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

  • TownsendOilTractor1.jpg
    Facing page: If it wasn’t for the word “oil” on the fake smokebox door, the Townsend 12-25 tractor looks for all the world like a small steam traction engine.
  • Steamengine.jpg
    A rear view of a Townsend 12-25 is even more convincing.
  • TownsendOilTractors.jpg
    Left: This advertisement shows the later Townsend 10-20, which looked like a tractor instead of a steam engine.
  • Townsend1.jpg
    Below: This advertisement says the Townsend oil tractor “Looks and acts just like a steam engine,” which was clearly used as a selling point for the Janesville, Wis., company.

  • TownsendOilTractor1.jpg
  • Steamengine.jpg
  • TownsendOilTractors.jpg
  • Townsend1.jpg

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.

So, recently I called the Rock County Historical Society in Janesville, Wis., and was told they didn't have much information on Townsend, but they did have some I didn't have. Eureka! I thought. Finally.

I also checked the Internet, but couldn't come up with any Townsend steamers, just references to a couple of U.S. locations named Townsend advertising themselves.

When the information came from Janesville, I ruffled through the six pages and was ecstatic. There was one page with five small photos of Townsend steamers at work. The photos were poorly Xeroxed, but when I checked with the Historical Society, I found the photos themselves were not available. I would have to do with these poor ones, which essentially meant I couldn't publish some of these fine action photos of the Townsend steamers in the field.

I started writing the article and looking at the photos I had of the Townsend steamers in my collection, along with photos I'd taken of a Townsend tractor at the Albany (Minn.) Pioneer Days.

It was puzzling. The more I looked, the more I realized every photo and every reference was about Townsend oil tractors, not Townsend steam traction engines. It finally dawned on me, as most people reading this article probably already know, the reason there was no literature and no photos of the Townsend steamers is because there are no Townsend steam traction engines.

I was, to say the least, chagrined. How had I been so wrong? Reviewing everything I had on Townsend I realized where I had gone wrong: One of the earliest sheets of information I'd gotten had a large picture of a Townsend "steamer," dominating the top, with a couple hundred words about it, including these: "The same foundation which is the backbone of any machine, having been used in steam tractors since their origin and no one has ever heard of the boiler under a steam tractor giving out …" I assumed that meant the information was about a steam traction engine, when it was really referring to how Townsend had been built, with the same "foundation which is the backbone" like a steamer, instead of this actually being a steamer.

At least I hadn't gone around asking everybody if they'd seen any Townsend steamers recently (although now that I think about it, if I had, it would have saved me a lot of trouble).

Townsend oil tractors look exactly like steam traction engines to the untrained eyed. They have a large smokestack, a boiler shell, what appears to be a firebox, chain steering, and the general design of a steamer.

I had assumed since the Townsend tractor looked exactly like a steam traction engine, Roy Townsend must have modeled the Townsend tractor after his Townsend steam traction engine.

His purpose, of course, was to win over those farmers who loved their steam traction engines. Not only does the Townsend oil tractor look like a steamer it also sounds like a steamer, thanks to the twin cylinders exhausting through the smokestack.

You'd think with the weight of all the evidence against the existence of a Townsend steam traction engine - no information, no book listings, no photos - I might have figured it out a long time ago. I guess it was my personal Bigfoot; just because I hadn't seen one didn't mean they didn't exist.

I think the moral of the story might be; "Look before you leap."

Contact Bill Vossler at: Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; e-mail:


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