Flour City Tractors: The First in the Field?

Who did build the first tractor? It probably wasn't Owen Kinnard, but he and the Flour City tractor might lay claim to the title of first "successful" gasoline tractor.

| April 2008

A curious document at the Minnesota History Center offers a new take on the inventor of the farm tractor. John Froehlich of Clayton County, Iowa, is often credited with the invention of the first "gasoline traction engine" in 1892, when he finished his crude-looking machine and took it to South Dakota to harvest grain.

However, in December 1925, when a Minneapolis newspaper reporter asked Owen B. Kinnard who should be credited with making the first tractor, Kinnard didn't even mention Froehlich. "Some Philadelphia mechanic really deserves the credit," said Kinnard, inventor of the Flour City tractor. "But he never got into the market with his story, so Charlie Hart and Charlie Parr and I claimed the glory."

Perhaps it is no surprise Froehlich was omitted from that early newspaper account on file at the history center in Minneapolis. In The Agricultural Tractor, 1855-1950, author R.B. Gray lists three other tractors (not yet called tractors, of course) built earlier than the Froehlich. In 1889, Gray notes, Charter Gas Engine Co. built six gasoline tractors "which were shipped to farms in the Northwest … "; on Feb. 7, 1890, Gray reports George Taylor of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, patented a walking-type motor plow using a petroleum engine (perhaps the first garden tractor); and in 1891, he says, William Deering & Co. "built an engine with two parallel vertical cylinders which developed 6 hp. This was mounted on a New Ideal mower to make it a self-propelled unit." Deering & Co. built larger engines that were used on a self-propelled traction unit from 1892 to 1895.

Additionally, two companies built tractors in 1892, the same year Froehlich launched his. J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. built a light experimental tractor (16 to 20 hp) but due to carburetor and ignition difficulties it was discarded. Also in 1892, C.H. Dissinger & Bros. Co. built the Capital, their first gasoline traction engine. As boys, the Dissinger brothers had been apprenticed to the Philadelphia company that brought the first Otto engine to the U.S. in 1886.

Because of the normal murkiness of history, claims like these are difficult to substantiate. It is possible Kinnard actually meant one of two things: the invention of the first successful "tractor," because according to The American Farm Tractor by Randy Leffingwell, Froehlich built four tractors. Two of the four never left the shop. The remaining two were sold to area farmers but were later returned, "unsuccessful and unwanted." That was when Froehlich's partners in Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. decided to pull out of tractor manufacture and stick with gasoline engines. (Froehlich never formed another tractor company or built another tractor of his own, though he later worked for other tractor companies.)

If Kinnard didn't mean "successful tractor," he could have meant that Hart-Parr Co. of Charles City, Iowa, and Kinnard's own Kinnard Press Co. of Minneapolis were the first successful tractor-building companies, as both mass-produced and sold tractors starting in about 1902.


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