Gone like the Buffalo: Buffalo-Pitts steam traction Engine

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The 1910 Model 40-70 was the first tractor Buffalo-Pitts
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Poster of Buffalo-Pitts farm equipment
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1912 Buffalo-Pitts steam traction engine
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A Buffalo-Pitts threshing machine
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A pair of Buffalo-Pitts steam traction engines
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A 25-hp Buffalo-Pitts steam traction engine
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1905 35-hp Buffalo-Pitts steam traction engine

Tracking down information on vintage tractor makers isn’t always easy. For example, more is known about Buffalo-Pitts steam traction engines   manufactured in Buffalo, N.Y., beginning in the early 1880s – than is known about the company’s tractors or the firm’s history during the tractor era. As C.H. Wendel writes in Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors, ‘Information on the Buffalo-Pitts tractors is exceedingly difficult to find.’ What is known about the company, although sparse, is interesting.

Full steam ahead

The driving forces behind the Buffalo-Pitts Co. were Hiram A. and John A. Pitts, twin brothers born Dec. 8, 1799, in New York. As young men, they manufactured a variety of farm machines with moderate success, but all that changed when they received a patent for a threshing machine in 1837. Three years later, John Pitts moved to Buffalo and put the Buffalo-Pitts thresher into production. John died in 1859, and shortly thereafter, Hiram moved to Chicago to pursue other business interests, and the company they founded continued under a new partnership.

Incorporated as Buffalo-Pitts Co. in 1877, the company’s owners claimed it was the oldest of all thresher manufacturers, which built the first machine for separating grain from the straw. The firm made more than just threshers and separators. In 1882, the company produced its first Buffalo-Pitts steam traction engine, and by 1896 it manufactured steam traction engines with improved patents and new designs. According to Jack Norbeck’s Encyclopedia of Steam Traction Engines, the company’s designers ‘Embodied in their construction the best principles known in the art of boiler and engine building in their class, and also workmanship and material.’

Buffalo-Pitts boilers were made of the best open-hearth fire box and flanged steel, Norbeck writes. With 60,000 pounds of tensile strength, tested up to 225 pounds hydrostatic pressure, this model was designed to carry 150 pounds of steam pressure. ‘All were thoroughly tested both before and after being mounted, by actually firing them up and subjecting them to the same conditions that existed in the field at the time,’ Norbeck adds.

Turning to tractors

Like many steam engine manufacturers, the Buffalo-Pitts Co. eventually branched out into the burgeoning petroleum-powered tractor market. In 1910, the company introduced a Model 40-70 tricycle-type tractor with an unusual three-cylinder engine, mounted crosswise on the frame. Its maximum forward speed was 2.3 mph. As gasoline tractors go, it was a behemoth, weighing 22,000 pounds, which made handling the single front wheel very difficult. That may explain why P.S. Rose, who rated tractor companies at the time, wrote in his confidential 1915 report that the ‘First tractor was placed on market in 1912. Not successful.’ On the other hand, Wendel wrote that the Buffalo-Pitts tractor was ‘a very capable machine, but was built for only a very short time.’

Despite the negative assessment from Rose, the company continued to produce tractors, and for at least two years – from 1910 to 1912 – the company made both steam traction engines and tractors. In 1914, the company introduced its second attempt to enter the ever-growing tractor market. Dubbed the Model 40-65 Buffalo-Pitts tractor, it had a side-mounted radiator coupled with a side-mounted engine. The four-cylinder engine ran at 500 rpm and had two forward gears that carried the tractor at 1 1/4 and 2 1/2 mph respectively.

Following that, a designer named H.D. Jones crafted a new Buffalo-Pitts tractor, but it wasn’t commercially successful. Rose revealed the final blow to the company when he wrote that the firm, ‘Made very few up to the time they were ready for (the company’s bankruptcy) receiver’s hands. No tractors built during 1915.’ The company went into receivership in 1914.

In 1916, the remnants of the Buffalo-Pitts Co. merged with Kelly-Springfield to form the Buffalo-Springfield Roller Co. The new company was composed only of the road-roller divisions from each parent company. It’s unclear from records whether the new business continued to manufacture Buffalo-Pitts tractors or whether another company produced machines that carried the Buffalo-Pitts name. Regardless, a new-style Model 40-70 Buffalo-Pitts tractor was still sold through 1920. After that, like their namesake that once roamed the prairies, Buffalo-Pitts tractors approached extinction. Today, the tractors are so rare that even photos of them are difficult to find. FC

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

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