Breathless, with heart clanging at the wonders of this apparently best tractor ever built in the history of the world. That’s how a reader studying the history of the C.O.D. tractor comes away feeling.
A 1917 brochure on the C.O.D., a Minnesota-built tractor, touts the essence of this machine in its motor: ‘The C.O.D. motor has every desirable feature that mechanical genius could possibly design. The ignition system insures the hottest kind of spark at the proper time, and is the best that can be secured in the ignition world today. The motor is perfectly balanced and runs without vibration. It cools perfectly. The C.O.D. motor is the apex of modern motor construction.’ Pretty lofty claims for a tractor that is not even listed in R.B. Gray’s widely recognized reference book, The Agricultural Tractor 1855-1950, which chronicles tractors built and sold year by year.
The C.O.D’s absence from Gray’s book does not mean it was not built, though. It was. The C.O.D. Gas Tractor Company was organized in 1915 at Crookston, Minn., ‘to build (Albert O.) Espe’s latest design,’ according to C.H. Wendel in his Encyclopedia of the American Farm Tractor. Espe was well known in the farm tractor field by this time. In 1907, he built his first tractor, the Universal, which eventually was bought by Advance-Rumely and turned into the Rumely Gas Pull. Espe also developed the Avery tractors, and as Wendel writes, ‘J.B. Bartholomew over at Avery (Power Company) paid a handsome price for these patents, and put Espe on the payroll.’
How the company was named is open to conjecture. One theory holds the initials were taken from the last names of the firm’s three major investors, but two sets of names come up: ‘Conrad, Ogard and Daniel’ and ‘W.T. Clapp, A.E. Ogard and J.I. Daughenbaugh.’ Also, there’s ‘Collect On Delivery’ and the ‘grandchildren’s initials’ theory.
And, late C.O.D. literature uses the three letters to tout the value of the tractor: ‘Conservation, Opportunity, Determination’ – but the words seem forced.
Though most historical references state that the C.O.D. tractor first was built in 1916, it was probably put on the market at least a year earlier. Advertisements for it appear in the Feb. 27, 1915, issue of Farm Implements magazine, offering the C.O.D. 10-20 for $700 from the St. Paul Foundry Co.
Like many early tractor companies, the C.O.D. moved from place to place, beginning in Crookston, which was Espy’s hometown.
In 1915, it moved to 309 Washington Ave. No., Minneapolis, and in 1919, its final year of existence, to St. Paul, Minn. A blurb in Farm Implements and Tractors of March 31, 1919, reports, ‘The offices of the C.O.D. Tractor Company have been removed from Minneapolis to the plant of the St. Paul Foundry Company, at Como and Mackubin Street, St. Paul. The Foundry Company has been building the C.O.D. tractors, and the offices are located there for greater convenience.’
Another ad that may date the C.O.D. to 1914 ran in the August 1918 issue of Northwestern Tractor and Truck Dealer magazine. Placed by C.O.D., that ad states, ‘A Tractor of proven units backed up by unequalled service. That is our four years (author’s italics) record of manufacture.’
The second C.O.D. tractor, the 13-25, was offered as early as Dec. 31, 1915, according to another Farm Implements ad, which listed a price of $785. Though the tractor shown is twice as large as the tractor in the February 1915 ad, it is otherwise identical, and today, the historical record is unclear as to whether the 10-20 ever actually existed. None survive. Perhaps the 10-20 was upgraded to a 13-25 before any C.O.D.s were sold.
The 13-25 ad also shows the company had changed its name, dropping the word ‘Gas’ to become the ‘C.O.D. Tractor Company,’ and instead of listing a Crookston address, it listed Minneapolis.
History also is unclear on whether a third, unmarked, C.O.D. tractor, advertised in 1916, was ever actually built. This tractor differed from the 10-20 and 13-25 most noticeably in the radiator, which was changed from a tubular to a cellular design. Also, it had a fan, which the earlier two did not. The earlier tubular radiators strongly resembled radiators on early Espe-built Avery tractors. In 1919, the Model B C.O.D. appeared, which included the same radiator and fan changes, plus changes in the body. The price shot up to $1,395 – double the original $700 price tag. In addition to the company’s own claims – typically exaggerated by all manufacturers at this time in tractor history, letters from enthusiastic farmers touting the C.O.D. almost seem to have been written by company public relations people: ‘I would not be without (a C.O.D) any more than I would try to keep house without a stove.’
‘I had not thought plowing could be so perfectly done.’
‘I hereby vouch for the honesty and integrity of company owners; they are men of sterling worth.’
When magazines of the day wrote articles about the C.O.D. tractor, the phrasing, as in the Dec. 31, 1917, issue of Farm Implements, seems straight out of company literature: ‘The troublesome parts have been omitted from this machine. In no other tractor on the market are the parts so few and so simple. The ignition system is the best that modern science has yet produced. The oiler and the governor cannot fail. The estimation in which (the) C.O.D. tractor is held by users is evident from the many hundreds of letters in their files.’ (Perhaps 200 tractors were ever built, but it is doubtful; five are known for sure to remain today.)
Few tractor firms backed up any of their advertising claims before 1920, but C.O.D. may have been among the first to change that practice. A 1917 C.O.D. ad headlined ‘Make us prove it,’ stated:
‘We want to prove to you that every statement we make is true. We know what the C.O.D. can do and we want you to know it, too. We want you to let us show you by actual inspection and comparison that the C.O.D. will do all that we have said, and more.’
