In 1921, it took Fort Thompson, S.D., farmer Axel Olson eight hours to drive home his brand new International Harvester Company Titan 10-20 tractor.
He traveled 24 miles from the train station in Chamberlain, S.D., to his nearby farm. At top speed the tractor traveled 3 miles per hour.
The tractor Axel treasured is now cherished by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who are working together to preserve a significant and interesting piece of their family’s heritage.
Axel purchased the tractor from the International dealer in Chamberlain with the intention of using it to break sod and thresh grain. He also did custom plowing and threshing for neighboring farmers. As a youth, Axel’s son, Bob, farmed with him. Bob – who died in March at age 88 – remained on the home place most of his life, but much of the adjacent land went under water in 1960 when the Corps of Engineers built the nearby Big Bend Dam on the Missouri River.
Over the years, Bob prized his father’s 10-20 Titan. He maintained and restored the relic, which has become a family heirloom. “I’ve been offered as much as $100,000 for it,” Bob said in an interview last fall. “But I wouldn’t sell it for anything. It goes to my son, Red (Armond).”
Even though the tractor has always been in good running condition, Bob completely disassembled the Titan in 1990 and conducted a total restoration. Very knowledgeable about gas engines, he did as much of the work as he could, and utilized the expertise of others to return the tractor to mint condition. Pistons were sent to New York where they were flame sprayed and new piston rings were made. A professional painter gave the Titan a new coat of paint and re-created original logos.
“This tractor has never been froze up,” Bob said, “but I wanted to go through it and make sure it was in top condition. The pistons were built up and I put new clutches in. The front wheels went to Spearfish (S.D.) to get the bushings cut and replaced. It might even be in better shape than it was when Dad rolled it off that rail car.”
The 10-20 twin-cylinder Titan was hailed as a “one-man outfit giving universal satisfaction.” Promotional materials noted that the Titan was “guaranteed to operate and deliver its full rated horsepower at drawbar and belt, on gasoline, kerosene or distillate.”
Advertisements touted the 10-20 as saving farmers enough in fuel costs to pay for itself after about 5,000 hours of use. A 1918 article in the Farm Equipment Dealer noted that the Titan was one of three IH tractors seen as the most reliable tractor power available.
“We pay particular attention to these three essential features: That our tractors shall operate on the cheapest fuel farmers can buy; be so simple that any farmer can learn to handle them; do enough good work in the field and at the belt to more than pay for themselves,” an accompanying ad noted.
When the Titan was introduced in 1915, threat of war in Europe was creating huge new markets for food and fiber. Production peaked in 1920 with manufacture of 21,503 Titans. In all, between 1916 and 1922, 78,000 Titans were built. International used a thermosyphon system to cool the Titan, eliminating the need for a radiator and fan. Hot water from the engine percolated into the high-mounted gray water tank.
The Titan was popular with farmers in part because it was designed to “do good serviceable work using common coal oil as fuel at all loads.” It was available in three sizes: 10-20 hp, the 3-plow outfit; 15-30 hp for four or five plows; and 30-60 hp for the heaviest work on the largest farms. The 10-20 was manufactured with a 6-1/2- by 8-inch bore and stroke. “It can be used for any field work you would expect nine or 10 horses to do,” ads read, “and it will run any machine that takes up to 20 hp at the belt.”
Passing muster in Nebraska
The 2-cylinder Titan was the 23rd tractor evaluated for power and quality in the Nebraska Tractor Tests. In the horizontal engine, the pistons move parallel to one another, sparking at the same time. Vibration is dampened by a huge, heavy flywheel. Flow of oil is visible to the eye. The tractor features a 9.9 drawbar and 28.2 pulley hp at 575 rpm. When it was tested in Nebraska, the Titan weighed 5,708 pounds. In low gear at just under 2 miles per hour, the maximum drawbar pull tested at 2,660 pounds.
The Titan carries a 40-gallon water-cooling tank and two sets of no. 140 drive chains and sprockets. A cam on the outer end of the camshaft operates a Madison no. 50 6-station oiler used to force oil to all the internal parts of the engine. The crankshaft contains heavy counterweights to balance piston action as they travel in and out together. The engine fires once every revolution, providing even power at low rpm. With an impulse high-tension magneto, the tractor was considered easy to start. Nearly a century later, that still holds true.
To keep it in running condition, the Olsons crank up the Titan’s heavy-duty engine several times each year. The torch has been passed: Red and his wife’s nephew, Alvin Long Crow, now maintain the tractor, which has never needed any type of coddling to operate.
“Once it’s prepped to start, it always starts on either the first or second crank,” Bob said. “It has a lot of compression, so depending on your strength it might take two people to crank it.”
Bob was legendary in Buffalo County for his expertise with vintage gas engines. In addition to the Titan, Bob collected stationary gas engines that he displayed on a flatbed trailer. For parades, he’d start each engine, allowing spectators to enjoy the sound and sight of them running.
“I don’t use any wire or anything unusual to make them run,” Bob said. “They’re all restored and run like they’re supposed to. I was born that way. You do things right.”
Before his eyesight began to dim, Bob often shared insight and information with local engine enthusiasts. With a lifelong knack for mechanics, Bob’s understanding of engines allowed him to determine just how to set a particular gas engine to obtain the best performance. “The rest of us better be paying attention,” Red said last fall. “We won’t always have Dad around to tell us how things should be set.”
Making old things new
For the most part, the Olsons’ Titan is used only in parades these days. When it’s running, the ground beneath it rumbles and vibrates, and the driver shakes along with the huge engine. A cherished family heirloom, the tractor remains a monument of an era now lost to time. Red and his son, Chad, say they’ll spend the rest of their lives maintaining the tractor. That pride of ownership may just be a family trait.
“Dad said he felt as proud as a feather on a goose’s back when he first drove that shiny new Titan into the yard,” Bob said. “It saw a lot of use, but Dad took real good care of it. My brother, Archie, and I used it every fall at our threshing bee. Our mother (Olga) knew a lot about the tractor too. It’s spent its entire lifetime in Buffalo County, just like me.”
Bob clearly treasured the link to the past made possible by the Titan. “There’s something about making old things new,” he said. “I like to see things brought back to life. It takes time and money and it’s challenging, but there’s a lot of reward in it too.” FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .