One day several years ago, Theo McAllister spotted an unusual tractor operating a Fresno scraper, digging a basement near his Kanab, Utah, home. It was a small tractor, all four wheels were the same size … and the tractor was controlled by reins. “Down into the hole and back out the tractor and scraper worked, while an old gentleman operated them from the rim with long lines,” Theo recalls, “like the tractor was a horse.”
A memory surfaced for Theo, now 76. “In my teens, I saw a basement dug the same way but with a team of horses. I told my son Wesley, ‘We’ve got to find one of those tractors. They’ll be rare.'” That led the McAllisters to their first tractor show in Durango, Colo., in search of a Power-Horse tractor.
They didn’t find a Power-Horse, but got hooked on old iron just the same. While the two scouted a Power-Horse, Theo researched this early four-wheel drive machine and its builders, a special part of Utah history dating to pioneer Mormon ranchers.
For three years the two collected old iron: 50 tractors and engines and a lot of parts joined their collection. They continued to run down leads on the Power-Horse, until they located the last (and hardest to find in good condition) part needed: a usable Power-Horse gearbox. Finally they could realize their dream of building a running Power-Horse.
New! A rein-drive tractor
In 1937, brothers Albert and Bond Bonham designed and built the Power-Horse A-20. Eimco Machinery Co., Salt Lake City, cast their rein-controlled four-wheel drive tractor. Weighing in at just 2,500 pounds, the Power-Horse used an Allis-Chalmers Model B engine. That year, Popular Mechanics ran a photo of the Power-Horse headlined: “Tractor Driven Like Dobbin Responds to Farmer’s Reins.”
During the Great Depression, the Power-Horse was a boon for small farmers in Utah, Idaho and Arizona who had already paid for their equipment and were reluctant to give up their horses or horse-drawn implements. If his horse died, the farmer was faced with buying another horse, which was expensive to maintain, or a new tractor, which was a huge investment. With the Power-Horse, however, the farmer could use mechanical power and his horse-drawn equipment.
A regular tractor required an extra person to ride and control the horse-drawn equipment. With a Power-Horse, though, the farmer could do it all himself.
Possibly 100 Power-Horse tractors were produced through 1941. “The highest serial number we’ve seen is no. 87,” Theo says. Then World War II intervened. Eimco’s mining equipment was deemed more essential to the war effort than its tractors. The tractor division shut down for the duration of the war. Still, new tractors continued to surface.
“Power-Horses were made right up to World War II, but the last few tractors were built in a garage out of parts,” Theo says. “Bond Bonham remembered that some had wooden gearbox covers and no serial numbers.”
Bond told Theo about color discrepancies among Power-Horses. “Power-Horses were originally copper-colored, like a penny, if they were in the company’s serial number system,” Theo recalls. When the war started, little paint was available, “so the company used whatever they could get – black, tan, orange, even green.”
After the war, Allis-Chalmers built a prototype Power-Horse Model H. Then Harris Mfg., Stockton, Calif., purchased patent rights, and from 1949 to 1964 built the Harris Power-Horse for logging operations, with a larger engine and tires, but no reins.
When Eimco moved to Canada, the company donated the Power-Horse tractor on their factory grounds to a Salt Lake City tractor club. “It was green, believe it or not, but now it’s copper,” Theo says.
It took the McAllisters four years and several donor tractors before they got their Power-Horse tractor running. They started with a tractor that had been in a fire and tracked down parts. That tractor’s gearbox was badly rusted inside. Another Power-Horse had no engine, but a fair gearbox. They took the gearbox apart, cleaned and polished it. Various other parts came from two tractors without serial numbers, and one with “Eimco” cast in several places. Finally, they stumbled onto an AC tractor with a Model B engine.
According to Theo, the hardest part of the restoration was cleaning the 23 clutches. The Power-Horse tractor has 11 on each side of the control system, and a master clutch behind the engine. After repairing and cleaning, painting came next. “Painting, that’s another story,” Theo says. “We found tan and brown paint on the gearbox when we cleaned it up. So, we matched it instead of the orange on the Allis engine and gas tank.”
