A 1939 Toro tractor evokes the early days of destination resort golf courses and golf course maintenance equipment.
The U.S. has so many different landforms and climates that it took early tractor manufacturers quite some time to settle on the basic tractor categories we know today. The standard tractor continued to be made even as the row-crop type became predominant in many parts of the country. Tracked tractors appeared early and are still being built to the same formula. Variations of the common versions – like orchards or high crops – are highly prized by collectors.
At one time it seemed that almost every enthusiastic entrepreneur in the agricultural sector tried to manufacture and sell his vision of what he thought farmers needed. Although almost all such efforts eventually failed, some of the machines that reached production have survived. The names of the defunct companies and their products often sound exotic to our modern ears. And, boy, are they interesting!
Companies that still thrive in other fields of endeavor periodically dabbled in tractor production. Sometimes it was in an attempt to compete in the mainstream farm machinery market, and sometimes it was an attempt to meet a need in a “niche market,” an extremely small part of a market overlooked by other manufacturers.
One of those companies was Toro. Created as the Toro Motor Co. in 1914 to build tractor motors, its first customer was the Bull Tractor Co. In 1919, it introduced the To-Ro cultivator. The game of golf was gaining in popularity in the early 20th century, and in 1921, Toro was one of the first companies to fasten gangs of reel mowers to one of its power units to maintain golf courses. From that point on, Toro was a leader in lawn maintenance products: first commercially and then in residential applications.
Until Toro got involved in golf course maintenance there is no record of any special tractor made to handle gangs of mowers. Model T Fords were sometimes modified for that purpose but were only marginally successful because considerable power was needed and the T’s somewhat fragile drive train was taxed beyond its capacity. Toro developed a specialized power source and continued to improve it as the years went by. By the late 1930s, Toro pretty much owned the golf course maintenance equipment and tractor niche market.
Meanwhile, destination resorts also began to grow in popularity. Increasing numbers of people had the resources to vacation in luxurious, out-of-the-way places created for that purpose. One of the earliest in the western U.S. was Sun Valley, Idaho, America’s first wintertime destination resort, created by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1936. Before long, visitors also traveled there in the summer months and a professional golf course was built to help entertain them. In 1939 the resort purchased its first golf course maintenance tractor – a 1939 Toro Model AL.
Decades later that Toro tractor still exists, against all odds. Along with several other old vehicles, it was slated for salvage in the early 1970s. Claude Ballard, my brother who lived in Bellevue, Idaho, about 20 miles south of the resort, recognized the tractor’s historical significance and saved it from destruction. With my help, the Toro has been repaired mechanically and is in running condition. The tractor is believed to be exceedingly rare; if others exist, they’ve kept a low profile.
Handling multiple reel mowers on varying golf course terrain required a pretty heavy-duty machine. The Toro tractor has a 4-inch channel frame of 1/4-inch thick steel, doubled from the driver’s compartment rearward. The rear axle is from a 2-ton truck, suspended by short springs with eight leaves. The front axle is an unsprung heavy I-beam. Both the foot brake and hand brake work on an external contracting drum at the rear of the transmission.
Power is supplied by a Hercules QXB3 flat-head 6-cylinder engine with a 3-1/4- by 4-1/8-inch bore and stroke. Like a Model A Ford, the Toro’s gas tank is located in the cowl. Gravity feeds the gasoline to an updraft carburetor. The heavy 4-speed truck transmission is apparently a General Motors unit with a lock-out lever that must be lifted to shift into reverse, which is toward the driver and down. Seating is provided for the driver and one passenger.
On the rear is a large high-sided dump box designed so the majority of the weight is behind the pivot point. That makes it possible for the driver to dump it by pulling a release without leaving his seat. When empty, a heavy spring tips it back up to its original position and a latch secures it automatically. Dual rear wheels make it possible to carry heavy loads so the tractor is not only a mower propulsion unit but a small dump truck. Those duals and additional weight in the box (if needed) provide adequate traction on slick grass often found on a golf course.
The Toro was in active use for more than 20 years at Sun Valley. Because of the resort’s elevation (5,000 feet above sea level), the summer season there was short. The fact that the Toro could be used both on the golf course and for general maintenance purposes made it a particularly valuable part of the resort’s fleet.
One of the tractor’s most unique features is its cast aluminum grille that makes it look like a racecar. The huge, 1-piece casting is quite thick. Over years of use in Sun Valley, that casting was damaged numerous times but repairs were always made. One can only guess that wealthy guests wouldn’t tolerate a visually ugly maintenance machine when they were out on the links.
For some reason, and in spite of my numerous requests over a period of several years, the modern Toro company refuses to acknowledge or provide information about this tractor or others similar to it. As the photos show, when the tractor was built, the company was very proud of its product. Probably no vehicle ever made has more company names affixed to it in such large size. In spite of Toro’s reluctance to claim it as its own, little Toro golf course tractor serial no. 2111 is now somewhat famous anyway. FC
A retired high school history teacher, Clell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry land hay each summer. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 MST or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.