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.
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.
What's known for sure is that Owen Brooke Kinnard and Albert Haines started a machinists' business in Minneapolis in 1882. In 1889, Kinnard Press Co. was organized to manufacture and sell Flour City, Fuller and John Deere hay presses and other John Deere machinery, and a new factory was built. In 1896, the company began work on its own gasoline engines, which were offered for sale in August 1898 as Flour City portable and stationary engines.
A history of the company, Kinnard and Sons Mfg. Co., says "A number of secondary sources have stated that the company first built a gasoline tractor in 1897." However, the only mention of Flour City machines in trade magazines was notification of how well the engines were being received, "and that the factory was operating to full capacity," the history says. "No mention of a traction engine was made until August 1899, when it was noted that the Kinnard Press Co. had designed a gasoline traction engine which it did not plan to introduce until 1900, when a 'considerable number' were to be made." (Another reference says four Flour City tractors were built in 1898, and 28 in 1899, but other than that single source written 50 years later, the claim cannot be substantiated.)
In its Aug. 25, 1899 issue, Farm Implements magazine announced, "The Kinnard Press Co. of Minneapolis, who have been so successful in the manufacture of their gasoline engines, have designed a traction engine, which they will make next year, in addition to the stationary and portable styles. They have given the engine a thorough test, and are satisfied that they have solved the problem of gasoline traction power. No effort will be made to introduce the new style this season, but in 1900, they propose to make a considerable number. The new engine is merely the adaptation of their regular engine to traction purposes."
Farm Implements added (in its Nov. 23, 1899 issue) that a gasoline traction engine would be made by Kinnard in the next year, with the first one ready for operation just after Jan. 1. "The work will all be done in the company's factory, and the machines will be given a thorough trial before any are put on the market."
Huge drive wheels soon became a trademark of Flour City tractors. Evidence of that characteristic was already visible, as the rear wheels for this first tractor (which Farm Implements said had already been cast in 1899) were 5 feet, 6 inches in diameter. The company said it would not discontinue manufacture of Flour City hay presses but intended to devote its attention chiefly to the gasoline engine department.
The company had been buoyed by the success of its portable gasoline engines used to run threshing machines in North Dakota. After completion of the tractor in early 1900, tests showed it performed "most satisfactorily." It was exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair in March 1901.
The first Flour City tractor looked much like the company's portable Flour City gas engine, except that the tractor used a chain drive. The new tractor merely used the company's regular engine and adapted it to traction purposes.
A 1901 advertisement for the Flour City gasoline traction engine says the machine required no licensed or skilled engineer or fireman. "Water tank, team and fuel entirely dispensed with. Made ready to start in a few minutes. Liability to explode reduced to a minimum."
The Flour City gasoline engine design was used on Flour City tractors through 1907. In 1908, the company unveiled its new Kinnard-Haines tractor, a much more modern-looking version with 30 drawbar hp. It used a 6-1/4-by-7-inch bore-and-stroke engine manufactured by the company and sold through 1910.
In 1910, when his company was already a solid success in the tractor field, Kinnard noted bitter competition between manufacturers of steam tractors and gas tractors. On at least one occasion, steam manufacturers refused to load their machines on the same freight cars with his gasoline-powered Flour City tractors.
1911 was a watershed year for Kinnard-Haines Co., with the launch of production of four Flour City models. First was the Flour City 40-70, a 21,000-pound beast with a 4-cylinder K-H engine of 7-1/2-by-9-inch bore and stroke. During Nebraska Test No. 52, the 40-70 scooted along at 2 mph in low gear and 2-1/2 mph in high. Kerosene was used as fuel, and the tractor's drawbar horsepower was almost 53 hp, far above the rated 40. Brake hp was slightly more than 70. The tractor's rear drive wheels were 8 feet tall.
The Flour City Junior, for farmers needing smaller machines, was a 12-20 2-cylinder tractor of 6-1/2-by-7-inch bore and stroke. It lasted in the company's catalogs until 1919.
Also in 1911, the Flour City 20-35 was introduced, carrying a 4-cylinder engine with a 5-1/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke. At 10,000 pounds, it was half the weight of the 40-70.
The 30-50 also came out in 1911. It had the company's 4-cylinder engine with a bore and stroke (6-1/4-by-7-inch) just 1 inch larger than that of the 20-35. Rear wheels on this 14,000-pound machine measured 7 feet.
In a 1915 article, Farm Implements reported "in their circular (K-H) contend that the 2- and 3-plow tractors, now so numerous on the market, are too light to handle the load and too cheap to endure the strain, and their dominating feature is a sensationally low price that will undersell the other fellow, regardless of quality or service." This was doubtless a shot at the Minneapolis-made Little Bull tractor. Those words became prophetic when almost all Little Bulls were recalled for poor performance.
Farm Implements continued, noting, "They claim that a tractor powerful and heavy enough to pull four 14-inch plows with sufficient reserve power to cover all conditions will prove the most economical size and will solve the small tractor proposition."
So it seemed obvious that a small tractor should have not only enough weight to pull a load under ordinary conditions, but also extra for emergencies. It was no surprise when K-H boasted its own Flour City tractor would do exactly that.
The article ended with this cryptic note: "The Kinnard-Haines Co., one of the oldest in the field, have been successful in manufacturing the Flour City heavy duty tractors, and should know what they are doing."
One of two tractors to carry just the Kinnard name was manufactured from 1915 through 1917. Called the Kinnard Four-Plow tractor, its rear wheels were oddly spaced (so close together they essentially formed a single wheel, making the machine a three-wheeled tractor). The engine for the Kinnard Four-Plow tractor used a two-piece crankshaft coupled in the center between the two pairs of engine cylinders.
The second Kinnard tractor was the Kinnard 15-25, built in about 1917-18. It weighed 7,900 pounds and was powered by a 4-cylinder, 5-by-5-inch bore-and-stroke engine.
In 1917, Albert Haines retired because of ill health, and the company name was changed to Kinnard & Sons Mfg. Co. The Oct. 31, 1917, issue of Farm Implements noted "The company has been in business in Minneapolis for nearly 40 years, and was among the first to engage in the manufacture of tractors. At one time they made steam traction engines, but promptly recognized the practical value of the gasoline as a fuel, and Flour City gasoline tractors have been among the leaders ever since."
In 1919, the Flour City Junior was redesigned to a 14-24 with a 4-cylinder engine with a 5-by-5-inch bore and stroke. It weighed only 6,700 pounds. A 1919 ad to dealers said, "You can conscientiously recommend Flour City tractors. They are the result of 19 years' successful tractor-making experience. With this complete line you are never compelled to recommend a tractor too large or too small for the work, but can sell your trade a size tractor that is exactly suited to the conditions."
If only that had been all that was required to keep a business afloat. In 1925, Owen Kinnard died and his business never recovered. The decline in heavy tractors also spelled the end of the Flour City tractor line. The company continued until 1929, when it too met its end. Today, desirable Flour City tractors sell from $25,000-$110,000.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org