Short-Lived Tractors with Odd or Unique Names

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Coleman Worm-Drive tractor.
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"Little Oak" tractor.
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The Earthworm tractor, the fictional embodiment of Caterpillar in the stories by William Hazlett Upson and adapted to film in the 1930s.
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Creeping Grip tractor.
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The Square-Turn tractor.
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The Webfoot 20-40.
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Kansas City Hay Press Co. in 1917.

Step right up, lay-dees and gennamen, and see the brand-new Burn-Oil tractor!

Not to your fancy? Then how about the Angleworm 10? No? Then maybe the Rigid-Rail is the answer to your farm-work dreams? Or the Webfoot 53?

Perhaps the names of some of today’s modern tractors will be viewed in the future with amusement; but for peculiar and odd names of tractors, nothing beats gazing at the monikers hung on tractors of the past, like those real-life names of tractors listed in the first paragraph. Why were these names – and dozens of others just as odd – chosen? What were their public relations people thinking?

Mainly they were thinking of a way to get their product known, no different than today. Or maybe – most likely – the companies were so small they didn’t have PR people, and didn’t take as much time as they should have to think of the consequences of the names they chose. Most of these odd and unusual names were created prior to 1920, when competition for selling tractors was fierce as hundreds of tractor companies tried to elbow aside other companies one way or another. One of those ways was to create a unique, perhaps not-thought-out, name, many of which sound odd to the modern ear.

The Angleworm tractor

Perhaps one of the worst-named tractors ever was the Angleworm 10, made (and named badly, one might say) by Badley Tractor Co. of Portland, Ore., in 1936. It was a small tracked tractor weighing 2,600 pounds, and sitting only 37 inches high. It disappeared the same year it was introduced.

The Webfoot tractor

Or how about the Webfoot tractor, made by Blewett Tractor Co. of Tacoma, Wash., from 1920-1923. One might say they “blew it” with the name. The Webfoot was a half-track type of tractor, an appropriate name in the sense that only about half of the concept of “webfoot” works, the part indicating that the track spreads widely over the ground.

Unfortunately, the tractor’s aquatic name was not the only thing working against its success. This tractor sold for $5,000 at a time when the farm market was going into depression, and other tractor companies were cutting prices.

The Prairie Dog tractor

Another animal tractor whose name didn’t quite work was built by Kansas City Hay Press Co. of Kansas City, Mo., in two models – L and D – from 1917 through 1920, and called the “Prairie Dog” tractor. This is an odd name for a tractor, if only because prairie dogs are harmful to fields, so the name could be seen as something that might tend to turn farmers off. It’s hard to gauge whether the name helped bury the tractor, or the great agricultural depression of the early 1920s finished it off.

The Steel Hoof tractor

Another curious name for a tractor was one made by Lambert Gas Engine Co. of Anderson, Ind., and called the “Steel Hoof.” C.H. Wendel writes that the Steel Hoof’s “unique drive wheels were designed to contact the ground much like a horse’s hoof. As the wheel turned, the pads retracted, thus providing a self-cleaning wheel.” The Steel Hoof was made from 1912-1916.

The C.O.D. tractor

Today the initials “C.O.D.” typically mean “collect on delivery,” but the tractor of the same initials made by C.O.D. Tractor Co. of Minneapolis, and built from 1916-1919, had no such meaning. In fact, it’s unclear how the name for this tractor was formed, or what it meant, but it probably was short for the last names of three of the major stockholders of the company: Conrad, Ogard and Daniel.

At least two models with several more variations were made of the C.O.D., the original 13-25 and the later 10-20. Several hundred of the tractors were made, but only five exist today. One of the dangers of these many companies before 1920 was how quickly they could go out of business; one North Dakota family invested heavily in the C.O.D. and, when the company went out of business, nearly lost their farm.

The Common Sense tractor

The Common Sense tractor carried another unusual name. It was designed by H.W. Adams, who said in Farm Implements, Dec. 31, 1917: “I knew that too many tractors were the result of theoretical experts who worked on drawing boards, instead of the results given by tractors under actual working conditions in the hands of farmers. I saw where such tractors could not help but fall down, so I decided to start from the other end. I learned first the practical features necessary, and then worked out the proper mechanical methods of obtaining those results. One day I was explaining my ideas to a farmer, and he said, ‘Well, now you’re talking common sense. A tractor like that ought to run.’ So I decided to call my tractor the Common Sense. …”

So Adams went out into North Dakota fields for two years, driving his tractor, watching others drive it, testing it, talking with farmers, before he brought the Common Sense tractor to market in 1915. The company lasted until 1922.

