Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Former workers recall the excitement of early Firestone tire testing operation.
In this famous photo, Harvey Firestone and his son, Leonard, are digging potatoes. The tractor is a Farmall, officially called the Farmall Regular after the Farmall 30 was introduced in 1931. Notice the wheel weight on the potato digger wheel to give the ground-driven machine more traction.
Last month we talked about Harvey Firestone and his efforts in the early 1930s to put farm tractors and machinery on rubber tires. Much trial, error and rigorous testing were necessary to find the best tire and tread design. The bulk of this testing was done at the Firestone Homestead Farm outside Columbiana, Ohio, although there was a testing facility near San Antonio, as well.
As related earlier, much of the early tire testing was done personally by Harvey Firestone, who, although he was a wealthy manufacturer who played golf with the likes of John D. Rockefeller, seems never to have been happier than when seated on a farm implement behind a team of horses or driving a tractor in the field. Later, more formal tire testing was established at the farm with specialized equipment, such as a dynamometer truck to measure the actual pulling potential of different tread designs.
Several years ago, I heard from two men who worked at the Firestone farm during the 1940s testing tires, and the following stories are from their recollections.
Clarence Holloway, Flat Rock, Mich., was raised just west of the Firestone farm. He remembered seeing an Allis-Chalmers Model U equipped with Firestone air tires at a local fair during the early 1930s, although it wasn't racing (tractor races were typical of tire promotions at county fairs in 1933).
In about 1945, Clarence started to work as a tractor driver, testing tires for the Firestone Test Division at the farm. He worked for Firestone for about three years. Sometime in 1946, he asked his 15-year-old neighbor, Rand Williams, if he wanted a job as a tractor driver. Rand rode in with Clarence one morning and talked to the boss, who not only said Rand could start work that very afternoon, but asked if he knew anyone else who wanted work. Rand called a buddy, Vernon Burkey, who was also put to work. Since both boys were underage, Firestone had to obtain a government permit of some kind, but that apparently wasn't difficult. Rand and Vernon were paid 65 cents an hour to start, a figure later raised to 72 cents per hour. Rand rode to work with Clarence; Vernon rode a Whizzer motorbike to and from his home south of Columbiana.
Clarence remembers the test tractors being two John Deere Model Bs, two Farmall Model Hs, two Allis-Chalmers Model Cs, a Ford 9N and a Farmall Cub. By the time Rand started, the John Deere Bs had disappeared, but he remembers the Farmalls, the AC Cs, the Ford-Ferguson and an Oliver Cletrac on rubber treads. Rand said the Cletrac was rough riding and very unpopular with the test drivers. When one of them tired of bouncing around on the little crawler, he jerked hard on one of the steering levers and a track promptly popped off, allowing the driver a break until repairs could be made.
Two old tractors, a Fordson and a McCormick-Deering 15-30, were used as loads in some tests. These were pulled in gear so the compression of their non-running engines would add resistance to the load. A 1-ton International Metro truck, equipped with sophisticated dynamometer test gear, was also used in the tests. On the low-tech side, there was a huge, old teak wagon from India with solid wooden wheels Harvey had picked up somewhere. The old wagon was filled with bricks and used as a load in some tests.
Clarence's father, who also worked at the farm, once fell asleep while driving an Allis-Chalmers Model C around the test track, ran through a fence and into a ditch. On other occasions, two teenage girls who lived nearby proved distracting. On hot summer days, the pair would swim in Bull Creek, which ran alongside part of the test track, causing much excitement among the young tractor drivers.
One Friday, while visiting the farm, Harvey Firestone Jr. felt the call of nature. Harvey asked Joe Pierce, an unsophisticated young farm boy who worked there, where the restroom was located. Joe had no idea what a restroom was, so Harvey asked about the men's room. This term rang no bells with Joe, so Harvey finally asked where they went to the toilet. Joe informed Mr. Firestone that there was no toilet and he'd have to use the fence like everyone else. The following Monday morning, Rand says, workmen arrived to install restroom facilities.
Clarence also told of the time an engineer from Firestone Co. headquarters visited the farm. He had never before driven a tractor and wanted to do so. The boys took an unstyled John Deere Model G tractor with an attached no. 5 mower into a hay field. They put the engineer on the tractor, showed him how to work the foot brakes and hand clutch and started him off. Clarence says the man went around the edge of the field once. On the second round, he kept the tractor in the standing hay instead of turning it around. Apparently he realized something was amiss and tried to stop, forgot about the hand clutch and jammed on the right brake. The brake locked and with the Model G going around in a tight circle, the engineer panicked and jumped off, leaving Clarence and company to lasso the hand clutch with a rope in order to stop the tractor. Presumably, the engineer went back to Akron and gave up driving tractors.
Both men remembered testing one of the very first Farmall Cubs. The little Farmall, which had not yet been announced by International Harvester, had to be kept hidden from the public. The crew found the Cub couldn't pull the test truck, so a lighter test vehicle was built on a Jeep. There was one hill on the test track the Cub still couldn't manage, so someone would start the Jeep and push the Cub to the top of the hill, where it would resume pulling the Jeep.
In 1952, the testing facilities were moved to an adjoining farm, once owned by Harvey Firestone's sister. Firestone agricultural tires are still tested there today. A portion of the original Firestone Homestead Farm, no longer owned by the Firestone organization, is still growing corn and soybeans, but the biggest part is now a fancy golf course, and upscale houses are growing where Harvey Firestone once mowed hay behind a team of horses. Here's to progress! 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 email@example.com
Today, the Firestone Test Center is located on a 350-acre farm just north of the original Firestone Homestead Farm. There's a beautiful old "century" farmhouse, a large bank barn and several outbuildings on the property, as well as a circular test track.
The barn houses a number of tire testing machines that run 24 hours every day of the year. Under the supervision of Test Center Manager Ben Strawinski, these machines test Firestone's complete line of agricultural, construction, forestry and ATV tires, as well as conduct evaluation testing of tires from competing manufacturers. Electrically powered drum-type machines subject the tires to abuse and misuse, including severe loading pressures and lateral forces.
Other machines expose tires to high concentrations of ozone in order to test their resistance to the effects of heat and sunlight. There's a large band saw where some of the tires are dissected after testing, and resulting damage to the tire structure is evaluated. A safety rack outside one building allows tires to be inflated until they burst, in order to test the strength of sidewalls and beads.
A late model John Deere tractor, equipped with remote starting and stopping controls, runs continuously around the test track, where it is tethered by a cable to a post in the center of the circle. Instead of the old Fordson tractors once used as loads, a computer-controlled and -programmable trailer varies the load on the tractor. A couple other John Deere tractors are available for testing tires under actual field conditions.
In place of the Metro test truck from the 1940s and '50s, the "Mean Machine" is used to provide loading in the field. This huge machine weighs more than 25 tons and can offer as much as 60,000 pounds of resistance to the pulling tractor. The Mean Machine is full of fancy computer gear that monitors the performance of each tire being tested.
Firestone's high-tech test facility is a far cry from the days when Harvey Firestone cranked up his Farmall tractor, climbed aboard and tested his own tires.