Farm Collector

Why Did Charles Hart Leave Hart-Parr?

Almost everything written about the Hart-Parr Co. and the Oliver Farm Equipment Co. says that Charles Hart left Hart-Parr in May 1917. However, accounts of his departure from the company he co-founded with Charles Parr differ.

According to one school of thought, there was disagreement over whether the company should concentrate on large tractors or smaller models. Although Hart and Parr believed in large tractors and resisted the move to smaller ones, investors A.E. Ellis and C.D. Ellis won out. In 1918 the smaller, lighter New Hart-Parr tractor was introduced. All of these changes were too much for Hart and Parr, the theory concludes, and Hart left the company.

The second theory differs. According to that theory, the Ellises bought Hart-Parr Co. stock until they had controlling interest of the company. As a result, Hart left the company in 1917.

Since the two explanations don’t match, one has to be wrong. A bit of confusion is understandable, given the history of the Hart-Parr Co. and events leading up to 1917.

Hart and Parr graduated from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in mechanical engineering in June 1896. They received special honors for their thesis on internal combustion engines for which they had designed, built and tested a stationary 1-cylinder engine. Following graduation, they built a small factory in Madison, Wis., and started manufacturing gasoline engines. These engines were successful, and in 1900 Hart and Parr added a second building, which they used as a foundry.

The following year they needed to expand again, but land was expensive in Madison and the city did not encourage industrial development. Hart’s father encouraged him to relocate to his hometown of Charles City, Iowa. A group of local businessmen, including the Ellis brothers (attorneys and owners of two local banks), offered a reasonably priced site and additional capital. Ground was broken on July 5, 1901, five buildings were constructed and transfer of operations was completed on Dec. 25, 1901. Charles Hart, the creative leader of the company, continued as president and general manager of the Hart-Parr Co.

During the winter of 1901-02, Hart and Parr built their first gasoline traction engine, which they named Hart-Parr no. 1. It was built with a 2-cylinder horizontal engine with a 9-by-13-inch bore and stroke and was rated by drawbar and belt horsepower at 17-30. It was sold to a farmer in nearby Clear Lake, Iowa, and Hart-Parr no. 2 (also with a 17-30 rating) was built in 1902. Those units were followed in 1903 by production of 14 gasoline traction engines with the 17-30 hp rating (including Hart-Parr no. 3), and 24 with a larger 10-by-15-inch bore and stroke rated at 22-40 hp. Only three of the 22-40 models were built with a heavy-duty drive train, which enabled them to pull a plow. All of the units were sold and none were returned. As a result, the Hart-Parr Co. has been recognized by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as builder of the first commercially successful tractor with an internal combustion engine.

By 1907, Hart-Parr had discontinued its line of stationary engines and the 17-30 model to concentrate on the 22-40. Weighing in at 19,000 pounds, the 2,356-cubic inch engine burned gasoline or kerosene. All but eight of the 206 units built in 1907 were equipped with the heavy-duty drive train. In 1906-1907, Hart-Parr Sales Manager W.H. Williams started using the word “tractor” to replace “gasoline traction engine” and the term was quickly adopted throughout the industry.

Although the basic size of the engine did not change, design changes and improved manufacturing procedures enabled the company’s sales catalogs for 1908 through 1911 to advertise a revised rating of 22-45 hp. During 1911 the rating was changed to 30-60 hp. A larger 40-80 model with a 4-cylinder engine was introduced in 1908, but only 10 of those 34,000-pound giants were built.

In 1910, Hart-Parr introduced a 15-30 model with a 2-cylinder vertical engine. In that configuration, the tractor’s shortened wheelbase combined with a single front wheel to reduce the turning radius, a useful feature in the fenced fields of Midwest farms. In 1911, that tractor was revised with a different size front wheel and a new rating of 20-40 hp. Although it weighed 15,700 pounds, it was a smaller tractor than the 22-45 or 30-60.

