Almost everyone in the antique tractor hobby is familiar with the sleek, streamlined farm tractors built by Graham-Paige Motors in 1938-39, and sold through Sears Farm Stores as Graham-Bradleys. The Graham-Bradley wasn’t the first tractor venture for either Sears or Graham, however. This story is about the Graham brothers’ first fling at building a tractor.
The three Graham brothers — Joseph (1882-1970), Robert (1885-1967) and Ray (1887-1932) — were born to a prosperous farmer and businessman in Washington, the county seat of Daviess County in the far southwestern part of Indiana.
As a young man fresh out of college, Joseph, with his father’s help, bought a glass bottle and jar factory. He was later joined by his brothers, and the three turned Graham Glass Co. into a profitable concern. Ray Graham was also heavily involved in the Grahams’ nearly 1,500-acre farm and felt a better way than wagons and teams was needed to transport farm goods. He began to experiment with ways to transform the ubiquitous Model T Ford flivver into a serviceable truck.
The resulting Graham Bros. truck attachment was an immediate success and demand was heavy, so options were expanded to include kits for most makes of cars then on the market. World War I increased the demand and Graham became the largest truck attachment builder in the country.
Debut of the Graham tractor leads nowhere
Before the war, Ray Graham had been involved with Evansville’s Hercules Buggy Co., which supplied Sears, Roebuck and Co. with buggies, gas engines and bodies for the Sears Motor Buggy, and which developed a 3-wheeled farm tractor in 1915. The tractor, which may have been tested on the Graham farm, had a single rear-drive wheel steered by two small wheels at the front. The Hercules tractor never materialized, but Ray began to push developmental work on a Graham farm tractor, and the engineering department, under George Dunham, worked on it for several years.
While there is no evidence that the Graham tractor ever went into production, several must have been built, as records show that the 3-plow machine was extensively tested on the Graham farm, as well as on that of “Senator Bourne at Mobile, Alabama, and at farms where various soil conditions were present.” In addition, a photo exists of a Graham tractor on exhibit at the Centennial Exposition and Central States Tractor Show in 1919 at Evansville, Indiana.
The machine in the black-and-white photo is painted a very light color, possibly white, cream, yellow or light gray, while the wheels and frame appear to be a somewhat darker color and there is decorative striping in a very dark color. Even in 1919, feminine pulchritude was used to sell tractors. A bevy of six pretty young ladies in fancy hats and long dresses are perched on and standing in front of the machine. A couple of them even show a discreet amount of ankle.
Truck eclipses tractor, cultivator
A two-and-a-half page article in the November 1919 issue of Tractor World magazine described the Graham-built tractor and truck, as well as a motor cultivator (a single-use implement that several manufacturers put on the market around that time but that never caught on with thrifty farmers).
Graham Bros. trucks were wildly popular, with sales increasing almost 1,000 percent by 1925 (partly due to a 1921 agreement with Dodge Bros. allowing Dodge dealers to sell Graham trucks) and new truck plants were built in Detroit, Michigan; Stockton, California; and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Then, in 1924, some $3 million in stock changed hands and Graham Bros. trucks became a division of Dodge Bros. and, later, Chrysler Corp.
The motor cultivator probably never got much past the planning stage, although at least one prototype was built. Powered by a 4-cylinder, L-head engine of 3-1/8-by-4-1/2-inch bore and stroke, the cultivator was said to have 7-1/2 drawbar hp. It was designed to work 40- and 44-inch rows and had a crop clearance of 33 inches. The two drive wheels were at the front, beneath the engine, and the rear was supported by a smaller dolly wheel. The cultivator was mounted between front and rear wheels where the driver had a good view of his work.
Tractor ahead of its time
And finally, there was the Graham 15-30 tractor, a nearly 5,000-pound machine of conventional 4-wheel design. Designed by George Dunham, the tractor was 144 inches long and 72 inches wide with a turning radius of 22 feet. The steel, spade-lugged rear wheels were 52 inches in diameter and 12 inches wide. The engine was a Hinkley HA500 4-cylinder, L-head of 4-1/2-by-5-1/2-inch bore and stroke, rated at 32.4 hp and fitted to burn kerosene.
The article said that, “the tractor has a 3-plow capacity, and in some soils will draw four plows.” The crankcase was adapted for installation of a starter, an unusual feature for a tractor in that era. Ignition was by a high-tension magneto with an impulse starter, and there was a 38-gallon fuel tank.
Power was delivered to the rear wheels through a multiple-disc clutch and a sliding-gear transmission with two forward speeds and one reverse. There were individual rear wheel brakes and a large, roomy platform so “the driver can change his position to watch the implements when necessary.”
Timing not quite right for the Graham 15-30
All in all, the Graham 15-30 tractor was a well-designed and sturdily built tractor but, in spite of design improvements that continued into early 1920, production never happened. The Graham brothers were experienced and astute businessmen, and when they looked at the tractor market after the war, they weren’t encouraged to jump in. Henry Ford’s little Fordson was selling like hotcakes at a price Graham couldn’t meet, and the severe post-war agricultural depression was beginning to seriously limit farm incomes.
In addition, the Graham Bros. truck business was booming, so the decision was made to scrap both the motor cultivator and the tractor and concentrate on trucks — a move that made the Graham brothers very wealthy when Dodge Bros. bought the truck business.
It’s too bad someone around Evansville, Indiana, never stumbled across the rusting hulk of a Graham tractor that somehow survived being scrapped and brought it back to life. It would be a rare bird indeed! FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.