Convincing Horse Farmers to Switch to Power Farming

Horse farmers were reluctant to make the switch to power farming, but tractor manufacturers had some tricks to convince them


| June 1999



Right front view of the LaCrosse Model M owned by Dwight Shellabarger

Right front view of the LaCrosse Model M owned by Dwight Shellabarger, and exhibited at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. The control cables pass through the horizontal red tubes at the top of the tractor and then go around the pulleys on the upright post, after which they are attached to the control levers.

At the Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, a few years ago, the featured tractor was a LaCrosse Model M, a spindly little machine controlled by a pair of leather reins, just like you'd use on a team of horses. Several tractor builders tried this novel method of control, one as late as the 1940s! 

By the end of 1919, there were close to a quarter million tractors on American farms, but there were also more than 20 million horses and mules. Most farmers acknowledged the advantages of power farming, but to many, the thought of doing entirely without horses was unacceptable, like the man who declared in 1940 that "No tractor would ever run in my cornfield!" And we've all heard a story about the old horse farmer who loudly kept yelling "Whoa!" as his new tractor tore through the fence and ran into a creek.

There were thousands of die-hard horse farmers, and tractor manufacturers were desperate to sell them on power farming. One of the more interesting gimmicks was to make the tractor seem as much like a horse as possible. Several machines were built that could be controlled from a horse-drawn implement by using leather reins, or lines. This meant that the horse farmer didn't need to learn new ways of driving his "iron horse."

Of course, even with a line drive machine, the farmer still had to figure out how to get the engine started, as well as how to fix the thing when it broke down, which it inevitably did. The sales pitches never mentioned those drawbacks.

The Detroit Tractor Company of Lafayette, Ind., sold a few line controlled machines in 1914-15 that were powered by a four-cylinder Waukesha engine. The company's assets were acquired in 1915 by the Line Drive Tractor Company, Milwaukee, Wis.

The 1917 Line Drive tractor was rated at 15 hp on the drawbar and 25 hp on the belt. Weighing 2,500 pounds and powered by a four-cylinder Waukesha engine (4 1/2" bore and 5 3/4" stroke), the machine was advertised as being capable of pulling three 14-foot plows, or a 32-foot separator. Started forward, stopped, backed up, or turned right or left with a pair of lines, only a few of the tractors were sold at a price of $1,185. In late 1917, the company was taken over by the Automotive Corporation of Fort Wayne, Ind.