The Burn-Oil tractor

The Burn-Oil tractor was manufactured in 1920 and perhaps 1921 by the Burn-Oil Tractor Co. of Peoria, Ill. Today the name is a distinct turn-off, with its smell reminder.

In 1920 this machine carried a 15-30 rating, weighing 5,500 pounds, and listing at $1,650. “Apparently,” writes C. H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, “this tractor attempted to use some of the better features of the Hart-Parr, Waterloo Boy, and Huber tractors, since there are so many similarities.”

The tractor obviously burned oil as its fuel, but Farm Implements magazine wrote that it wasn’t such a good deal: “The number of oil-burning engines is increasing rapidly, as a result of the coal shortage and the special advantages of that type. A number of fires have resulted from the overheating of the exhaust pipes of these internal combustion engines, and a series of tests have been made to determine the hazard.”

The Klumb tractor

Another tractor with an odd name was the Klumb, which was a dumb idea. At least, the name was – as anyone who remembers playground politics would know – simply because it could be made fun of so easily. Dubuque Tractor & Truck Mfg. Co. of Dubuque, Iowa, made the Klumb Model F in 1920. The tractor had originally been designed by Paul Klumb of Sheboygan, Wis.

That same year the name was changed to “Klum” and the company to Liberty Tractor Co. of Dubuque. But it still didn’t make any difference; the tractor and company disappeared in 1920.

The Big Four tractor

One name of a tractor which wasn’t as odd as it was confusing: the Big Four tractor, manufactured by the Gas Traction Co. of Minneapolis, and later by Emerson-Brantingham Implement Co. of Rockford, Ill.

The name was unclear. Without knowing the history of the companies, a person might assume the “Big Four” meant the tractor had four wheels – which it did – during an era when many three-wheelers were being built. But not all four wheels were big.

It also wasn’t that it could pull four plows, at a time when three were standard (it was actually rated for five plows). Or that it was the fourth style of tractor built by Gas Traction Co. (which it was, but that wasn’t standard knowledge, and it wasn’t why it was so-named).

It was because it was the first four-cylinder tractor on the market at a time when most others had two cylinders. The Big Four was built by these two companies from about 1908-1920, when other designs became more favored.

The Silver King tractor

The Silver King tractor, built by Fate-Root-Heath Co. of Plymouth, Ohio, has one of the most interesting of all tractor names. In 1909, the company built its first Plymouth truck, and a year later, the Plymouth automobile. Thus they had the trade-name rights to “Plymouth” long before Chrysler thought of the name. The little company had the advantage, of course, of being located in Plymouth.

In 1933, F-R-H brought out its Plymouth tractor. The company built 232 of them before Chrysler sued, as it had built its first Plymouth car in 1928, and wanted the “Plymouth” name. Chrysler lost, and paid F-R-H $1 for the Plymouth name. A Brief History of F-R-H says that one day the F-R-H brain trust sat down around a table to decide on a new name for their tractor. “They thought they had the king of all tractors on the market. They didn’t want to give up the ‘king’ part. One of the gentlemen around the board table had brought a bouquet of silver foliage from a plant at his home to put on the boardroom table. Someone said, ‘Let’s call it Silver King.’ And that’s the way it came about.”

The Square-Turn tractor

The Square-Turn tractor was so-named because of, as Wendel writes, “a unique system of fibre-faced driving cones which enabled one drive wheel (at the rear) to travel forward and one to travel backward in making a sharp turn.”

Square-Turn Tractor Co. of Norfolk, Neb., made this three-wheeler, probably only in the early 1920s. The tractor weighed 7,400 pounds, and sold for $1,875 in 1920. “After a meteoric rise,” Wendel writes, “the Square Turn interests were sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1925.”

