Variety is the Spice of Life
Glen Westphal with his mother at the wheel of his 1917 Happy Farmer Model B tractor. Photo courtesy Glen Westphal.
When it comes to old iron, Glen Westphal likes to mix it up. That’s why his show displays are unusual pieces like a 1917 Happy Farmer tractor or a rare ca. 1918 Emerson-Brantingham Model U gas engine.
“I figure the whole idea of a show is to have different items to display, so the key is variety,” he says. “When I take the Happy Farmer to a show, there’s a good chance it’s the only one there.”
Glen, who lives in Elk River, Minnesota, caught the old iron bug from his father. “About the time I was born (in the 1960s), my dad, Ronald Westphal, started collecting engines and tractors,” he says. “On our hobby farm, I grew up with tractors and engines, and didn’t know any different. Whatever my father did, I went along.”
Rear view of Glen’s Happy Farmer. Lugs were removed from the tractor’s steel wheels before Ronald Westphal bought the tractor. Bill Vossler photo.
He was so immersed in the hobby at such a young age that he didn’t realize that his peers weren’t. “I didn’t know that other kids didn’t have tractors and engines around,” he admits. “And until I got older, I didn’t realize they weren’t going to shows either.”
Restoration driven by a deadline
Glen’s Emerson-Brantingham Model U engine earlier belonged to his dad, and Glen acquired it from his mother. “That engine intrigued me because there aren’t a lot of them around,” he says. “It’s one I want to keep in the family.”
Some 20,000 Happy Farmer tractors are estimated to have been produced between 1916 and 1922. Many were shipped to overseas buyers. Bill Vossler photo
When Glen heard that the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion in Rollag would feature Emerson-Brantingham engines in 2017, he pulled out his Model U and checked to see what he might need to do to get it running. The winter before the show, he launched the restoration, which he completed in time for the show.
After he pulled the head to see what it looked like inside, he decided the engine needed a gas tank, and work on the bearings and exhaust. “I rebuilt a gas tank, using 4- by-6-inch steel tubing, and fit it up under the base so you’d never see it, like the original,” he says. “I made it way heavier than it needed to be so it will outlive me.”
Under-powered tractor failed to win market acceptance
Built by La Crosse Tractor Co., the Happy Farmer was not an overwhelming commercial success. One wry observation said the happiest days for the Happy Farmer tractor owner were the day he bought it and the day he got rid of it.
This front view of the Happy Farmer shows the tractor’s unusual profile. Bill Vossler photo.
Ronald Westphal bought his 1917 Happy Farmer Model B 12-24 in the early 1970s. Glen says it was ill-suited to most farming applications. “It was underpowered,” he says. “My guess is that it was a 2-bottom tractor, but it couldn’t pull plows through soil that was very heavy. It was not a real good design; it was never a big seller.”
The fact that the tractor had open wheel gears down low, where dirt wore them out, was a definite disadvantage. Still, the Happy Farmer has its appeal, especially as a parade tractor. Its single front wheel lines up with the rear wheel, giving the small, 3-wheel tractor a lopsided configuration.
Unusual design features
The Happy Farmer’s frame is a thick pipe — actually the exhaust pipe, which also serves as a muffler. “It runs from back to front to near the casting on the front wheel, expelling the exhaust there,” Glen says. Almost everything else is bolted on to that pipe/exhaust that serves as the frame. “It has double use,” he says.
Another unusual aspect of the Happy Farmer is individual brakes for left and right rear wheels. “The brakes aren’t like those on the big prairie tractors that stop both wheels,” Glen says. “The Happy Farmer has a foot pedal for the left rear wheel and a foot pedal for right one. If you want to turn sharply, you can step on either brake and do a perfect circle with whichever wheel.”
Gene with his rare ca. 1918 Emerson-Brantingham Model U gasoline engine. Bill Vossler photo.
In that case, the front wheel can turn 360 degrees. “I don’t know if that was a selling feature or not,” he says. “I don’t know what benefit there would be in doing that, but the Happy Farmer does it.”
The tractor has a gravity-feed fuel system. The fuel tank contains two filler caps for two compartments, one for gasoline, which started the tractor, and a second one for distillate or kerosene, to run it after the gasoline warmed it up. “I have the hand pump that would have been used to start it on gasoline before switching over,” Glen says. “Now I run it on gasoline all the time.”
Glen thinks the company was trying to be innovative. “There weren’t a lot of small tractors being built in the teens, so my guess is that this tractor was for the real small farmers,” he says, “and they were trying to work out what parts would work best.”
A regular parade tractor
The Happy Farmer is relatively easy to drive, although with three smooth wheels, mud is a real problem. “If you get into anything that looks like mud, you’ll be stuck, even with only one rear wheel in the mud, and that would be an embarrassment,” Glen says. “The tractor probably came with lugs on the wheels, though I don’t know what they looked like, and someone took them off.”
Something else that made the Happy Farmer unique, at least in Glen’s family, is the fact that his mother drove it in parades for some 15 years. During the final years that she drove it, she felt uncomfortable taking it herself, as the clutch, brakes and steering were getting harder for her to operate. So, while she drove, Glen stood on the hitch alongside the tractor, or walked beside it, to lend a hand as needed.
In 1918, the Happy Farmer sold for $1,075 (roughly $20,000 today). Bill Vossler photo.
In the mid-1970s, Glen discovered just how slow the Happy Farmer moved, even at top speed. “We were in the parade at the St. Francis (Minnesota) Pioneer Days. Jim Dehn from Rogers, Minnesota, had brought his small steam engine, and we were following him.”
Well, kind of. “As we turned onto a long 800-foot stretch of city street, we discovered that the parade was so far ahead of us that this street was empty,” Glen recalls. “Jim was nowhere to be seen. We were holding up all the other vehicles behind us.”