Before the pair started the tractor the first time, they blocked the Power-Horse up on a steel pallet on casters, instead of wheels. When they closed the left clutch, a pin dropped out. “Had the tractor been on the ground, it would have taken off and locked in a turn,” Theo says. “It would have been very hard to reach the kill button.” More adjustments followed, and the Power-Horse was ready to go.
In 1993, the National Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Association show in Salt Lake City featured the Power-Horse. “Thirteen of them were brought to the show,” Theo recalls. Organizers also invited Bond Bonham. “Mr. Bonham, though 93 and legally blind, had a ball. He said, ‘Boy I’d like to try running the Power-Horse again.’ I handed him the reins and guided him. He knew just what to do. You should have seen the grin on his face, proud as could be.”
Today, Theo knows where most surviving Power-Horse tractors are. Fifty-seven are scattered from New York to a Mexican border junkyard to a Wyoming ranch. This past January, Theo found a restored orange Power-Horse in Quartzsite, Ariz. It followed him home too.
Driving “New Dobbin”
The Power-Horse Allis-Chalmers Model B engine needs a brief crank before starting and runs easily, winter or summer. Reverse comes from the planetary gear, like on a Model T automobile. “It’s amazingly smooth,” Theo says.
Reins let the operator drive this mechanized horse just as he would a live one. “Put it in first gear and snap both lines,” Theo says. “With a click, it slides into forward gear and away it goes. At a corner, pull only one line to make that side go in reverse spin. The tractor makes a 90-degree turn and keeps going. With one rein ahead and one back, it will spin in its own lane, like a modern Bobcat. To stop, pull back on both lines, click and it stops. To back up, pull on both lines hard. Just like a horse.”
Theo’s reins are extra long. “A gentleman from Montana looked my Power-Horse over,” he says. “Then he made me special long black leather lines.” The added length allows him to control the Power-Horse from a distance.
Though it looks easy and fun to drive, Theo says the Power-Horse is tricky for someone unfamiliar with driving horses, real or mechanical. His son Wesley operates the tractor, but not his grand-kids. Concerned about accidents, Theo carefully restricts access.
Meanwhile, he keeps an eye open for similar units. “I ran across a La Crosse rein-drive at Mt. Pleasant, Iowa,” he says. “The gentleman who owned it was all enthused about my Power-Horse, so we traded and drove each other’s tractors around.” That La Crosse is on permanent display on the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion grounds in Mt. Pleasant. Besides Power-Horses and the La Crosse, Theo has seen few other line-drive tractors.
And the crowd roars
The Power-Horse is one-of-a-kind at tractor shows. When considering which tractor to take to a show, Theo keeps coming back to this rare one, instead of one of his other tractors. The Power-Horse stands out among the more familiar range of John Deere and Allis-Chalmers tractors displayed at most shows.
When Theo carries riders in his buckboard, the Power-Horse also inspires spectators. One flick of the reins, a “Gee” or “Haw,” as though flesh-and-blood, and the ladies giggle, Theo says. He’s even been known to wield an antique buggy whip, just for show.
In a community parade, his Power-Horse pulled a covered wagon to commemorate early Mormon settlers. School classes tried “driving” the buckboard while teachers snapped photos. Listening to Theo, it’s hard to say who got the biggest kick out of the experience, him or the students.
In Belgrade, Mont., Theo put his Power-Horse to work. “The ranch owner hooked an old hand plow behind the Power-Horse,” he says. “The lines hung over my shoulders, because my hands were busy holding the plow handle. When I wanted to go left, I reached up and jerked the left line, like with a horse. I plowed the way old timers did, with a one-horse plow … the way I remember as a boy.”
Since that first memory flash, Theo McAllister has found and restored the Power-Horse, that odd tractor he’d watched. He’s shared this unique part of Utah history at tractor shows and celebrations across the U.S. The crowd loves this New Dobbin, the last tractor controlled by reins. FC
Nikki Rajala is a retired teacher. Now working as a freelance writer, she’s been published in Belt Pulley magazine, Listen magazine and Instructor magazine. Contact her at Box 372, Rockville, MN 56369, (320) 253-5414; email: firstname.lastname@example.org