The Happy Farmer tractor

The logo for the Happy Farmer Tractor Co. of Minneapolis was one of the most unique of all, showing – what else? – a happy farmer in a close-up. The Happy Farmer was designed by D.M. Hartsough, who designed a number of other tractors, including the Big Four, Bull and Lion. The Happy Farmer was a three-wheeler tractor first produced in 1916, and then moved to La Crosse, Wis., shortly thereafter, as the La Crosse Tractor Co.

Two models of the Happy Farmer were made through 1918, a Model A (8-16 rating) and Model B (12-24 rating.) Photos and drawings of them show the tractors to be almost identical. A 1917 edition of Farm Implements magazine touts the Happy Farmer: “A year ago the company employed 50 persons; today they employ 500. …”

B.F. Hamey, vice president and general manager of the La Crosse Tractor Co., said in the same article, “The rapid growth and large business is due principally to the tractor, followed closely by an efficient sales organization. The machine is in popular demand. The Happy Farmer tractor has passed the experimental stage and is delivering the goods. We expect to build and ship 3,000 or more tractors this year and our business would be three times as large were we able to build the tractors. These figures are for the United States alone. It is estimated that 2,000,000 farms in the United States are adapted for tractor farming. Thousands of horses are being destroyed as a result of the war and one tractor takes the place of five horses. We have sold tractors to many farmers whose farms do not exceed from 80 to 100 acres in size, and we have received letters from them declaring that the tractor was a profitable investment.”

In 1919 and 1920, the company added two more similar models, the Model F and Model G, both 12-24 models with slight differences from the earlier Model B. Curiously enough – and perhaps in keeping with the tractor name – the company tried to keep farmers happy by bringing back reined tractors in 1921 and 1922. The Model H and Model M tractors both were operated by the farmer standing on the implement behind the tractor, operating it with reins, just as they used to do with horses. The company disappeared in 1922, leaving these last models as two of the rarest of all tractors.

The people who made the Happy Farmer also sold Waterloo Boy tractors, but stopped after developing the Happy Farmer, which resembles one of the 3-wheel Waterloo Boy models.

The Adams Sidehill tractor

One of the most unusual of all tractors ever made seemed to be predicated on the old joke told to tenderfoots who asked how cows could stand on steep hills and eat. “Why, the legs on one side are shorter than those on the other side,” the joshers said.

Such might be said of the Adams Sidehill tractor. It was manufactured by Adams Sidehill Tractor Co. of The Dalles, Ore., in 1927. As Wendel writes, “In an effort to conquer sidehills, this tractor had a leveling arrangement to keep everything on an even keel. Apparently the two rear wheels could be individually raised and lowered, presumably by hand levers. Conquering, the sidehills with power machinery has long been a dream, and this machine provided one solution to the problems. Ordinary tractors were rather unsuitable on sidehills because of the danger of upset.”

The Creeping Grip crawler tractors

Though the name “Creeping Grip” sounds more like a disease than a tractor, at least three companies manufactured a caterpillar-type tractor by that name. The first one was made by the Western Implement & Motor Co. of Davenport, Iowa, in 1912, and was actually called the “Creeping Tiger,” which was quickly changed to “Creeping Grip.”

When the Bullock Tractor Co. of Chicago took over Western Implement, they kept the Creeping Grip tractor, but added the “Baby Creeper” to their line.

The Franklin Tractor Co. of Greenville, Ohio, also made a Creeping Grip tractor in 1921. Shortly thereafter, Bullock and Franklin combined. The new company did not last much longer.

It’s all in the name

There are many other odd names – how about the Earthworm tractor, or the Wetmore, or Winnebago Chief, or the Farmhorse, or Grain Belt, Worm-Drive, OilPull or GasPull? Also, not everyone might think every tractor name in this article is odd or unusual. Beauty, or the lack thereof, is in the ear of the beholder.

One interesting fact to note is that the vast majority of the large tractor companies over the years – John Deere, Case, International Harvester, Ford, Caterpillar, Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver and others – did not use a single odd or unusual name for a tractor. Perhaps they knew something that the smaller tractor companies with the odd and unusual names didn’t know: that the name means a lot.

On the other hand, perhaps the name of a tractor doesn’t sound odd if it is a success, and the name is repeated so many times that it becomes a popular, and thus no-longer-odd part of American culture. FC

Bill Vossler is a frequent contributor to Farm Collector. His most recent book is The Complete Book of Farm Toys & Boxes.

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