The Square Turn Tractor

The one-man, two-way, all-purpose tractor from Nebraska

| July 2009

  • Square Turn tractor front view
    The design of the Square Turn tractor was revolutionary in its time, providing a two-way tractor said to be “better than a team” when it came to working in the field. The Elkhorn museum’s tractor, manufactured in 1918, is an 18-30 with mounted plow.
    Loretta Sorensen
  • Square Turn tractor's wheels
    The Square Turn was huge for its era, with a 7-foot spread between the wheels.
    Loretta Sorensen
  • Square Turn tractor side view
    The giant grip drive was one of the Square Turn’s major selling points. A new concept, the drive allowed the tractor to operate as a two-way machine.
    Loretta Sorensen
  • Square Turn Tractor Co.'s logo
    The Square Turn tractor was equipped with a 510-cubic-inch Climax 4-cylinder engine, making it one of the most powerful tractors of its time, and its seat and levers were mounted on the tractor’s grip drive.
  • Square Turn advertisement claims
    The Square Turn’s claims were nearly revolutionary: “Steers by its own power, turns in its own length.”
  • Square Turn tractor company stock ad
    “It is an opportunity we want home folks to have first,” notes this ad announcing sale of stock in the Square Turn Tractor Co. “Nebraskans invented it, Nebraskans built it, Nebraskans should own it.”
  • Square Turn all-purpose ad claim
    The Square Turn offered the complete package, according to this ad: “A one-man tractor, a two-way tractor, a Square Turn tractor, an all-purpose tractor: Turns a square corner in the field with three plows in five seconds.”
  • Square Turn and farmer
    The Square Turn’s transmission featured radical new technology covered by eight patents.
  • Square Turn was designed to do the work of six to 10 horses
    The Square Turn was designed to do the work of six to 10 horses.

  • Square Turn tractor front view
  • Square Turn tractor's wheels
  • Square Turn tractor side view
  • Square Turn Tractor Co.'s logo
  • Square Turn advertisement claims
  • Square Turn tractor company stock ad
  • Square Turn all-purpose ad claim
  • Square Turn and farmer
  • Square Turn was designed to do the work of six to 10 horses

For a farmer in 1914, the claims made about a new tractor must have seemed too good to be true.

Was the Square Turn tractor indeed the closest thing a teamster could find to a well-broke team? Advertisements promoting the machine boasted it was, noting that “the levers are the lines” and “the Square Turn tractor is easier to drive and handle than a one-horse rig.”

The Square Turn was a progressive, unique tractor for its time. Conceived by two Nebraska men, A.T. Kenney and A.J. Colwell, it seemed perfectly designed for farm use. Kenney was a successful farmer and Colwell had 14 years’ experience as superintendent of construction on the C&NW Railroad. Colwell supplied mechanical genius and Kenney provided practical farming experience. The partners formed the Kenney-Colwell Co., Norfolk, Neb., and began taking customer orders in 1914.

“The two inventors worked untiringly in the shop and in the field until they had produced a one-man tractor that would turn short and square, that would get close to the fence corners, that would carry the plows below and in full view of the operator, and that would handle as easily as any team [of horses],” write Nancy Zaruba and Karen Rogat in their booklet, Norfolk’s Very Own Square Turn Tractor.

A new approach

The Square Turn’s transmission featured radical new technology covered by eight patents. “This invention was called ‘the giant grip drive,’ a new type of transmission never before used in any piece of machinery,” the booklet notes. “Its simplicity, flexibility of control and durability, as well as freedom from repair costs, made it the center of interest at eight great national tractor demonstrations.”

The giant grip drive was designed to provide an entirely new device for transmitting power. Kenney and Colwell claimed the new drive did away with the clutch, differential gears, transmission gears and the universal joint common in other tractors. Advertisements promoted the fact that the tractor’s unique design eliminated a number of common problems. It had fewer parts than other tractors, it carried the plow and other tools in full view of the operator, and it worked on hills and low land, where most tractors could not operate.

Kenney and Colwell powered the Square Turn with a 510-cubic-inch Climax 4-cylinder engine that could run on either kerosene or gas and was rated at 35 hp with 18 hp on the drawbar. The machine’s belt pulley could provide power to a threshing machine, sawmill and other farm machinery.



Inventors step aside

Experiencing the financial challenges common to any start-up, Kenney-Colwell was forced out of the tractor business in just two years. The partners sold their patents to the Albaugh-Dover Co., Chicago, in 1916. The Square Turn Tractor Co. was organized in December 1917 with headquarters in Chicago; the manufacturing operation remained in Norfolk.

Over the next four years, approximately $2 million in common stock was sold to 3,500 investors. Plans called for construction of approximately 2,000 tractors per year. Equipped with a 3-bottom gangplow attachment (an Oliver 3-bottom plow was the standard offering), the Square Turn sold for $1,385. Albaugh-Dover also streamlined the 7,800-pound tractor and added a Waukesha engine.

The tractor’s primary selling point remained its unique ability to make a square turn. The grip drive made it possible for one wheel to move forward while the other wheel moved in the opposite direction, effectively turning the tractor in its own length. A unique foot throttle was used to control speed.



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