Although modern Americans have the idea that everybody rode horses in earlier times, the opposite was reality. Cowboys did indeed spend much of their time astride a horse, but with the exception of occasional wagon and buggy rides, most people’s method of mobility was walking.
Even the man who farmed with horses walked most of the time. Whether it was something as routine as going out to bring in the milk cows, or something more demanding, like using a “foot burner” plow in the field all day, farmers were on their feet most of the time.
The arrival of automobiles and trucks brought change, especially for travel of any distance. Around the farmstead itself, large motorized vehicles were inconvenient. Even for the farmer wealthy enough to own a vehicle, most daily activities necessitated a lot of walking.
In the 1960s, a revolution in personal transportation began. The decades immediately following World War II saw war surplus items integrated into civilian use. One of those was the small, single-cylinder gasoline engine. Although they existed before the war, during the war years such engines were refined for military use. After the war, they were suddenly widely available and inexpensive.
Handy people began building small scooter-like vehicles in farm shops across the country. The scooters shared common design features: a simple frame with the front wheel steered by handle bars; a 1-cylinder gasoline engine manufactured by established companies such as Briggs & Stratton (I always jokingly referred to those engines as “Briggs and Scrap Iron”), Tecumseh or Clinton; and a centrifugal clutch. They usually had a twist-grip throttle, a simple cable-activated brake and a seat designed for one person.
One of the early entrants in the category was designed to help transport big game from where it was shot back to the hunter’s vehicle. Dubbed the “tote goat,” the name stuck. From then on, all scooter-like vehicles in our area were referred to as tote goats.
Since the vehicles were fairly inexpensive, a fad developed. Just about everybody had one or wanted one. These small motorbikes were geared extremely low, so the top speed was something like 15 mph, but they could climb very steep slopes. That speed/climbing ability was a good compromise for farm use, since road travel was not a consideration. A person could rationalize that having one was a good idea, “because the farmer could ride one many places he used to walk and if a person ever had to transport a mule deer or elk any distance in the hills, it could be a lifesaver.”
It is hard for people today to understand that, back then, many small family farms were basically self-supporting and cash from crops was very limited. Any money earned needed to go many places and rarely was there even enough to go around. The idea of paying a sizable amount of cash money for something as frivolous as a little scooter was not even considered. We young men could dream of mobility, sitting astride a small motorized object, but such dreams were out of our reach. This author was not immune to the siren call of scooter mobility. “Boy! It sure would be fun to have one.”
Then it happened! A close friend on a neighboring farm allowed miners to store equipment at his place over the winter. And what should they leave there but an almost new tote goat. As I walked around it admiringly, the farmer suggested that since the miners wouldn’t be back until the next spring, it probably wouldn’t hurt if I tried it out.
Anybody who could ride a bicycle could easily handle those little scooters. I jumped at the chance to take it for a ride. The farmer suggested I try climbing a steep hill next to his farm. In our area, most hillsides have no trees, but they are covered with rocks and brush. You can walk through the brush as you climb, but you have to jog back and forth because much of the brush is so large you have to go around it. Most slopes are so steep that it is hard to climb, but those larger pieces of brush make convenient handholds.
Picture me sitting on a little scooter with wheels only 10 to 12 inches in diameter. The idea that such a contraption could carry me to the top of the hill was beyond belief. But being young and willing to try anything, I attacked the hill. To my amazement, that little tote goat snorted and bucked as I wove it through the brush. When I came to a pile of rocks, I could, while still straddling the bike, lift it enough so its small rear tire could get a grab and over we went.
It was strenuous work and I had to be totally involved in the process, but in about 20 minutes I found myself on top of one of the lower hills. If I had been on foot, it would have taken twice as long and a much greater amount of effort. If I had been a successful hunter at that location, I could have loaded my game on the back and carried it down the hill. That tote goat lived up to its name.
I’m not sure how long tote goats were the thing, but my research suggests that it was basically a 1960s phenomenon. By the early 1970s, motorcycle-type trail bikes began arriving on the scene and enthusiasm for the scooter-type died. If my memory serves me correctly, most tote goat owners ended up with an object that had little or no resale value.
Because of that phenomenon, I was approached by a relative, a fairly well-to-do farmer, with an offer to sell me his “Cadillac” of tote goats. At the height of the fad, the long established Cushman Motor Works got involved and produced its version of a “trail cycle.” The Trailster had every feature others did and then some. The engine was an established Cushman 1-cylinder with a kickstarter, whereas most smaller ones had rope-pull starters. It had suspension on the front wheel. Most of all, it had a 2-speed transmission so it could crawl up mountains but also travel fast enough on the road. It was also large enough that two people could ride. It even had lights.
Since the farmer didn’t want his Trailster any longer, he made me a deal that only a relative and fellow rural resident would provide. A small amount of cash changed hands and the rest was worked off when he needed occasional help on his farm.
My “new” tote goat (or trail cycle, as it came to be classified) was indeed a fine vehicle. It had hardly been used, and the few times I used it in the hills, it performed admirably. Due to its size and weight, it had to be ridden differently than the little ones, but the extra power and size was a benefit when transporting deer or elk. But such use was rare. The rest of the time, its ability to travel at reasonable road speeds – probably a top speed of 35 mph – meant that it was used a lot for transportation. When I got married, my bride and I traveled many miles on it around our rural area, looking for places to build a house or a house to buy.
Whatever happened to that little trail cycle? The state of Idaho destroyed the Trailster’s usefulness by passing a law requiring crash helmets when riding motorbikes. I looked so ridiculous wearing a crash helmet on the Trailster with its tiny wheels that I sold it. I’ve often regretted that. A couple years later, the law was modified so only those under age 18 had to wear a helmet.
In the four decades since, I have endeavored to find another Trailster. I would even purchase one of those little basic ones. However, I’ve attended many, many farm auctions since then, and I have never seen a tote goat of any kind being auctioned. Surely some are still out there, but for all practical purposes the trail cycle vehicles with small wheels and 4-cycle lawn mower-type engines have faded from the scene. Some turn up on Internet searches, but they have high prices now that they are collectible. Back when they were new and exciting, they filled a need in rural America for individual mobility and did it in a way that was a lot of fun. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Standard Time) or by email at email@example.com.