Lugged Wheels: On the Road to Trouble

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courtesy of Clell G. Ballard

When separate lugs were utilized, the actual pressure on the tip of each was phenomenal. That was an asset when doing fieldwork. But when the tractor was driven on paved roads, the same lugs caused significant damage.

Not until 1930 did the rural-urban population fall out of balance. That year, for the first time, more Americans lived in metropolitan areas than on farms. Every year thereafter, urban populations continued to grow. But in the early 1900s, the U.S. was a predominantly agricultural nation and its culture was dominated by farm concerns.

Major changes in farm practices became pronounced with the increased use of tractors. Those who had always farmed with animals had a hard time adjusting to the fact that mechanized agriculture was becoming more popular and, in some instances, more profitable. But as the use of tractors expanded, new problems arose, including one we rarely hear about today. It had to do with lug wheels.

Improving traction with lugged wheels

Every wheel tractor had attachments to the drive wheel to provide traction for heavy farm work. The simplest were bars – straight or angled – across the wheel. The goal was the adhesion of the wheel to the ground. The tractor’s ability to travel on hard surfaces was secondary. However, the optimum placement of those traction bars allowed the tractor to travel on hard surfaces with a minimum of jarring.

People who studied traction thought cross bars could be improved on and focused instead on individual lugs. That is why many built after the late teens used separate lugs. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that a steel lug that stuck fairly deep down into the soil would provide amazing traction. Add several to a large wheel, so they all were down in the soil at the same time, and a tractor’s pulling power would be limited only by its engine’s power output.

As time went by, there were about as many different arrangements of lugs on drive wheels as there were theories as to which worked best. The advantage of lugs over cross bars was the owner’s ability to add or remove them as conditions warranted, and to replace them individually when worn. The one disadvantage was the occasional loss of one or more. Rarely did a farmer have replacements available.

Lugged wheels are not popular in town

As lug-equipped tractors proliferated, tractor movement became a problem. Lugs penetrated every surface the tractor was driven on. The amount of damage caused depended on how hard the road surface was. On rural roads, it didn’t seem to matter much that tracks were stirred up.

However, if lugs were used on one of the rare macadam roads found in heavily traveled areas, a crisis developed. Even in the earliest days of automobile usage, crushed rock was used to form a hard surface on heavily traveled metropolitan roads. As increased automobile usage resulted in more and more “paved” roads, a conflict soon developed between farmers and their urban neighbors.

The customary bureaucratic solution to any problem was to ban the new thing that had disrupted familiar patterns. Farm equipment had never before broken up road surfaces. Once lug-equipped tractors became a problem, the problem could be corrected by banning them on hard-surface roads. But that simple solution presented problems of its own. By the mid-1920s, there were so many improved roads that closing them to tractors presented problems for farmers trying to access their land. As can be expected, farmers reacted strongly.

Farmers put on the defensive

Conversation erupted on the divisive topic. From one national publication:

Once more the butterflies of modern life have taken a whack at farmers. While the tillers of the soil were hard at work on the farms, the speed merchants, who object to slight jars in their 40 mile-per-hour flights over smooth roads, have succeeded in having a new law written into the General Statutes of Michigan. This law declares an absolute prohibition against moving traction engines, especially with lugs on wheels, over any paved or improved roads in Michigan.    

“How long shall we submit to putting the real utilities of the country after the pleasures of the leisured class? It may be true that occasionally lugs in heavy machines make some dents in the surfaces of hard roads. However, one thing must be remembered and driven into hard heads if necessary. Our present fine roads could never have been built, had not the material prosperity of the farming districts justified the expenditure. Farm machinery made possible the fine roads that rubber-tired partisans now drive on.

Placement of lugs such as that shown here was an attempt at decreasing road damage. Unfortunately, that adjustment made travel on hard surfaces a jarring, difficult experience.

The article’s author knew that just complaining was not enough. There followed a lengthy paragraph spelling out the economic results of a restriction on movement of equipment:

“This legislation chokes the needs of every farmer. Few city dwellers realize the desperate need of speed and modern machinery at the critical season of the farmer’s year, such as harvest. Farmers are aware of the lug problem but movement bans are not acceptable. It is a backward step. It is wrong to please clerks and professional people who object to bearing one discomfort, when the farmer suffers a hundred discomforts.”

To wrap things up, the author brings up Henry Ford. In a hypothetical question, he asks Henry if he has forgotten he is making tractors as well as automobiles. That was a pertinent question in an era when Ford’s Fordson tractors were the backbone of American farming for roughly a decade. History doesn’t record any concern Ford had about the problem.

Rubber tires end the conflict

Like a lot of conflicts that have arisen in our country, a governmental attempt to solve them often made them worse. If one wanted to do research today on the tractor lug problem, you might find laws still on the books in many agricultural states addressing the issue. Adoption of rubber-tired farm equipment starting in the 1930s rendered the conflict a moot point.

Today, the extreme size of tractors and other farm equipment is proving a concern when they need to be moved on public roads. With the number of active farmers now so small, that group’s political power is greatly reduced. However, producers of food are still the basis of our affluent country. 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 Time) or by email at

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