Let's Talk Rusty Iron

An Idea Whose Time Never Came


| June 2005



HarryCleaver.jpg

Harry Cleaver cultivating corn with a Bailor Model A motor cultivator on his farm near Burlington, Iowa, in 1920 or 1921. Harry was the uncle of Lindsey Gillis of Scenery Hill, Pa., who provided the photograph.

Motor cultivator offered alternative to tractors … just not a very good one

Sometime ago, I received in the mail a copy of an old photograph of a young man cultivating corn, using an unusual, steel-wheeled tractor. Helen Gillis of Scenery Hill, Pa., discovered the original photo in the attic of her farmhouse. Helen's husband, Lindsey, believes the picture was taken in Burlington, Iowa, about 1920 or '21, and that the man driving the tractor is his uncle, Harry Cleaver. Lindsey wondered if I could identify the make of tractor that Uncle Harry was operating.

The tractor in the photo isn't really a tractor at all, but a motor cultivator made by the Bailor Plow Manufacturing Co. The first motor cultivators appeared in the mid-teens and, by the time of the Great Depression, most had disappeared.

Tractor builders of the day believed they could wean the farmer from his horses by developing light, engine-driven machines that could take over the duties of planting and cultivating row crops, jobs that were impossible with the heavy, awkward tractors then in use.

Motor cultivators never caught on, mostly because of their expense. The average price of a motor cultivator in 1920 was more than $500, a large expenditure for a machine that would be used only during the short cultivating season. In addition, many motor cultivators were poorly designed, suffered from mechanical problems and upset easily on hilly ground. The machines were difficult and tiring to operate, requiring both hands to steer while the feet were used to control the shovel gangs for close cultivation.

One of the firms that tried to cash in on the motor cultivator craze was the Bailor Plow Manufacturing Co. of Atchison, Kan. Little information on the company is available. A 1916 history of Atchison County tells us that the Bailor Plow Co. was started in 1910 to manufacture a 2-row cultivator invented by S.E. Bailor. Mr. Bailor, then of Beatrice, Neb., had developed a 2-row cultivator, horse-drawn, of course, in about 1890. A wealthy Tarkio, Mo., farmer named David Rankin bought 50 of Bailor's cultivators in 1905, and put them to work on his 25,000-acre farm. Rankin liked the cultivators and convinced Bailor to build a manufacturing plant in Tarkio.

Five years later, the Atchison (Kan.) Commercial Club was casting about for profitable businesses to augment the local economy. Somehow, these community boosters convinced Mr. Bailor to relocate his operation to Atchison. The relocated firm sold just 100 Bailor cultivators in the first year of operation, but by 1915, things were looking up. That year, Bailor sold $250,000 worth of machinery from its 25,000-square foot facility. The firm paid its 40 employees more than $50,000 per annum, a fact proudly pointed out in the 1916 History of Atchison County.