Outside the Box: The Heider Tractor

The story of Heider tractors and the companies that made them is an unusual one.

1925 Rock Island-Heider Model C tractor

As demonstrated by this 1925 Rock Island-Heider Model C, Heider tractors were eye-catching, with red wheels and lime green bodies accentuated by red and yellow stripes.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

Content Tools

Heider Manufacturing Co., Carroll, Iowa, was a curious tractor company for several reasons. First, because of the time it took inventor H.J. Heider to create its first tractor; second, because of the unique drive system he used for the Heider; third, because of the company’s brief tenure in the tractor business; and fourth, because of the extensive amount of time the Heider tractor was manufactured by another company.

Brothers join forces

H.J. (Henry) Heider farmed in southern Minnesota, where at age 21 he was awarded his first patent (of 20) for a four-horse evener. He ran a successful repair business until 1903, when he outgrew his capacity to farm, repair and invent, because of the high demand for his evener. At that point, he and his older brother, John (an accountant), went into business together, forming Heider Mfg. Co., Albert Lea, Minnesota.

The young company quickly outgrew its small shop. In 1904, the brothers incorporated and sold stock valued at $18,000 to build a full-size, concrete-block factory in Carroll, Iowa, more centrally located for their trade. There they could expand to meet the demands of their new business.

They manufactured eveners up to six-horse capacity, as well as double- and single-tree yokes and step- and extension-ladders to use up their scrap lumber. The ladders sold so well that, in 1906, they could afford to buy a new 10 hp Lambert engine to aid in the factory work. In 1908, they bought a 25 hp Lambert engine. These engines – built by Buckeye Mfg. Co., Anderson, Indiana – would be important in the later development of Heider tractors.

Slow-building a tractor

Meanwhile, Henry tinkered with design of new parts and machines for the factory. In 1908, company ledgers first registered expenses for building a tractor, but three years passed before the tractor made its debut.

By that time, other companies had jumped into tractor manufacture. John William Lambert of Buckeye Mfg. Co. also built Lambert & Buckeye tractors with a friction drive transmission. Lambert is often credited with inventing the friction-drive. Doubtless Lambert engines and the company’s early friction drive tractors were a heavy influence on Henry Heider’s desire to produce a friction-drive tractor.

Heider designed a series of tractors before he came up with the one he liked: a small, 4-cylinder Heider Model A lightweight weighing just 4,300 pounds. The tractor was announced in July 1911 and priced at $1,300 ($32,900 today). At about that time, much of America’s prairie sod had been turned by the great lumbering beasts weighing five times the Heider, and farmers were looking for smaller tractors. This 8-12 model with a friction drive transmission, and the Heiders that would come after it, fit the bill.

Twenty-five Heider A’s were sold between March 1, 1911, and the end of the year. Pioneer Implement Co., Council Bluffs, Iowa, brought the tractors to market and distributed them. By Oct. 25, 1911, according to the Carroll Herald, just nine tractors had been built. Based on the early sales success, a plant expansion was announced in 1911; about 35 Heiders were built that year.

Going whole hog

As Henry Heider was an inveterate tinkerer, it was no surprise that the 4-cylinder Heider Model A would be upgraded. Major changes resulted. The cooling fan was removed, as the radiator was open and evaporative cooling proved sufficient. The belt pulley and friction drives were moved ahead of the bull pinions, while a more elaborate canopy was made and fenders were added. All these additions increased the sales appeal, and business grew.

In 1912, the Heider B was introduced and sales continued to climb. The B was an improvement over the A, but continued the friction drive transmission with two speed notches, along with a gasoline starter to get the engines running on kerosene.

Heider continued to tinker, realizing that a series of changes would have to be made to the Heider B to make it a better tractor, and to keep up with demand. He also realized the company did not have the resources to bring the new Heider Model C to market.

The variable-speed friction drive was unusual as well. For gear selection, the entire engine moved forward and backward. The friction drive had seven notches, and advancing or retreating the transmission lever into various notches increased speeds forward or backward between 2 and 5 mph – or half-speeds between notches, for at least 14 different speeds. A North Dakota farmer who owned a Heider said it could be slowed down so far that it almost did not move at all. This friction drive eliminated the need for a complicated transmission, and it had 20 percent fewer parts than contemporary tractors, so there were fewer things to go wrong. The Heider was touted as having “no gears to strip.”

