The name alone evokes a sense of power. Mention the name and some people think of the Bible story. For others, the name revives memories of Cecil B. DeMilles' 1939 film classic Samson and Delilah, with the bronzed and muscular Victor Mature playing the role of Samson.
In a memorable scene from the film, a blinded, battered and bruised Samson is chained to the pillars of a palace. He strains mightily at the chains binding him until he finally feels the gigantic stones begin to give. In one last gallant effort, he exhibits his awesome power by desperately pulling on the chains until the pillars give way and the entire structure collapses.
While the Samson tractor may not have had quite the brute strength of the Biblical powerhouse, it was powerful in its own right. The Samson could pull a 2- or 3-bottom plow in the soils of farms, groves and vineyards of its home near Stockton, Calif.
According to Bill Vossler's Orphan Tractors, J.M. Kroyer started the Samson Iron Works in 1884 to make engines and pumps to handle winter water runoff around Stockton. Samson began manufacturing tractors early in the 20th century. By 1913, the Samson tractor won the California State Fair competition against all comers in its size category. About a year later, it was offered in two sizes: a 6-12 model and a 10-25. Both were called Sieve-Grips.
Named for unique tread
The Sieve-Grip's wheel tread design was unusual. Although the Samson tractor used cleats, its open wheel design was unique among tractors. Samson's ads claimed the open tread provided better traction in the area's hilly terrain.
But the unusual design made some nervous. Farmers in that era were particularly concerned by soil compaction. Samson tractor ads did not address the point, but the wheel print suggests a significant ratio of pounds per square inch. Imagine, for instance, the difference in pressure exerted by a spiked golf shoe versus that from a woman's high-heeled shoe.
The Samson Sieve-Grip is wide and low-slung, designed to work effectively beneath limbs and branches in groves and vineyards. Samson was one of the first manufacturers to enclose gears to keep out dirt and dust. The 10-25 model measures 63 inches wide at the outside edges of the driving wheels, 57 inches at its highest point and 175 inches from the leading edge of the front wheel to the seat.
The seat is placed so low and aft of the machine that the driver cannot see the front wheel over the hood. An arrow is perched atop the wheel so the operator can tell which direction the guiding wheel points. Since the tractor has an oversized front wheel, the hand crank is offset on the left side of the engine. There is one speed forward and one reverse. A PTO shaft protrudes from the rear, to which a belt pulley can be bolted for belt work. The 10-25's 4-cylinder engine actually produced 12 hp at the drawbar and 25 at the belt.
Taking on Henry Ford
With the introduction of his famous Fordson tractor, Henry Ford changed not only the course of American agriculture but also that of General Motors Corp. Ford intended to produce a small, lightweight but powerful tractor to replace the horse on the American farm, much as his Model T Ford replaced the horse in transportation. And he had the production capacity to get the job done.
William C. Durant, General Motors chairman and a fierce competitor of Ford's, decided it was time to enter the tractor business as well. To preclude engineering and start-up costs necessary to develop a tractor from scratch, GM shopped around for a suitable existing tractor. The Samson Sieve-Grip tractor was the answer. GM acquired the company in 1918. Durant then bought the Janesville (Wis.) Machine Co., manufacturer of a variety of farm implements, and moved the Samson product line to Janesville.
After the move, GM continued to use the Samson name and built the Samson Sieve-Grip tractor at the Janesville plant. During that period, the radiator and engine were improved and structural changes were made. The new Samson tractor used a 4-cylinder GM-built engine with a 4-3/4-by-6-inch bore and stroke. The GMC logo was added to the name, placed over the Samson name on the tractor's radiator and rear fenders.
But Durant was not quite satisfied with the Sieve-Grip. Expensive to build, it could not compete with the Fordson. Durant set his sights on a smaller tractor. In 1919, the company introduced the 3,300-pound Samson Model M. It used a 4-cylinder GM 276-cubic inch engine with 4-by-5-1/2-inch bore and stroke, and had 11.5 drawbar horsepower and 19 at the belt with the engine running at 1,100 rpm. Interestingly, its Simms Model K4 magneto did not have an impulse starter, so the operator had to spin-crank the engine to generate sufficient spark for a start.
As a point of comparison, the Fordson weighed about 2,700 pounds. It had a 4-by-5-inch bore and stroke that developed only 9.3 hp at the drawbar and 18.2 on the belt when running at 1,100 rpm.
In 1918, GMC bought the rights to the Jim Dandy Motor Cultivating Co. After minor modifications, GMC introduced the Model D Iron Horse tractor in 1919. The Iron Horse was steered with a set of reins quite like those used to drive a team of horses and used a 4-cylinder Chevrolet engine with a 3-11/16-by-4-inch bore and stroke. Farmers, though, were not nostalgic for horse farming. Sales were less than exceptional and GMC lost money.
From 1920 to 1923, Samson came out with two models of flatbed trucks: a Model E 15 light-duty and a Model E 25 heavy-duty, each with a Chevrolet engine. After quitting the tractor business, General Motors retained the truck line at the Janesville plant, renaming and marketing the trucks as Chevrolets.
Ultimately, Durant lost his bid to take over the agricultural market and defeat Ford. The Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s, high production costs and Henry Ford's desire to "own" the tractor business spelled the end of GMC's entry into the fray. By 1923, Ford had produced more than 100,000 Fordson tractors, about one-half of the world's total tractor production. Financial losses, Durant's removal as chairman and change in business focus spelled the end of the General Motors agricultural enterprise. The company stopped building tractors in 1922 and sold the remaining Samson inventory in 1923.
Very few of the original Samson 6-12 1-cylinder tractors exist, though a 4-cylinder 10-25 turns up from time to time. Occasionally, you'll see a Model D Iron Horse or a Samson truck. More often, you'll happen on to a GMC Sieve-Grip or Model M tractor. When you spot one of these old, unusual, powerful Samson tractors, perhaps you too will be reminded of the strong man of the Bible. FC
For more information:
- Ernie Thackeray keeps a registry of Samson Model Ms and can account for about 75. To register one, contact him at 106 McPhail Drive, Redwood Falls, MN 56283.
- Willard Stambaugh, 13001 Old 3C Road, Sunbury, OH 43074.
- Charles Greer, 3708 Wolverine Road, Pinckneyville, IL 62274.
James N. Boblenz grew up on a farm near New Bloomington, Ohio. He now lives in Marion, Ohio, and is interested in antique farm equipment, particularly rare and lesser-known tractors and related items. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org