Parr for the Course

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Hart-Parr Model
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The Hart Parr Model
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Hart-Parr Model
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Even before graduating from the University of Wisconsin, engineering students Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr founded Hart & Parr in Madison, Wis., in 1896 to build stationary engines.

In The History of the Hart-Parr Company, C.H. Parr wrote of himself and cohort C.W. Hart, ‘They had sever al engine designs and sets of patterns which they had built up during their course in the University of Wisconsin.’

With just $3,000 in borrowed money, the two young and prodigious men bought land to erect a sturdy, two-story building and began manufacturing Hart & Parr stationary engines. For the next two years, the company -renamed Hart-Parr Co. in 1897 – lost money. But in 1899 and 1900, the company became profitable and built a foundry to make its own castings.

By 1901, the two young company leaders wanted to expand, but their half-acre lot prevented them from doing so. Madison real estate was scarce and relocating the factory was too costly. Additionally, city planners weren’t interested in helping the young firm, Parr wrote, ‘… because they believed [the company] would lessen the desirability of their city as a place of residence.’

A new beginning

Faced with such limited opportunities, the company learned to adapt. In Hart’s hometown of Charles City, Iowa, Hart’s father and local business associates offered to sell a reasonably priced building, three acres of land and provide capital for expenses. Hart-Parr jumped, and by Christmas 1901, the firm moved its entire manufacturing system from Madison to Iowa.

The company’s staple production items at the time were small stationary engines, portable engines, pumping outfits and wood-sawing rigs. These were inverted, vertical engines with the crankshaft above the cylinder, and the crank and open end of the cylinder completely enclosed. Parr wrote that the engines were sturdily built, ‘… and in a series of tests conduct-ed in the laboratories of the University of Wisconsin under the supervision of the Professor in charge, they showed remark-ably high mechanical efficiency.’

 Brutally cold winters caused water-cooled engines to freeze, so Hart-Parr developed an early sys-tem of oil-cooling for its cylinders that eliminated the need for water, thus eliminating the risk of engine breakage from freezing. Hart-Parr stationary engines were particularly adapted for farms during all seasons, as well as isolated pumping stations and grain elevators where engines were left unchecked for long periods.

As Hart-Parr continued to pros-per, it again needed to expand. Both Hart and Parr had a farm upbringing, and, as Parr wrote, ‘[We] were perhaps more familiar than many others with the peculiar needs for power on the large western prairie farms, and realized the future that would be in store for the company or individual that would bring out a machine that would even partially sup-ply these needs. It had been therefore their ambition to eventually get into the field with a traction engine.’

Instead of expanding operations to manufacture more farm engines, Hart and Parr agreed to start building traction engines. The firm didn’t call its 1902 invention a traction engine, but rather, as Parr writes, ‘… they first termed [it a] ‘tractor.”

The ‘tractor’ factor

The firm’s first ‘tractor’ had a 17-30-hp, two-cylinder, horizontal four-cycle engine with 9-by-13-inch bore and stroke. Dubbed the Hart-Parr No. 1, it was sold in July 1902 to a Mason City, Iowa, farmer, who used it for threshing (in 1938, the same Hart-Parr No. 1 was still in use). The Hart-Parr No. 1 was the first successful production tractor ever built, earning Hart-Parr Co. recognition as the ‘founder of the farm tractor industry.’

In 1903, Hart-Parr sold 15 of its newly introduced 22-45-hp machines, aptly called the Hart-Part No. 2. That year, the firm also developed its own plowing tractor and perfected the oil-cooling system on its tractors.

Early Hart-Parr tractors were large prairie breakers, weighing between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds, and helped bridge the gap between the monstrous steam traction engines of the day and more modern, smaller gasoline tractors. The No. l’s great flywheel alone weighed 1,000 pounds, the tractor was steered by chain, and the machine’s forward speed was only 2.3 mph. Company advertisements claimed the Hart-Parr No. 2’s operating cost was half of a steam engine’s. Plus, the No. 2 required no water and had no boiler, flues or grates to service.

Consumer demand soon caught up with Hart-Parr’s innovative designs. The two young company owners couldn’t manufacture their machines fast enough. But shortly after their machines became successful, the price of gasoline began to rise, which made Hart-Parr tractors too expensive for the average farmer, affecting sales of the Hart-Parr gasoline tractors.

To address the situation, Hart-Parr merely shifted its message and con ducted experiments that proved its engines used distillate and kerosene just as efficiently as gasoline. Due to Hart-Parr’s skyrocketing tractor business, its successful line of Hart-Parr farm engines was dropped completely, and the Charles City plant converted strictly to manufacturing tractors.