Because these were the years of fly-by-night tractor companies, farmers had to be heartened to read, in another C.O.D. ad: ‘Manufactured, sold, and guaranteed by C.O.D. Tractor Co., 309 Washington Avenue North, Minneapolis, Minnesota.’
Today, these early 20th-century advertisements are like a time machine able to take today’s readers back to that era: ‘The tractor is now coming into its own as the solution of difficulties that have so long confronted the farmers of the country. The shortage of men and work animals has steadily been increasing for the past few years and has very seriously impeded the successful raising of crops.
‘… A good tractor will do the work of six to 10 horses and three to five men, and the tasks will be accomplished in less time and more thoroughly and satisfactorily. The cost of the work will also be substantially smaller. And another item that should be considered is the fact that the tractor is no expense to its owner except when it is in operation, while the horses have to be fed when idle just the same as when at work.’
In company advertisements, C.O.D. also addressed problems horse farmers were experiencing with tractors on a mechanical level: ‘The C.O.D. construction is very simple. The motor is two-cylinder, four-cycle opposed. This design is the finest type for tractor work, on account of its simple construction and flexibility. The C.O.D. tractor is built for service – it is simple, strong, durable.’
When farmers grumbled about the unsuitability of tractors for actual field work, the C.O.D. company responded, ‘No C.O.D. tractor leaves the factory until it has been tested under actual conditions of service and the tests show that the horsepower is up to specifications.’ These last words were aimed at companies that overrated their tractors and as a consequence duped purchasers, who found out too late the machines couldn’t perform as advertised.
Also, some tractors of the day were produced strictly to make money, with little thought to good performance. To set themselves apart from such manufacturers, C.O.D. advertised: ‘(The C.O.D.) is the result of years of study and effort by the best tractor brains in the country. It has no faults nor weaknesses – every good feature of other machines has been improved upon and incorporated into the C.O.D. construction and combined with our own new and special features.’
Another brand of tractors called the ‘Do-all’ also was popular at the time, and C.O.D. addressed that competition in its advertisements as well: ‘The C.O.D. is specially adapted to do all classes of farm work. It will operate your silo-filler, corn shredder, corn Sheller, feed grinder, thresher and every other belt-driven utility on your farm. It will do your plowing, discing, harrowing seeding, harvesting, road-grading, hauling and a dozen other similar tasks that are a part of every farmer’s job. … It is a profitable investment for a man farming eighty acres or more.’
The moving of the factory for ‘greater convenience’ and a massive price increase in 1919 suggest a company in financial trouble, and in 1919, C.O.D. went out of business. According to A Brief History of the St. Paul Foundry & Manufacturing Co., ‘Another former product, probably considered an unusual one for this company, was the building of tractors for the C.O.D. Tractor Co., following World War I. The Tractor Company, after several years, went out of business, and we were left with a number of good new machines, some of which were sold and others finally junked, but we handled parts for repairs for several years.’ Today, C.O.D. tractors can be valued at up to $20,000; less than 10 are known to still exist. FC
Bill Vossler, a farm toy collectibles expert, author and freelance writer, lives in Rockville, Minn. Contact him at (320) 253-5414 or by e-mail at bvossler@juno. com
Statistically speaking The C.O.D. tractor was small by today’s standards:
Weight: 6,400 to 6,600 lbs.; varied by model. Dimensions: 13 ft. long, 6 ft. wide and high Rear tires: 70 by 6 inches. Top speed: 2-1/2 mph, furrow or road. Fuel-tank capacity: 18 gallons, kerosene or gasoline.
Engine: Company’s own 2-cylinder opposed L-head type with detachable cylinders of 6-1/2-inch bore and 7-inch stroke, with 13 hp at the drawbar and 25 at the belt.
Where to see a C.O.D.
Several of the few surviving C.O.D. tractors are to be on display this year at shows in Minnesota, Montana and New York:
Crookston, Minn.: The Polk County Museum in Crookston will have its C.O.D. on display from May through September, including at the Sept. 7 and 8 threshing bee.
According to Walter Johnson, who restored that tractor for the museum, it is a 1916 or ’17 built in Crookston and has never been out of Polk County. It was donated to the museum by the George Ness family, original owners.
Rollag, Minn.:A 1919 C.O.D. Model B is set to be at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion Aug. 30 to Sept. 2 in Rollag.
This C.O.D. belongs to Royce Granlund of Milnor, N.D., in partnership with Lois Glass of Angus, Minn.; it once belonged to Granlund’s grandfather, Elmer Granlund.
Culbertson, Mont.: The North eastern Montana Threshers Antique Assn. has owned a C.O.D. for about 30 years. Rodney Iverson of that group said the tractor, also about a 1916, will be on display at the Culbertson Museum from May to mid-September. A threshing bee is to be held there Sept. 28 and 29 this year.
Canandaigua, N.Y.: James Erdle of Canandaigua owns a C.O.D. Model 13-25 that will be at the New York State Steam Engine Assn. Show Aug. 10 and 11 in Canandaigua. Erdle has owned his C.O.D. about 20 years, having purchased it at the Elmer Larson estate sale at Rollag, Minn.
Another C.O.D. is owned by Jon and George Sutton of Litchfield, III., but it is not shown. A few more C.O.D.s are reported to exist, including one or two in California, but none of those could be verified.