The Nelson Tractor

Elaborate media blitz built great expectations for elusive Nelson tractor.

country gentleman

The Nelson as shown in a May 1919 issue of Country Gentleman.

Photo courtesy the Country Gentleman

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“The Nelson tractor is recognized by engineers, dealers and users as the most advanced development of the tractor industry. The Nelson tractor embodies the sturdy construction, weight, power and flexibility to satisfactorily handle any kind of farm or commercial tractor work. No task is too hard for the Nelson.” – excerpt from an ad in the February 1919 issue of Implement & Tractor Journal

If the words above seem like overblown hyperbole, your reaction is well founded. There are no records, but the Nelson was apparently produced in very small numbers. But you wouldn’t know that from the advertising campaign launched for the tractor in January 1919, at a time when the company – and its founder, A.H. Nelson – clearly hoped to take the country by storm.

In fact, if a Jan. 4, 1919, ad in Country Gentleman was to be believed, it already had. “The Nelson tractor, in actual test, has hauled heavy loads through swamps where, in places, the water stood over a foot deep,” the ad declared. “It has climbed a 3,200-foot New Hampshire mountain, breaking its own road through underbrush and over rocks and logs. It has worked steadily on the sandy plains of Arizona under the most trying operating conditions. It has been thoroughly tested, in actual work, in every part of the U.S.”

From a technological standpoint, the tractor certainly sounded good. The Nelson’s 4-wheel drive was said to assure positive traction under any conditions. A new type of chain drive – every other link adjustable and with a tensile strength of 70,000 pounds per square inch (subsequent ads say 200,000 pounds, and still later, 225,000 pounds) – claimed to provide maximum power and flexibility.

“A 14-inch minimum ground clearance, low center of gravity and a 20-inch maximum wheel tilt makes the Nelson tractor practical for working rough land, side hills, orchards, cultivating, and any other work it may be called upon to perform,” ads gushed.

Reflection of the times

In the early years of the 20th century, tractor ads routinely made outlandish, unsubstantiated and overstated claims. Manufacturers did everything possible in an attempt to gain competitive advantage in a glutted market.

In 1918, ads for the Pan Tank Tread tractor claimed, “Pan Tractor Will Win the War.” Newspaper ads praised the Pan’s impressive showing at the first day of a Kansas City show, and told of farmers returning the second day to see it run again. In fact, the tractor was not among the show’s displays on opening day, and once it did make an appearance, it did so minus an engine.

The Little Bull tractor, America’s top-selling tractor in 1915, also had an inflated self image. Ads for the tractor fairly screamed: “The tractor sensation – does the work of five good horses and sells for the price of two poor ones. Is light and can travel anywhere. Very durable.”

Durable, however, was the last word buyers would use to describe the tractor. With its guts open to field dirt and debris, the Little Bull choked in the dust and broke down in record numbers. Most were returned to the manufacturer.

On the other hand, the 1918 Rumely OilPull, rated for three plows, actually pulled five. In the absence of established standards, watchdog agencies and consumer protection, farmers seeking to buy a tractor were forced to navigate a minefield of con men and fly-by-night operators.

 As Randy Leffingwell writes in Farm Tractors: A Living History, “… skullduggery was not uncommon in the first 20 years of gasoline tractor manufacturing. There were many … tractor makers organized solely for the purpose of making money, not tractors. One prototype would be produced, funds would be raised, and overnight the company was out of business, offices vacated, doors locked. The lone prototype had sold for cash to some unsuspecting victim.”

“Developed carefully and scientifically”

Into that quagmire stepped Nelson. The company’s ads attacked other tractors’ weaknesses and proclaimed superiority over them. In a July 5, 1919, ad in Implement & Tractor Trade Journal, Nelson boasted that its tractor “sells at sight – and stays sold,” jabbing competitors whose tractors were regularly returned to the manufacturer.

Nelson ads were quick to say that “all parts run in grease or oil,” appealing to farmers who’d discovered the hard way that open gearing wore out quickly in the dust of the field. The tractor was also presented as an option for the farmer not entirely sold on tractors. The Nelson, ads claimed, could be controlled by reins while the operator sat on a trailing implement.

Another ad, this one in the July 1, 1919, issue of Farm Machinery & Hardware, said the tractor “was designed by Nelson engineers to meet the known requirements of the farmer … and was developed carefully and scientifically, unit by unit,” perhaps targeting another buyer concern: the fact that some tractors had never been tested on a farm.

Unprecedented ad campaign

Nelson Blower & Furnace Co., Boston, parent company of Nelson Corp., launched a huge advertising blitz to sell the tractor. In 1919, the company placed three full-page ads (including one in color) in Farm Machinery-Farm Power, Farm Machinery & Hardware and Farm Implement News, making a media splash unprecedented in that era.

But the promotional firestorm was likely nothing more than smoke and mirrors. During the time the ads appeared, it is quite possible that no Nelson tractor had, in fact, been built. And despite the company’s claims of proprietary technology, no patents filed by Nelson have ever been found.

At times it seemed the Nelson copywriters operated in an alternate universe. A lengthy and flattering article on the company appeared in the October 1918 issue of Motorboating magazine. Company President A.H. Nelson was praised as “an example of what can be accomplished by a manufacturer who puts quality before quantity.”