The No. 3 Hart-Parr, an 18-30-hp tractor, that came onto the market in 1903 as well, weighed 7 tons and used a 10-inch bore and 13-inch stroke engine. This tractor was the first in the Hart-Parr line with the unusual box-like radiator that distinguished Hart-Parr tractors from its competitors for many years. Hart-Parr 17-30 and 22-45 models were built in 1904 and 1905, but the number designation was dropped in favor of just naming models with the horsepower identification.

Small business goes big

In 1906, Hart-Parr Co. had a banner year and introduced what’s considered among the best big tractors ever, the Hart-Parr Model 30-60, also known as ‘Old Reliable ‘ By 1915 , the firm had sold almost 6,000 of the machines.

More importantly, in 1906 Hart-Parr advertising manager W.H. Williams promoted the word ‘tractor’ in Hart-Parr’s advertisements while touting Old Reliable, and the term instantly stuck. The 10-ton Old Reliable was powered by a 300-rpm, two-cylinder, kerosene burning horizontal engine with a low-tension magneto. It required five dry cell batteries to start the engine with gasoline, and the use of chain steering on the 30-60 continued in the Hart-Parr tradition.

As if these tractors weren’t large enough, Hart-Parr began manufacturing even bigger ones including a Model 40-80 and a monstrous 50,000-pound Model 60-100 prairie breaker almost as large and heavy as a railway locomotive. The 60-100 was sold only in 1911 and 1912. With wheels 9 feet in diameter, the 60-100 was built, as Parr wrote, ‘… in obedience to a demand coming from the large western farms that were being developed, and from parties with extensive hauling contracts in the mining regions.’

At this time, Hart-Parr expanded its distribution infrastructure, opening branch houses in Wichita, Kan., Aberdeen, S.D., and later, Grand Forks, N.D., Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Canada and Great Falls, Mont. The company also entered into contracts in Argentina, Austria, Russia, Cuba, Chile and Philippine Islands.

Global expansion gave both Hart and Parr a new perspective on what farmers needed around the world. As Parr wrote, ‘[The big tractor] proved to be too large a proposition to place in the hands of the ordinary unskilled man to operate and care for … [and] the economy of operation did not prove to be so very much greater than in doing the same work with two smaller power units. The company therefore decided that it was better to ignore the demand for these larger machines unless they could be persuaded to do the work with two smaller machines.’

The Little Devil

As a result, in 1914 Hart-Parr began to manufacture smaller tractors for the first time, beginning with the 15-22-hp Little Red Devil (often just called the ‘Little Devil’).

It was a peculiar-looking tricycle rig, propelled by a large, single rear wheel with a direct-drive, reversible two-cycle, two-cylinder engine.

At its slowest idle, the tractor’s timing lever could reverse causing the engine to misfire itself into running backwards – truly a critical design flaw.

At its peak production, Hart-Parr turned out five Little Devils a day. Selling for $850 each, Hart-Parr easily sold more than 1,000.

The Little Devil was unique because it sported no valves, transmission or differential. Valve ports in the cylinder walls were actuated by the up-and-down movement of its pistons. With a single rear wheel, no differential was required, and the tractor could turn short, work under trees and operate close to fences at speeds of 2 and 3 1/3 mph.

Little Devil production was dropped after only two years due to fuel and timing difficulties.

Hart-Parr also released a rugged 35-hp tractor that worked particularly well for building and maintaining roads, and was often purchased by townships, counties and states.

After the war ended in 1918, Hart-Parr introduced two smaller and more practical tractors, the 15-30-hp Type A and the Hart-Parr 12-25. A year later, both Hart and Parr sold their shares in the company, but continued working for it.

For the next 10 years until 1929, Hart-Parr added more tractors to its line including the 15-30-hp Model C, 16-30-hp types E and F, the 10-20-hp models B and C, the 22-40, 12-24, the 18-36-hp models G and H and the 28-50. After Hart-Parr had released these classic tractors, however, the firm and three others -the Oliver Chilled Plow Co., Nichols & Shepard and American Seeding Machine Co. – merged to form the Oliver Farm Equipment Corp., which eventually became just the Oliver Corp. In 1960, the White Motor Corp. acquired Oliver as a wholly owned subsidiary.

In addition to the innovations already mentioned, the Hart-Parr Co. was a leader in other ways. The firm was among the first to develop tractor schools to educate farmers on how to use its machines. It organized employee medical benefits, built homes for its workers and printed mail-order repair instructions for tractor owners, and donated to charitable organizations and city infrastructure.

After the 1929 merger, however, Hart-Parr tractors assumed the name Oliver Hart-Parr. Eventually, ‘Oliver’ became larger than ‘Hart-Parr,’ and in 1937, the Hart-Parr name disappeared from all tractors, ending the life of the famed Hart-Parr Co.

– Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys and equipment. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail:

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