"My grandfather killed the Little Giant tractor," says Dennis 'Denny' Dotson, Mankato, Minn., owner of one of four Little Giant tractors known to exist. Denny speaks colorfully, but the act was a business decision, pure and simple.
"In 1923, my great-uncle, Mankato Free Press owner Charles Butler, a stockholder in the Little Giant Co., contacted my grandfather, L.J. Fazendin, to manage (Little Giant)," Denny explains. "Soon after arriving, my grandfather saw the company was overextended and stopped making the tractor. He scrapped out $20,000 worth of transmission parts, a fairly large amount of money even by today's standards. They'd purchased inventory, hoping to become the next John Deere."
According to original ledgers, 500 Little Giant tractors had been built, the last in October 1920. Denny, owner of Dotson Co., Mankato (an automated jobbing foundry that traces its roots to Little Giant Co.), has heard stories about the sinking of a World War I ship that carried a large number of Little Giants to a watery grave. Scrap metal collections for two world wars made Little Giant tractors even more rare.
Innovative for its time
Several things make the Little Giant tractor unique, Denny says. The fan and steering wheel were cast aluminum, unusual in that era. Another out-of-the-ordinary feature is the spring-loaded hitch for smoother driving and operation. And a recommended fuel blend of kerosene and water delivered extra horsepower: The Little Giant was an unusually powerful tractor.
The Little Giant was the result of the brilliance of the Mayer brothers: Louis, Lorenz and Conrad. The three opened a machine shop in Mankato, in 1895. There, they produced a mechanical hammer, a revolutionary tool that in essence gave the blacksmith an extra hand, one stronger and more reliable than that of an apprentice. The hammer (also called a trip or power hammer) gained quick success, and the brothers formed the Mayer Bros. Co.
The innovative brothers invented and refined diverse products: boilers, gasoline and steam engines, hoists, steel beams, manifolds, road graders and ditchers, dredging equipment, traffic directors, woodworking equipment, band and circular saws, lathes, drill presses, retractable clothing reels and even a V-8 automobile. Except for the Little Giant trip hammer, which was perfected to peak efficiency, most products were produced for only a short time.
"It will make farming so interesting ... "
In about 1910, the Mayer brothers began development of a gasoline farm tractor. In June 1914, company literature said, "Our work has been completed. In design, we have created a tractor that is good to look upon. In material, we have used high-grade metals with a prodigality heretofore unknown in tractor manufacturing. In workmanship, we have called to our side labor most skilled. In practical durability, we have produced an article that will outlive and outwork the horse and the ox. Offer it to your customers with the utmost confidence in the world." Thus was born the Little Giant tractor to the "House of Mayer."
Four years in design, the Little Giant tractor was as expensive as the highest-priced automobile or truck then available, but the company promised the tractor was years ahead in terms of features, design, material, workmanship and durability. The Little Giant came with an ironclad warranty: Any defective part would be replaced within a year of shipment.
The company claimed to know of no way to improve its product. The Little Giant tractor offered not only quality engineering, promotional writers noted, but intrinsic appeal as well: " … it will make farming so interesting that your boys will rather remain on the farm than leave for the city." No boys? No problem. "Every farmer operating a farm of 80 acres or more can solve the hired help problem with the Little Giant oil tractor."
The Mayer brothers had ambitious plans during the early industrialization of America. Several articles in Farm Implement News reported the company's success. In 1914, the company announced plans to triple the size of its factory. Although the expansion never became a reality, architectural drawings showed a vast complex of buildings, complete with billowing black smoke suggesting full production and prosperity. Meanwhile, promotional pieces in 1915-16 extolled the Little Giant tractor's advanced features. But the brothers soon found themselves overextended.
With a workforce reduced by the military build-up in the months leading to World War I, the company was able to fill just 75 percent of Little Giant tractor orders in 1916. Though trip hammer sales continued strong, the tractor and other projects had seriously diverted income and focus from hammer production. When hammer deliveries were delayed, the company faced bankruptcy. Mayers Bros. was on shaky footing.
In 1917 the board of directors took over the newly renamed Little Giant Co., bringing in Fazendin, a Canadian businessman, to manage the company. The Mayer brothers resigned their corporate titles and moved to Wisconsin.
Labor relations sour
Under new management, the company began to fare better financially. But Little Giant's struggles hadn't ended. On May 27, 1919, workers acting on recommendations from the War Labor Board requested a standard wage increase, to 72 cents per hour for first-class machinists and 49 cents for helpers (based on an eight-hour day). At that time, Little Giant paid hourly wages of 30 to 40 cents, substantially less than the wages paid by other area plants, and less than the standard scale recommended by the War Labor Board.
Workers presented their requests at 7:30 a.m. By 10:56 a.m. they had been paid off and locked out of the factory. The company idled factory production and advertised in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., newspapers for "red-blooded Americans ... willing to work a 60-hour week ... not the I.W.W.s or Bolsheviks." Newspaper editorial writers and unions jumped into the fray, demanding an eight-hour day in addition to the wage hike. The State Board of Arbitration resolved the dispute in August.
Battling a bottom line in the red, Fazendin eliminated unprofitable products and scrapped inventory in 1923. The Little Giant tractor was among the cuts. In the tractor's eight-year production run, more than 500 Little Giants had been built. Fazendin retained only Little Giant trip hammers and the foundry, which produced plumbing fittings, castings and supplies. That action kept the company's doors open during the Great Depression. In 1937, he purchased the company. His son-in-law, Jerry Dotson, joined the organization in 1943.
During a period of increased mechanization in the years leading to World War II, the demand for trip hammers soared. Buyers for the federal government validated the quality of the Little Giant trip hammer when they wrote trip hammer specifications calling for 'Little Giant or equal.' The younger Dotson reinvigorated the foundry, which was spun off into a separate operation named the Dotson Co. Denny Dotson has managed that organization since 1973. Trip hammer production ended in 1984, and the Little Giant name was sold in 1991. FC
For more information, contact Denny Dotson by email: email@example.com.
Nikki Rajala is a retired teacher now working as a freelance writer. Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Little Giant by the Numbers
|Model A||Model B|
|Horsepower||drawbar, 26; brake, 35||drawbar, 16; brake, 22|
|Plows pulled||four to six 14-inch bottoms||three to four 14-inch bottoms|
|Cylinders||four vertical cast in pairs 5.5-by-6 inches||four vertical cast in pairs 4.5-by-5 inches|
|Speeds||1.5, 3 and 6 mph||1.5, 3 and 6 mph|
|Weight||8,700 pounds||5,200 pounds|
From company promotional material:
"The third forward speed will cut the running time in half when the load is light. It pulls through an enclosed spring drawbar, which prevents injury to the tractor or its load by jerk in starting or while in motion. It is completely hooded in from the weather, all working parts are enclosed from dust and other damaging elements, and run on roller or ball bearings."
"Its bull gears are of the open (or ladder) type and clean perfectly under all conditions; they are of large diameter and furnish an unusually powerful leverage on the drive wheels. The drive wheel lugs are the Y-type that clean better under all conditions than any other. The stem of each fits into the Y of the next, forming a continuously smooth tread that prevents harmful jar and vibration to the tractor when operating on hard surfaces and the bearing surfaces of these lugs are so large that the tractor will damage no pavement, not even asphalt in hot weather."
"Each Little Giant comes equipped with a complete set of tools: nine wrenches, a hammer, screwdriver, hand oiler, pliers and funnel strainer. An additional air cleaner is available for $15."