Early St. Louis farm equipment companies thrived in bustling river port.
St. Louis was perhaps the first American city that manufactured farm equipment from A to Z, running the gamut from Alligator Equipment Co. to Zelle Tractor Co. Building on its proud heritage as both a leading port on the Mississippi River and as Gateway to the West, St. Louis proved fertile ground for the explosion of manufacturing that launched the 20th century.
A July 18, 1911, article in Implement Age magazine, headlined “The McKinney Tractor Cultivator,” announced news of a new company in St. Louis. “The (company) is now located in its new factory and has installed a complete line of high grade machinery for the manufacture of the McKinney tractor cultivator. The company writes that it will make deliveries of its tractor cultivator on or about Nov. 1 of this year.
“The McKinney Tractor Cultivator is one of the latest inventions in power machinery for agricultural purposes. It has been thoroughly tested in field work, and its successful operation proven.” Nothing else is known about the company or the cultivator.
The future of Plantation Equipment Co. was written in the last name of the company owners — a trio of men with the last name Zelle: Arthur, William and Henry. It is unclear when Plantation began business, though it produced an enormous, ungainly Straddle-Row tractor as early as 1914.
In 1917, Plantation manufactured three Zelle Straddle-Row models: an 8-16, a 12-25 and a 16-32. They weighed 2,500, 3,500 and 4,500 pounds, with respective drawbar pulls of 1,000, 2,000 and 3,000 pounds. Very limited information is available, but it appears that these tractors were later called the Ultimate 8-16, Ultimate 12-25 and Ultimate 16-32. Purchase price in 1917 ranged from $850 to $1,050 ($15,500 to $19,150 today).
It was probably not a huge surprise when Plantation Equipment Co. evolved into Zelle Tractor Co. But Zelle built only one model: the 12-25. The Zelle 12-25 tractor was noteworthy for its unlimited visibility. The operator’s platform was completely above the tractor, the seat a full 71 inches above the ground. The steering wheel and control columns were top-mounted.
Manufactured from 1918-1921, Zelle 12-25 tractors originally sold for $1,500 ($23,195 today). By the end of the first year of production, the price jumped to $2,000. The 3,800-pound machine with a vertical engine (4-1/4-by-5-1/2-inch bore and stroke) had four cylinders (cast in pairs) and was rated for two to three plows and a 26-inch thresher.
Shortly after organizing, the company signed on as a charter member of the American Tractor Assn., paying dues of $50. Of the other two dozen signees, the biggest name was probably that of tractor and engine builder John Lauson Mfg. Co. Most others were smaller concerns, like Aulson Tractor Co. and Illinois Tractor Co.
The group’s main purpose was to fight a federal ruling that restricted access to raw materials. Steel shipments to tractor manufacturers that had made 50 or fewer machines the previous year were capped at that level, preventing potential growth. The lobbying effort must have worked, as no subsequent information is available on the American Tractor Assn., and member companies did not appear to restrict production.
Curiously, in industry analyst Philip S. Rose’s (a faculty member at North Dakota Agricultural College, Fargo) 1919 List of Tractor Firms, Zelle Tractor Co. was listed as “doing other work.” The company’s 1919 forecast predicted output of 1,000 tractors. No other information is available.
Kardell Truck & Tractor Co. was perhaps the most well-known of the St. Louis tractor companies. It came into existence in 1917, during those heady years when tractor experimentation was in full vogue. How would a tractor look? What chores would it perform on the farm? How much would it cost?
The first Kardell was the three-wheeled, Four-in-One tractor, a 20-32 machine offered at $1,250 in 1917 ($22,800 today). It could be used on the farm in four ways:
• To perform regular field work, where, as Farm Implements magazine said, “The unique tractive design, a webbed tread, which loosens rather than packs, yet grips like a horse’s hoof, gathers traction on soft ground.”
• To act as a “motor plow,” with three 14-inch plows “hitched to the front end of the frame by a patented adjustable spring draw-bar,” Farm Implements continues, releasing the clutch whenever a rock or stump is struck.
• To provide belt power for farm chores as needed.
• To perform as a 3-ton truck. For an additional $225, the company would include a truck chassis with wheels, so the tractor could be converted to a 3-ton Kardell truck.
In 1918, Kardell brought out a utility tractor with an 8-16 rating. It used a Wisconsin 4-cylinder engine with a 4-by-5-inch bore and stroke. The next year it was re-rated as a 10-20.
In his Manufactured and Estimated booklet, Philip S. Rose wrote that Kardell made one tractor in 1916, none in 1917 and six in the first half of 1918. Production estimates called for 16 in the second half of 1918 and a leap to 6,000 in 1919. In 1921, the company was purchased by Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile fame and moved to Oldsmar, Fla.
Fulton Mfg. Co. began manufacturing machinery in the 1940s, starting with its power-operated sickle mower. In 1945, C.C. Fulton won a patent for an attachable power-driven support frame for mowers and garden implements. A year later, he won a patent for an attachable “traction lug rim,” designed to increase traction of tractor wheels, especially those on garden tractors. He also designed a power source support frame for bicycles, making them into semi-motorcycles.