Under Nelson’s leadership, the writer observed, Nelson Blower & Furnace Co. of Boston expanded its workforce from eight men to 800 in just four years. Nelson was praised for his commitment to customer satisfaction and a uniquely visionary outlook.

An ad in the Jan. 4, 1919, issue of Country Gentleman trumpeted the Nelson’s arrival in the marketplace: “A perfected product after years of careful scientific development.” But in the lengthy article published just three months earlier, one praising the company leader’s vision and corporate strategy, there was virtually no mention of the Nelson tractor.

Field day for a fact checker

That said, the January 1919 Country Gentleman ad hit all the right notes for a product launch. The ad announced three models: a 15-25 3-plow tractor (selling for $1,765, about $22,088 today), a 20-28 5-plow tractor ($2,800) and a 35-50 8-plow tractor ($4,000). When a July 1, 1919, account in Farm Machinery & Hardware followed up with test results (“75 percent efficiency at D.B. [drawbar], with 82.6 percent efficiency at D.B. shown in Official Tests”), the tractor might have gained impressive credibility – except that no details on test date or location were provided.

Artwork in that July ad signaled another red flag. A Nelson tractor with muddy wheels was shown, “traversing swamp land, pulling a heavy load through muck the consistency of mortar.” Despite the fact that the tractor was said to be available for purchase six months earlier, and had purportedly been field-tested from coast to coast, the ad contained no photos of the Nelson, only drawings.

But the Nelson copywriters forged bravely ahead. In an August 1919 ad in Tractor and Gas Engine Review, the company announced that, “The Nelson Four-Wheel-Drive tractor will be one of the really great features at the Northwest Tractor Demonstration, Aug. 19-21, at Aberdeen, South Dakota.”

Follow-up news coverage in Tractor and Gas Engine Review told a different story. Again, there was no mention of the Nelson. In fact, the article noted, all tractors promised showed up, except for two: the Pullett and the Lauson. “With the exception of these two disappointments,” the account observed, “every concern entered was present,” suggesting that the Nelson tractor had never been entered in the demonstration.

Customer testimonials were a regular feature of tractor ads during this highly competitive era. Curiously, ads for the Nelson contained no testimonials.   

Moving backward

The next step for the Nelson tractor was backward. According to a July 5, 1919, account in Implement & Tractor Trade Journal, “The business of the Nelson Corp., South Boston, Mass., has been placed in the hands of a receiver. This action also includes the associated firm, Nelson Blower & Furnace Co. The plant will continue in operation and a reorganization is expected.”

But A.H. Nelson wasn’t finished yet. The Nelson tractor resurfaced 18 months later, on Jan. 15, 1921, when Agrimotor magazine reported that sale of the Nelson Blower property had been delayed by creditor complaints. “It is stated that some time ago the property of the company was valued at $1,000,000 and it was auctioned for $255,000,” the article noted. “Creditors’ claims exceed $500,000.”

An interesting detail was buried deep in the article. “It is further stated,” the account continued, “that several Nelson tractors were sold for $5,700, when bids of $10,000 and $12,000 were made for the same tractors.”

The appointed receiver was blamed, and a petition was made to remove him, charging him with “gross mismanagement,” resulting in appointment of a co-receiver. Were Nelson tractors manufactured after 1919? It is impossible to know.

You are herewith invited…

Just two weeks later, a Feb. 1, 1921, article in the Chilton Tractor Journal reported that, “Nelson Mfg. Corp., Boston, has been organized by A.H. Nelson, former head of the Nelson Blower & Furnace Co., which made the Nelson tractor. Mr. Nelson is president of the new company, which will make tractors and other equipment. Offices have been opened in Boston.”

On March 10, 1921, Iron Age magazine announced that, “Nelson Mfg. Co., Boston … expects to begin production of the Nelson 4-wheel drive tractor soon. Plans call for initial production at a Taunton, Massachusetts, plant, but later at a point in or near Boston.”

Nelson’s advertising department sprung back to life. This reborn Nelson tractor was presented in a full-page ad in Argonaut magazine, May 14, 1921. But the ad was more than a promotion for a tractor: It also served as a stock offering.

“Where Were You Then, and Where Are You Now?” the ad’s headline asked. The ad noted that an initial investment of $1,000 in Ford & Co. stock would be worth $122,700 in 1921. The Nelson tractor was presented as the savior of the tractor industry, well suited for use on 2,669,391 U.S. farms of 100 acres or more, and another 1,438,069 of nearly 100 acres. “You are herewith invited to become a stockholder in the corporation manufacturing the Nelson tractor at $12.50 a share,” the ad proclaimed. “All stock must be purchased within 30 days.”

Nelson’s factories in Taunton were said to be open for inspection “and moving pictures of the Nelson tractor will be shown every Saturday at 6 p.m. at our offices in Boston and Worcester.”

But A.H. Nelson’s revolutionary business model was never put to the test. On June 14, 1922, just a month after announcement of the Nelson stock offering, Albert Hanson Nelson, 43, died in his home in Brighton, Mass., the victim of injuries sustained in a fall from a train. He was, noted an obituary in Iron Trade Review, “the inventor of several devices, including a tractor.” FC


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.