By that time, Heider Mfg. Co. had contracted with Rock Island (Illinois) Plow Co. to sell Heider tractors alongside that company’s well-known Rock Island plow. Then a prominent farm implement manufacturer, Rock Island was looking for a tractor to sell. In 1914, Rock Island Plow Co. and Heider Mfg. Co. entered into an agreement whereby Heider’s complete output would be sold by Rock Island Plow Co. According to P.S. Rose’s Report on Tractor Companies, Heider’s “total output for 1915 will be 350.” That included the last of the Heider Model B tractors, as well as Heider Model C tractors.

Reality was quite different. The Model C proved to be hugely popular, so 793 were actually produced that year, according to Rose’s Manufactured and Estimated booklet. That market success put more pressure on company leaders to launch a costly expansion of the Carroll, Iowa, plant, but that idea was eventually rejected.

A startling decision

Instead, on Jan. 5, 1916, at the height of the Heider line’s popularity, the company took the unusual step of selling the rights and patents to the line, and production was moved to Rock Island’s factory in Illinois. The Carroll plant would continue making wood products. Henry Heider’s engineering services were retained by Rock Island Plow Co. for a fee of $10,000 a year.

After that, some tractors continued to be produced as Heiders, while the Rock Island name was added to others, making them Rock Island-Heider tractors from that point on. In 1917, according to Rose, 2,459 were sold, with 1,985 manufactured during the first half of 1918, and an estimated 3,510 in the last half. The company increased its 1919 estimate (made in mid-1918) to a total of 4,375 to be manufactured and sold.

During that time, complaints began to surface on slippage in the friction drive transmission. Henry Heider upgraded the original Model C 10-20 to a 12-20, then with a larger engine to a 15-27, and then a Model D 9-16. For the next six years, Heider divided his time between the two companies, adding coaster wagons to the Heider production. In 1922, he applied for a patent for a fully enclosed friction drive for the Heider tractor. He also created a gear mechanism that allowed a field gear and road gear. That same year, steady growth at Heider Mfg. Co. required him to resign from the Rock Island work.

By then, heightened competition began to have an impact as farmers began to turn to other manufacturers. The Rock Island company slashed production and in 1929, the Heider name was dropped altogether, and Rock Island Plow Co. introduced its own Rock Island tractors, the Models 18-35 F and 15-25 G.

Rock Island tractors were produced until 1937, when the company was bought out by J.I. Case Plow Works and all production of Heider and Rock Island tractors ceased. All that remained of the Rock Island and Heider tractor lines was servicing of the remaining machines. FC


Heider Tractors Models A Through E

Model A 8-12: Manufactured in 1911-’12, with 25 made in 1911 and about a dozen more in 1912. The tractor weighed 4,300 pounds, powered by a Rutenber 4-3/4- by 5-inch bore and stroke engine. With a simple frame design, a home-built radiator, chain steering and the engine mounted over the drive wheels, there was little room for the operator. The friction transmission popularized by the Heider had only a single speed forward and reverse in this model.

Model B 8-12: Later increased to a 9-16, this 5,000-pound tractor was manufactured from 1912-’13. A few probably had a Rutenber engine, but most had a rear-mounted Waukesha of 4-1/4- by 6-3/4-inch bore and stroke. The driver’s platform and the canopy were enlarged, and the friction drive had two speeds.

Model C 10-20, later 12-20, 15-27, 12-24 (re-rated to 15-27): Manufactured from 1913-’27 in its various forms, this model generally weighed 6,200 pounds and used a Waukesha M engine of 4-1/2- by 6-3/4-inch bore and stroke. The tractor’s friction drive had seven speeds, chain drive became gear drive, an automotive-style radiator was added and the Waukesha M engine was moved to the front. At this point, the engine slid back and forth on wooden rails to engage the friction disks. This model – the most popular in Heider history – was one of the first to be tested in the Nebraska Tractor Tests, and is the one most commonly seen today.

Model D 17-28: Manufactured from 1917-‘28, this model was a modified Heider Model C, made to compete for the market of farmers who wanted even smaller tractors. It weighed 4,100 pounds and used a Waukesha R engine of 4-1/4- by 5-3/4-inch bore and stroke (some may have used the Waukesha N). This model was the last to carry the Heider name.

Model E 18-35: Very little is known about this model, manufactured from about 1923-’24. It weighed 6,500 pounds and used a Waukesha EU engine of 5- by 6-1/4-inch bore and stroke.


Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.