Hart-Parr’s next tractor model, unveiled in 1913, was the 12-27 with a 1-cylinder vertical engine. Not only was that tractor smaller (it weighed 11,000 pounds), it also cost less: Hart designed the tractor with a minimum number of parts to reduce costs. In 1914 the engine bore was increased from 8.5 inches to 10 inches and the rating was increased to 18-35 hp.

In December 1914 at the dealers’ convention in Des Moines, Iowa, Hart-Parr introduced Hart’s next creation: the Hart-Parr Little Devil tractor with only one drive wheel and a 2-cylinder, 2-cycle Hart-Parr engine (for more on the Little Devil, see pages 10-11 in the April 2007 issue of Farm Collector). It was initially rated at 14-20 hp, but was soon re-rated to 15-22 hp.

The Little Devil was the sensation of the big dealers’ conventions held in Kansas City and St. Louis in January 1915. Some of that commotion was the result of cards distributed by the company, teasing “A Little Devil Is Coming.” Some of the stir was caused by the tractor’s configuration: It was built to straddle two rows of corn. And finally, there was much speculation that this was the tractor destined to replace horses. The 2-cycle engine eliminated all the valve train parts, a simple form of fuel injection replaced the carburetor, the single drive wheel eliminated the differential and the simple transmission provided one speed forward and a different speed in reverse. By reversing the direction of the 2-cycle engine, the tractor actually provided two forward speeds and two in reverse. Initially, the tractor weighed only 5,000 pounds and had a retail price of $750.

Charles Hart believed large tractors held an advantage over small tractors. In an April 13, 1916, article in Farm Implement News, he explained that a large 60 hp tractor pulling an 8-bottom plow cost 70.5 cents per acre to operate, versus $2.33 per acre for a small tractor pulling a 2-bottom plow. From 1909 to 1914, however, Hart responded to market trends and designed progressively smaller tractors, which suggests the first explanation of why he left his company in 1917 is false. Does that mean the second explanation of his departure from the company is true? Not necessarily. Take a look at events occurring between 1915 and 1917.

In 1915, Hart-Parr participated in several tractor demonstrations, including the third annual National Power Farming Demonstration at Fremont, Neb., the Farm Progress Show of its era. At each show the company plowed with a 30-60 Old Reliable, an 18-35 Oil King and two 15-22 Little Devil tractors. The growing popularity of the small tractor in 1915 was illustrated by the company’s production of tractors for the year: 194 of the 30-60 model, 90 of the 18-35 model and 499 Hart-Parr Little Devils.

Immense challenges loomed on the horizon. International trade stopped with the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Hart-Parr closed its three offices in Europe and recalled its seven agents. In August 1915, Hart announced he had obtained a $1.5 million contract to manufacture 9.2-inch shells for the British government, work he said would replace the loss of foreign trade. By November, he reported the company had designed and built 30 special lathes to use in manufacturing the shells.

But Hart-Parr experienced many problems with its shell contract in 1916. The delivery of steel forgings by an experienced forging company was four months late and the quality was poor. Therefore, the company decided to produce its own forgings and built a 1,200-ton forge press that weighed about 200,000 pounds. Silica brick for additional furnaces could not be obtained, so the steel foundry was operated day and night. Copper mills were already at capacity, so the company cast copper rings and then rolled them to size.

Meanwhile, the Little Devil was plagued by problems in the field. The tractor had a tendency to tip to the right when pulling a load, so a skid was added under the operator’s station. The fuel injection system did not function properly on some tractors and the lack of adjustments often made it impossible to fix the problem. A more serious problem occurred when an inexperienced operator (and in 1916, most operators were inexperienced) permitted the 2-cycle engine to lug down under a heavy load and the engine would suddenly reverse itself and the tractor’s direction of travel. After building 200 units in 1916, Hart-Parr stopped production and started buying back the 725 Little Devil tractors it had produced.

