The Short-Lived Townsend Tractor Company

The rare Townsend tractor featured a unique boiler frame, giving it the appearance of a steam engine.

Townsend 30 60 Tractor

A Townsend 30-60 Oil Tractor at Rollag, Minnesota, in 2006. The 2-cylinder, horizontal engine can be seen on top of the large steam boiler-like round radiator. 

Photo By Sam Moore

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A long time ago, my late cousin, Peg Townsend, asked if I’d ever heard of a Townsend tractor. Of course I had, and I’ve even seen one or two at antique tractor shows, but they are pretty rare. I decided to do some research on the company. While there isn’t much information out there, this is what I found.

Roy C. Townsend was born Oct. 9, 1884, in Magnolia Township, Rock County, Wis., about 15 miles west of Janesville, Wis. His father, Arba F. Townsend, was a farmer. Young Roy worked on the farm, attended the local public schools and apparently had some mechanical ability as he reportedly scratch-built a 1-inch working scale model of a Case steam engine as a teenager.

In 1905, Townsend went to work for Fairbanks, Morse & Co. in Beloit, Wisconsin, as an apprentice machinist. While learning the machine trade, he also took correspondence courses and eventually worked as a draftsman and an engineer for the firm.

Roy C. Townsend was born Oct. 9, 1884, in Magnolia Township, Rock County, Wis., about 15 miles west of Janesville, Wis. His father, Arba F. Townsend, was a farmer. Young Roy worked on the farm, attended the local public schools and apparently had some mechanical ability as he reportedly scratch-built a 1-inch working scale model of a Case steam engine as a teenager.

In 1905, Townsend went to work for Fairbanks, Morse & Co. in Beloit, Wisconsin, as an apprentice machinist. While learning the machine trade, he also took correspondence courses and eventually worked as a draftsman and an engineer for the firm.

Fairbanks-Morse had started out manufacturing scales but by 1910 was heavily involved in building gas and kerosene engines and had begun experimenting with a tractor. Townsend became involved in FM’s tractor program and was made head of tractor engineering.

Starting in 1910, Fairbanks-Morse built large, heavy tractors, including a 2-cylinder, 14-ton 30-60 model that required an 80-gallon fuel tank and 200 gallons of water to feed the thirsty 10-1/2-by-12-inch bore and stroke engine and keep it cool.

Striking out on his own

In 1914, FM got out of the tractor business and Townsend resigned from the company. Then, along with his father and other family members, Townsend started a new company — Townsend Tractor Co. in a small Beloit shop. Two years later his tractor was a success and a larger factory was built in Janesville. Roy C. Townsend was elected president; Roy’s brother George E. Townsend was elected vice president; Robert B. Townsend (relationship unknown), secretary; and another brother, Lester N., was named the plant’s general foreman.

Townsend designed his new tractor with what he called a “boiler frame.” Looking for all the world like a steam traction engine, the large round “boiler” was actually the tractor’s frame, as well as the radiator containing the cooling water for the engine. Engine exhaust was piped through the radiator to exit through the “smokestack” at the front. The exhaust created a draft that drew air through “flues” in the “boiler,” thus cooling the water.

The first model, a 10-20, was introduced in 1915. Called the “Bower City” (Janesville’s nickname), it was powered by a Townsend-designed, 2-cylinder engine of 6-by-8-inch bore and stroke. The horizontal engine was mounted on top of the “boiler” in approved steam engine-style. A 12-25 model was added in 1918 followed by an improved 15-30 model with a 2-cylinder 7-by-8-inch engine in 1919. Early Townsends used steam engine-style chain steering; later versions had automotive-type steering.

At least during 1918, Townsend’s old company, Fairbanks-Morse, sold his 12-25 model retagged as the Fair-Mor 12-25.

Showdown in Nebraska

Originally scheduled to be tested in Nebraska in July 1920, the Townsend 15-30 tractor was withdrawn by Townsend for unknown reasons. Then, in September 1920, Nebraska test No. 63 was completed on the machine. There was some trouble with the tractor during the two-week test that necessitated several repairs, including replacing the magneto and carburetor. Dirt accumulated on the drive wheels during the 10-hour drawbar test and the clearance between the engine flywheels and the drive wheels was so close that the built-up dirt actually stalled the engine.

Since part of the Nebraska test was to determine if the manufacturer claimed more power for his tractor than it was actually capable of, the observed horsepower tests were very important. The Townsend was factory-rated at 15 hp on the drawbar and 30 hp on the belt. During the tests it exceeded the drawbar rating by putting out 17.85 hp, and fell slightly short with a belt horsepower of 29.51. In spite of the mechanical problems and the slight shortcoming on the belt hp rating, the Townsend 15-30 was certified and a permit to sell the machine in Nebraska was issued.

Battling on two fronts

By 1924, Townsend offered five models. Four of them a 15-30, a 20-40, a 25-50 and a 30-60 had the familiar steam engine appearance. A new lightweight (4,000-pound) 12-25 tractor added to the lineup that year looked like a conventional tractor with an enclosed hood and no tall smokestack (though it still had a 2-cylinder horizontal engine).

Townsend Tractor Co. struggled through the 1920s, battling both the severe Agricultural Depression and competition from other manufacturers. La Crosse (Wis.) Boiler Co. acquired Townsend Tractor Co. assets in 1931 and seems to have built some of the 12-20 Townsend tractors and a few larger models for a year or two. By the mid-1930s, the unique Townsend tractors that looked exactly like a steam traction engine joined many others in tractor oblivion.

To give you an idea of how rare Townsend tractors are, a 1920 Model 25-50 with an older restoration sold at the Chet Krause sale in Iola, Wis., a few years ago for $70,000.

One other Townsend tractor was built, although it was actually called the E.F.T. A small crawler tractor with a Light 4-cylinder engine, the E.F.T. 6-12 was built during 1921 and 1922 by E.F. Townsend Tractor Co., Los Angeles. E.F. Townsend had no connection with Roy Townsend’s company and the E.F.T. seems to have been short lived. FC 

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net 

randypa
4/8/2014 2:13:17 PM

Robert B. was a brother to Roy C. , according to the 1900 census of Rock County, Wis. Five years younger.