have to come to the Atwater parade.

' Today, the Little Oak rests in a Quonset on Ralph's farm amidst his other antique tractors, including several John Deeres, a Rumely Do-All, a rare Avery and others. Ralph welcomes visitors, as long as they call ahead. Understandably, he's interested in learning more about the lone-surviving Little Oak. FC

- Contact Ralph Hall at 17997 Lake Elizabeth Pass, Atwater, MN 56209; (320) 974-8352

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique and farm toys and equipment. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com

The Little Oak at a glance

The Little Oak tractor weighs 8,000 pounds without plows or about 9,500 pounds with the plows attached. Models were sold with various horsepower ratings, including a 20-40, 22-44 and 22-45, which sold for $2,1 75 in 1919, as well as a 25-47 model.

Little Oaks used four-cylinder engines, but it's unclear whether all were Waukesha-made, like Ralph's tractor uses. The engine information found in Little Oak literature says it had a 5 5/8-inch bore and 7-inch stroke, and was rated to pull four 14-inch plows. Forward speeds were 2-4 mph, with one reverse speed.

Rear wheels on the Little Oak were 69 inches in diameter, with a 14-inch face, while the front wheels were 38 inches in diameter with a 6-inch face.

J.S. Rose's List of Machines Now on the Market for 1915 shows that the 22-44 model manufactured by the Willmar Tractor and Mfg. Co. sold for $3,150. In Manufactured & Estimated, Rose says that Standard Tractor Co. in St. Paul manufactured 25 Little Oaks in 1916, 37 the next year and had 17 on hand on August 1, 1918. No other manufacturing figures are available.

The company claimed it was the only profitable tractor on the market because of the machine's power, its roller chain drive - which meant no replacement of expensive bull pinions and bull gears that could break - as well as its use of shear pins to protect plowshares when they hit rocks.