20th Century Farm Trucks: The Crops Must Go Through

Early trucks advanced farm commodity distribution system — but not very quickly.

article image
courtesy of Clell Ballard
A Farm Collector reader sent me this photo. Obviously the overloaded 1940s Chevrolet truck wouldn't travel very fast on rural roads.

Although we never think about it, we rural folks understand that an unbelievable amount of food needs to be supplied to the metropolitan areas of our country. Just a quick check of foodstuffs consumed in New York City alone comes to an annual total of 18,000,000,000 pounds. It takes 800,000 people and a huge distribution system to distribute that food.

Where does all that food come from?  A simple answer is from the productive supply of America’s farmers. This article’s focus is on how all that gets from one place to another. After all, New York City is about as far east in our country as it is possible to get and obviously the foodstuffs must be shipped from far and near. Much of that food is produced in what some refer to as “flyover country.”

vintage photo of the author in the driver's seat of an old red truck. The…

Here, we will look at the simplest part of the distribution system: how farm commodities are transported. More than a century ago, farmers produced enough for themselves and their families. Today, we call that “subsistence farming.” As time passed, basic needs were met and the surplus could be sold. That cash flow paid for things that needed to be purchased. “Cash crops” became more common and many of the farm family’s needs were no longer self-generated.

Early trucks were durable – but slow

One of the first products farmers had in abundance was milk. It was not uncommon for the excess to be sold. Milk produced on farms near rail lines was transported to creameries. As the milk trade developed, farmers began to purchase hand-cranked cream separators (by the 1930s, electric units were being produced).

A horse and wagon were used to haul milk and cream to the railhead. Special cans were developed for shipping. The railroad picked up the full cans and took them to the terminal, where they were emptied and the producer was credited. Empty cans were returned for reuse, meaning small farms needed only a minimal investment in the sturdily built cans.

vintage photo of the author driving an old green truck modified for the farm.

Other farm products produced in great volume, like grain, were basically impossible to move any distance except in the few areas served by rail. Most were utilized locally. With the advent of trucks, for the first time the producer could offer his farm surplus to consumers some distance away. The history of the trucking industry, from an exceedingly primitive start to the current essential national transportation system, is almost as dramatic as the history of flight from 1903 to jet planes.

The earliest mechanized vehicles had cargo areas for commodities. Hard rubber tires could carry a lot of weight. Cargo varied with the truck’s size and power. But in no instance could early trucks travel fast when loaded. Engine power was very limited. What power there was had to be transferred to the drive wheels. That mechanical process (known as gearing) meant that only slow speeds were possible.

Lightening the load

This family story illustrates that. Model A Fords produced from 1928-1931 had 40hp 4-cylinder engines. Power was adequate and travel speeds of about 45mph were possible. But at the same time those cars were being built, Ford was also producing Model AA trucks that were much larger, stronger and heavier. Those trucks also used the same 40hp engine. To move the truck without a load meant the rear axle gear ratio had to be dramatically different. A Model AA truck’s top speed unloaded probably was something like 20mph.

A young man was hired by his uncle to help transfer pigs from our mountain valley to a sale ring 40 miles away. The trip required passage of a series of hills. When the loaded Model AA reached the base of a mile-long hill that had an 8 percent grade, the driver shifted the 4-speed transmission down into first gear (sometimes known as the granny or compound gear) and it was soon obvious that the loaded truck might not have enough power for the climb.

To lighten the load, the driver told his helper to get out and walk alongside since the speed they were traveling was only a few miles an hour. As the truck struggled up the hill, an acquaintance came from the opposite direction. When he passed by, he shouted, “I can see who is the smartest. The pigs are riding and you’re walking.”

Excellent skills required

Although truck engines slowly became more robust, for decades the loaded farm truck slowed traffic. Readers may have childhood memories of riding with parents and hearing expletives when they were stuck behind a slow-moving truck.

Many of us who worked on farms in the last half of the 20th century drove the trucks that held up traffic. During the Great Depression and World War II, civilian truck production was suspended, causing many decades-old old trucks to remain in use into the 1960s.

Vintage black and white photo of the author standing beside his farm truck.

This author hauled hay with a 1939 Chevrolet and grain with a 1941 Chevrolet and a 1947 Dodge. All were at least a decade old but well maintained. In fact, at a current truck show, they would be considered outstanding. When heavily loaded, it took excellent driving skills to get them down the road as fast as they were designed to move. It is impossible to explain how difficult that was for the driver. It took 100 percent of his concentration and the proper use and timing of the truck’s gears, double-clutching each time. Handling such a heavy object required all of the driver’s physical abilities.

Today, farm products are still delivered to terminals nationwide but those of us who encounter trucks of all sizes rarely note any significant slowing of traffic except on hills. In fact, since speed limits in our state have risen, trucks really don’t matter much other than their sheer size. We may complain about being a small vehicle in a herd of huge trucks and semis but they are going as fast as we are, or more. FC


Milk Was More Important than Most People Realize

Milk played an amazing part in our country’s development. Pioneers moving west regularly took along cows that provided milk daily on the trip and at their final destination. Milking every morning and evening was part of every settler’s life. Milk was consumed by the farm family and livestock, especially pigs.

This author’s late father was born in 1906 on an isolated cattle ranch in Idaho’s Sawtooth mountains. Once when talking to him about his upbringing, I asked about their dogs. Like every family, they had several trained to help with the cattle. I asked what the dogs were fed. He had to stop and think. Dog food wasn’t a purchased item. Who knows if it even existed back then? If it was, it would only be available miles away and most settlers couldn’t afford it. Dad’s answer was interesting.

Dogs weren’t “fed” as they are today. They were natural hunters, chasing and catching much of what they ate. What was supplied by their owners was surprising to me. They were given regular table scraps. But he said the main thing that sustained them was gravy. Since the family always had a lot of excess milk, his mother always made much more gravy than the family needed for each meal. The extra was fed to the dogs. It was especially important for them in the winter when it was difficult for them to hunt and catch food. For settlers, milk was the first cash crop and also the first dog food.


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 cballard@northrim.net.

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