Nilson Lever-Hitch System Maximized Tractor’s Power

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The very earliest Nilson had a single covered drive wheel in the rear. Photo circa 1915.
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"Nilson Farm Machine drawing a gang of four plows." From a circa 1915 magazine article.
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A later Nilson ad no longer mentions the Nilson Farm Machine, but only the Nilson Sr. 25-36, and the Nilson Jr. 16-25.
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Early tractor manufacturers went to sometimes ridiculous extremes to tout their machines, as with this Nilson tractor, shown "plowing in a foot of snow and through 5 inches of frozen ground, with the thermometer 15 degrees below zero, near Lewistown, Mont."
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The interior of the Nilson factory.
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This photo of an early Nilson at work in the field gives a sense of how the machine progressed, from that single large drum drive wheel in the back, to the trio of drive wheels on Bryan Dagan's Nilson Jr.
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This illustration shows how the patented Nilson lever hitch creates more traction when implements are hooked to it.
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When this early advertisement for the Nilson tractor appeared in Farm Implements magazine in 1915, the headline crowed, "The First Real Competitor of the Horse." The ad went on to say: "General view of machine, showing its simplicity, few working parts, strength and rigidity of frame combined with a minimum weight, approximately 4,300 pounds. Note the small size of traction or driving wheel 24-inch face and the manner of attaching center rim (in four parts) to prevent tearing up roads when hauling, and protecting cleats on hard roads."
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A Nilson Sr., plowing in North Dakota in about 1920. (Courtesy of the Richard Birklid photo collection.)

For many tractor manufacturers predating 1920, wholesale changes in either the organization or the product resulted in disaster. In that era, big changes (or frequent changes) usually signaled a company with an unhealthy financial picture. Often those companies disappeared, usually after making last-ditch, grandiose claims. The Nilson Tractor Co. of Minneapolis was the exception to that rule. You could almost call Nilson “The Company of Changes.”

Fulcrum- and lever-design

The company was incorporated in 1913 as the Nilson Agricultural Machine Co. by Nils Nilson “and a few of his friends,” according to a 1918 article in The Northwestern Tractor & Truck Dealer. Nilson invented farm appliances, including a scale. “This fulcrum-and-lever principle used in scales he applied to the Nilson tractor, which principle is known as the Nilson lever hitch,” the article’s writer continued.

Soon after, the business name was changed to Nilson Farm Machine Co., probably because by then the company’s new tractor had been named the Nilson Farm Machine. Based on an article in P.S. Rose’s Report on Tractor Companies 1915, it appears that Nilson was still experimenting with producing its own tractor. In that article, Rose noted that Nilson Farm Machine Co. “Does not manufacture. Merely assembles parts, which they buy. Mr. Nilson has been working on patents for a tractor for five years. Company formed two years ago. First tractor completed September 1914. Thirty-five of them out up to date.”

By 1915, the company announced plans to move to Waukesha, Wis. Though it remains unclear whether the move was actually made, at least some Nilson tractors were manufactured in Wisconsin, as an early 1916 article in Farm Implements reports: “The Nilson farm machine is now being built at the plant of the Federal Bridge Company, at Waukesha, Wis., where enlarged and better facilities for manufacturing are to be had. The company plans an output of 500 machines for 1916. The first shipment of Nilson Farm Machines from the Waukesha factory was sent out Oct. 31 (1915).”

At the same time Nilsons were being manufactured in Waukesha, the company moved into the vacated facilities of the Bull Tractor Co. of Minneapolis. Late in 1916, the company changed its name to Nilson Tractor Co. Two years later, Nilson went into receivership. The company’s assets were sold in 1919.

A rapid-fire series of reorganizations followed the 1919 sale of the company. The Minnesota-Nilson Corp. was organized on Feb. 16, 1920. Flour City Ornamental Iron Works of Minneapolis was the moving force behind that company. By June of that year it was announced that Crown Iron Works of Minneapolis would take over production of the Nilson tractor.

Nilson’s sales declined after 1922, but the tractor was listed in trade directories until 1929. On Aug. 9 of that year, the company filed articles of dissolution. Repair parts were available as late as 1936.