By early 1917 Hart-Parr was producing satisfactory shells for the British and had been told the contract would be extended. However, the British government decided the 9.2-inch shell was not effective and did not renew the contract when it expired in March 1917. That left Hart-Parr with $500,000 invested in specialized factory equipment for which it had no use. In addition, the company had spent another $500,000 to repurchase the Little Devil tractors.

April 1917 found the Hart-Parr Co. in serious financial trouble. For some time, the company had been borrowing money from the two Ellis banks, which in turn had sold the notes to Chicago and New York banks. Now notes totaling $1.5 million were coming due. The rumor around Charles City was that Hart-Parr was going under and taking the Ellis banks down with it. Another indication of trouble was the resignation of E.L. Jaco, sales manager and long-time employee, on April 28.

At a stockholders’ meeting on May 1, Hart reported he was developing a new 3-plow, 4-wheel tractor with a 2-cylinder, 4-cycle kerosene-burning engine. However, that did not appease the Chicago and New York bankers and on May 4 they formed a Bankers’ Committee to operate the company. Hart was removed as the general manager, replaced by Walter Dray, an outsider who had served in an advisory position for the previous two months. Another Bankers’ Committee took control of the two Ellis banks. The Ellis brothers went into seclusion while Melvin Ellis, C.D.’s son, started working to save the family fortune. First he incorporated Ellis & Ellis and then used promissory notes from his father and uncle to pay off the banks’ short-term notes. Charles Hart bought a new Willys-Knight touring car and started taking automobile trips.

Additional changes took place at Hart-Parr on May 31 when Vice President A.E. Ellis, Secretary Parr and Treasurer Melvin Ellis resigned their offices. Dray was appointed vice president and Donald Davis of Philadelphia was named secretary and treasurer. Parr remained with the company as head of the engineering department.

The preceding information (obtained from Charles City newspapers, a 1918 report written by Parr, a 30-page report written by longtime employee A.E. Mills and the book Our Ellises, A Family Album by Mina Ellis Otis) reveals why the second version of Charles Hart’s departure from his company in 1917 is also false.

Educated at Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dray had worked in other tractor factories and had experience in designing tractors. He immediately promoted R.C. Rolfing to works manager and Harry Merritt to sales manager. By Aug. 1, Dray and Davis procured two contracts with the U.S. government to build steam steering engines for warships and cast steel wheels for the Nash Quad, a four-wheel drive truck being built by several companies for the U.S. Army. These contracts provided desperately needed income for the company: In 1917, tractor production totaled just 174 of the 18-35 model.

The New Hart-Parr tractor, the one described by Hart at the May 1, 1917, meeting, was introduced in February 1918 as a 12-25 model. It featured the Dray Shunt, which fed cold fuel to the carburetor when the tractor was under load, but warmed the fuel when the tractor was under a light load. The rating was soon changed to 30 belt hp. This basic design was used by the company until mid-1930. Hart-Parr production climbed to 825 tractors in 1918 and 3,685 in 1919.

Although Charles Hart left Charles City in 1917 to grow wheat on a large farm in Montana, it could be argued he did not “leave the company in May 1917,” because he continued to serve on the company’s board of directors. A Charles City newspaper reported Hart was re-elected to the board of directors on June 23, 1919, along with Dray, C.D. Ellis and Melvin Ellis. However, the bigger news occurred in early December 1919 when a Charles City newspaper reported Hart’s resignation from the board of directors. Hart sold all of his interest in the Hart-Parr Co. and his Charles City real estate to C.D. Ellis and Melvin Ellis. Melvin Ellis was named vice president and general manager, replacing Dray. After two and a half years, control of the Hart-Parr Co. returned to Charles City.

Larry Gay is the author of four books on farm tractors, and many articles on the Hart-Parr and Oliver companies. Contact him at 339 Valley Drive, Geneseo, IL 61254; email:

  • Published on May 1, 2007
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