The Steam Traction Engine that Wasn't

The Townsend 12-25 tractor looks for all the world like a small steam traction engine.

| March 2006

Ten years ago when I wrote Orphan Tractors (now out of print), I included a chapter on the Townsend tractor, manufactured by Townsend Mfg. Co. of Janesville, Wis. I had been stymied on finding information about the company, and doubly stymied because I hadn't been able to find anything on the predecessor to the Townsend tractor - the Townsend steam traction engine.

As I snapped photos of other tractors and steam engines, I always kept an eye out for a Townsend steamer, but to no avail. I figured they must really be rare.

Eventually, I came onto a letter written to the Rock County Historical Society from Wesley W. Rankin, dated Jan. 18, 1973, wherein Rankin wrote, "Thank you for your reply to my inquiry about the Townsend Tractor Co. and their products. Your 'scandalously meager' stock of Townsend memorabilia is not to be wondered at too much for it has been my experience that such information is very hard to come by."

Rankin said he got the address of G.E. Townsend, but the only information he received from Townsend was the address of Roy C. Townsend Sr., who started the company. "I wrote to him last fall and have received no reply," Rankin wrote. He added, "I missed a golden opportunity when I ran into an old gentleman at the Rock River Thresheree (Edgerton, Wis.) about 10 years ago. He had evidently been a service man, or something of the sort, for the Townsend Co."


Reference books weren't much help in finding about the Townsend steamer, either. Jack Norbeck in his Encyclopedia of Steam Traction Engines, for some reason, didn't even mention it. C.H. Wendel, in his Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors mentioned a few things about Roy Townsend, but it all involved the Townsend tractor, so I didn't really pay attention. Other books were also blank about the Townsend steamers.

Somewhere over the years I came upon two pictures that I put on my computer, both of which I titled, "Townsend steamer." When I started writing for Steam Traction, I figured I was going to right the wrong: I'd find out more information about the Townsend steam traction engine and get it out to the world.