The Nilson tractors

As the parent company changed, so did the tractors. The earliest Nilson Farm Machine looked very much like the Big Bull tractor from the rear, with a large central drum covering the single rear drive wheel. The resemblance is probably not surprising, since in 1915 the company moved into the Bull Tractor Co. plant in Minneapolis. However, since only two photos of this purported tractor are available, it’s difficult to determine if it actually is an early Nilson, or whether it’s a case of mistaken identity: The tractor resembles the Big Bull and the Simplex, both manufactured in Minneapolis at about that time.

That Nilson was simply called a 25 hp machine. Production lasted at least into early 1916, as a Jan. 30, 1916, article in Farm Implements magazine titled “The Nilson Farm Machine” discussed this tractor. “Pulling a 4-bottom, 14-inch gang, the Nilson Farm Machine makes it possible to plow a farm of 500 acres in 30 days, if so desired, by having both a day and night shift,” the writer notes. “Then, also, it costs no more to operate the Nilson Farm Machine with its four plows than it does a machine pulling only two or three plows, as one man’s time would have to be considered in each case.”

A later Nilson Farm Machine was much more streamlined. Astute observers might notice how the tapered hood and steel chain covers, steering wheel and controls echoed automobile design of the time. This Nilson still had only a single, wide drum-drive rear wheel, open to the elements.

In 1917, the company added a pair of narrower drive wheels along each side of the large drum, perhaps for greater stability, adding wheels of 10-inch face on each side. The Jr.’s drive drum was 33 inches wide, and the Sr.’s was 40 inches. The 4- or 5-plow Sr. was rated at 20-40 at this point, weighed 5,250 pounds, and sold for $1,485. In 1918, the Sr.’s rating was changed to 24-36. By 1920, when the drum was half-covered from the top down, perhaps to prevent dust encroachment, the Sr. had been re-rated to a 20-40 once more. It weighed 6,400 pounds and sold for $2,475 (quite expensive in 1919), with a Waukesha engine of 4-3/4-inch-by-6-3/4-inch bore and stroke. Fenders were added to the smaller drive wheels after 1917.

The 3- or 4-plow Nilson Jr. was introduced in 1917, a 15-30 companion to the Sr. It was proclaimed to be “practically self-steering,” with the right front wheel running in the furrow, “and three rear drive wheels” running on unplowed land. Promotional materials gushed about the tractor’s merits. “One feature claimed for it is its flexibility, having either three wheels or five wheels, thus adapting it to almost any kind of farm work, in rowed crops or grain farming.”

This 4,200-pound tractor sold for $1,585 in 1918, when its rating was changed to 16-27. In 1920-21, the rating changed once more to 15-27. By 1925, after the Great Tractor War, the Jr. sold for half of its earlier price, $790.

In his Manufactured & Estimated paper focusing on the tractor industry, P.S. Rose wrote that Nilson produced 111 tractors in 1916, 325 in 1917 and 214 in the first half of 1918, although the figures are not broken down between Srs. and Jrs. Though most tractor companies overestimated the number of units they might produce in the future, Nilson’s projections cited in Rose’s report (including 350 in the last half of 1918) seem realistic. Because of the jump from 111 in 1916 to about 400 in 1918, a larger estimate for the next year was appropriate, although their estimate of 2,300 for 1919 seems overzealous.

Proven advantage

The major advantages of the Nilson tractors, as noted in a June 29, 1918, article in Farm Implements were that: “… instead of hitching the plows to the rear of the channel iron frame, as everyone else does, they are hitched to a swinging drawbar the front end of which is attached to an arch bar at points varying from 20 to 38 inches above the rear axle. This drawbar, when the tractor is pulling, takes about the same angle as the tugs on a horse. The downward pull of the plows therefore materially increases the pressure between the driving wheels and the ground, and greatly increases their grip on the ground. Furthermore, the harder the pull of the plows, the greater the grip, which is just what is wanted to give the maximum traction. Consequently a Nilson tractor, because of its lever hitch and wide driving wheel surface, will deliver a greater percentage of the power of the motor back to the drawbar than any other tractor. And this fact has been demonstrated in actual fieldwork in hundreds of cases.

“This hitch gives the Nilson tractor automatic traction by pull instead of by weight, and by the application of the lever hitch, they were able to build a machine that is from one to two tons lighter than would otherwise be necessary.”

Advantages or not, eventually most of the Nilson tractors ever manufactured disappeared, leaving only a few rarities – like Brian Dagan’s – that can be seen today.  FC

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