Next up for Fulton was a garden tractor, the Do-More, available in two models: the No. 36CF and No. 50. Each had a single-cylinder engine: a Wisconsin ABN in the 36CF and a Briggs & Stratton Model N in the No. 50. The company disappeared in the early 1950s.
Alligator crawler tractors were built in St. Louis starting in the 1950s by Alligator Equipment Co. Inc., which later changed its name to Alligator Tractor Co. The Alligator Model 66 was a small crawler. It measured 40-1/2 inches wide by 88 inches long by 40 inches tall. It produced 17 hp at the drawbar, weighed 4,000 pounds and used an 18 hp, 2-cylinder Wisconsin engine (a diesel engine was also available). Other options included a selection of 18 attachments. The company apparently went out of business in the mid-1960s.
Other than a single mention of the name of the firm in research material, no information is available about the One Wheel Truck Co., and the Universal Motor Truck & Traction Engine Co.
After beer magnate Adolphus Busch obtained rights to build a diesel engine in the U.S. in 1898, he formed Diesel Motor Co. of America. In 1901 he changed the company name to American Diesel Engine Co. American Diesel was then the sole company licensed to manufacture diesel engines in the U.S. under the patent of German engineer Rudolf Diesel. In 1911, the company merged with the Swiss-based Sulzer Bros. Diesel Engine Co., and the new entity controlled diesel engine manufacturing in the U.S. The company also manufactured railroad locomotives. It was bought out by Nordberg Mfg. Co., Milwaukee, in 1946.
Gerald B. Allen established a machine shop in St. Louis in 1852 by servicing steamboat engines along the banks of the Mississippi River. In 1879, Allen renamed the company Fulton Iron Works in honor of Robert B. Fulton, inventor of the steamboat.
As steamboat usage declined, Fulton turned to stationary power plant engines, and, in 1891, created its first sugar mill, the “Cora” nine-roller mill, which, according to literature, “started a mechanical revolution in the sugar cane industry.” One hundred years later, that first mill was still in use.
By 1914, the company was making huge diesel engines for other purposes. These 1-, 2-, and 3-cylinder machines all had 8-by-9-inch bore and stroke engines. Fulton continued to produce diesels until 1926. The company merged with South Side Machine Works, St. Louis, in 2000, and remains in operation today.
Prior to 1897, Louis Langen traveled to Germany to study production of horseless carriages. On his return to St. Louis in 1897, he and two partners formed St. Louis Gasoline Motor Co., the city’s first automobile company.
The company specialized in “motor wagons,” as well as engines and transmission gears for do-it-yourselfers who wanted to build their own automobiles.
After receiving an order for 100 engines, chassis and transmissions from Elgin Motor Co., Chicago, and being promised payments that never materialized, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1900.
Established in 1870, Whitman Agricultural Co. has a long and illustrious history in St. Louis. Soon after the company was founded, Henry L. Whitman won six patents (all improvements) on cider mills and corn shelling machines. His brother, Charles E. Whitman, won a pair of patents for a corn sheller and a baling press by the time the company was launched. Over the course of the next 30 years, Charles Whitman won 31 patents for varied pieces of farm equipment, primarily baling presses.
In 1912, Whitman Agricultural purchased Secord & Orr, Jackson, Mich., and began building gasoline engines. As noted in History of Michigan, Vol. 3, “Messrs. Secord and Orr both have great inventive genius, and deserve much credit for the excellent patents they have secured on their engines. In the fall of 1912 this firm ... sold not only their patent to a St. Louis firm at a handsome figure, but the entire equipment of its plant, which was shipped to the Missouri city.” In the kind of operation that may have given birth to the concept of the non-compete clause, Secord & Orr then patented a new engine and began manufacturing it as a second incarnation of Secord & Orr engines.
In St. Louis, meanwhile, Whitman Agricultural Co. built Sultan vertical engines in sizes ranging from 2-1/2 hp through 6-1/2 hp. Sultan engines were specially adapted for use in the Whitman steel hay press.
The company also built woodworking machines, and had a trademark for a relief valve for internal combustion engines in 1916, but little is known of its life after that.
Starting in 1912, American Car Wheel Co. of St. Louis offered tandem engines from 30 to 120 hp. Larger sizes were available by special order.
Though patents for engines were granted to International Motor Co. and Mound City Motor Co., it is unlikely that either company ever produced an engine. Crescent Marine Engine Co. and Gardner, Rumsey Mfg. were also listed, but inadequate information exists to prove whether they ever actually built engines.
As was the case in many cities where agricultural equipment was manufactured, the shifting tides of technology, markets and demographics eventually erased once thriving industries in St. Louis. Rural electrification made the stationary gasoline engine obsolete, and the death of the family farm finished off small, independent tractor manufacturers. With the loss of so many of the manufacturers that gave the city its strong start, St. Louis is a microcosm of sweeping changes in American agriculture. FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.