Today, the unusual tractor is a fond reminder of a hobby shared by his parents, and an heirloom worth preserving. FC
For more information: Glen Westphal, 23450 Variolite St., Elk River, MN 55330; phone: (612) 598-3592; email: Mrwestphal@aol.com.
Appearing in the January 1919 issue of Country Gentleman, this ad announced the arrival of the new “La Crosse Tractor.” The four-wheel design was described as “the triumph of the master engineers of the great La Crosse organization.” Despite the company’s claim that the new model would have a name all its own —“The La Crosse Tractor” — the ad’s wording sought to blur the lines: “A La Crosse Tractor means a Happy Farmer.” Image courtesy Bill Vossler
Although historical information can be found on La Crosse Tractor Co. and the Happy Farmer tractor line, inconsistencies in it suggests shifting agendas. On Sept. 30, 1915, for instance, Farm Implements announced that Happy Farmer Tractor Co. was organized at La Crosse, Wisconsin, “to engage in the manufacture of a two-wheel farm tractor.” However, Happy Farmer never produced two-wheel tractors, only three- or four-wheel machines.
A Dec. 31, 1915, Farm Implements article stated that the office and display of Happy Farmer tractors was “at La Crosse Implement Co., 324 Third Avenue North, Minneapolis.” Other 1915 ads said the tractors were at Happy Farmer Tractor Co. in Minneapolis.
Most references doubt the tractors were manufactured in the Minnesota city. However, the Oct. 24, 1916, issue of Farm Machinery Farm Power reported that “Leslie Stinson of Grand Forks, N.D., distributor in that state for the Happy Farmer tractor, was at the Minneapolis factory last week getting a line on how many tractors he could expect.” Use of the word “factory” makes it sound as though Happy Farmers were being manufactured there.
The Nov. 30, 1916, issue of Farm Implements reports that, “The Happy Farmer Tractor Co. now have on orders from dealers and jobbers for about 1,800 machines,” though no city is mentioned. These tractors were all advertised as “Happy Farmer” tractors.
To add to the confusion, a 1917 ad mentioned a “La Crosse Tractor Co.” in Minneapolis. And Automobile Topics of Aug. 11, 1917, referenced La Crosse Tractor Co. operating in La Crosse, Minnesota.
Engine maker, tractor builder join forces
According to the Oct. 31, 1916, issue of Farm Implements, La Crosse Tractor Co. of La Crosse, Wisconsin, was organized to take over Sta-Rite Engine Co., “and transform the plant into a tractor factory and put on the market a light farm tractor.”
The Nov. 30, 1916, issue adds that La Crosse Tractor Co. was formed by combining Sta-Rite Engine Co., La Crosse, Wisconsin, and Happy Farmer Tractor Co. of Minneapolis. “During the past year, the manufacturing facilities (of Sta-Rite) have been devoted largely to making the Happy Farmer tractor,” which seems to indicate that the line was never manufactured in Minneapolis, as the first one had appeared barely a year earlier, at about the time when Sta-Rite was starting to build Happy Farmers.
By February 1917, Happy Farmer tractors had gained “La Crosse” before their name, and were never again simply “Happy Farmer” tractors. At the same time, Happy Farmer offices in Minneapolis were moved to La Crosse, while the sales agent in Minneapolis was renamed La Crosse Auto Co.
In that same issue (Feb. 28, 1917), Happy Farmer leader B.F. Hamey said, “Our business is growing by leaps and bounds, and the outlook is exceedingly bright for the future. We have only a few jobbing territories open in the east and south and on the Pacific coast; elsewhere the U.S. is thoroughly covered.” They hoped to have 1,000 more Happy Farmer tractors (2-cylinder A and B models) manufactured by spring.
Early in 1917, the viability of the tractor got an unexpected boost from a customer in Bethany, Minnesota, who received a new La Crosse Happy Farmer tractor at the railroad depot after a storm dumped 3 feet of snow there (“The heaviest fall of snow experienced in Minnesota for 40 years,” Farm Implements reported). The buyer wrote, “I had 1 mile of road where the snow was anywhere from 2 to 4 feet deep, and we moved right through on her own power… I made the 3 miles in about two hours.” He also won a $100 bet for succeeding.
‘Sell one to your enemy and make a friend’
An article in Northwestern Tractor & Truck Dealer’s May 1917 issue claimed that, “No farmer is happy without a Happy Farmer.
The company followed with the Model F in 1919, the Model G in 1920 (a Model F with four wheels instead of three), and the four-wheel Model H in 1922. Models F, G and H were all 12-24s, and upgrades of each other, carrying the same engine and similar size and weight. A sales pitch for the 12-24 was, “Sell one to your enemy and make a friend.”
La Crosse also produced a Model G line-drive tractor, with reins, in 1920, the only line-drive tractor ever tested at the University of Nebraska.
Facing insurmountable challenges
As was the case with many early tractor manufacturers, La Crosse struggled against headwinds like the Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s and stiff competition. In 1922, Oshkosh Tractor Co. was organized to take over the company.
As reported in the pages of the Jan. 31, 1922, edition of Farm Implements & Tractors, “It is announced that Oshkosh Tractor Co., organized at Oshkosh, Wis., to take over the business of La Crosse Tractor Co., formerly of La Crosse, will not carry out its agreements although a factory site has been purchased and the foundation of the plant put in. The new corporation will liquidate as rapidly as possible, paying such obligations as have so far been contracted. It is reported from La Crosse that the original owners of the business will resume under the name of La Crosse Tractor Co.”
But that never happened. The companies — and the Happy Farmer tractor — were dead.
— Bill Vossle
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;
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