Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

| October 2003

'Gears chilled almost glass hard.' 'The company of the starved rooster.' 'The first real competitor of the horse.' 'Burns kerosene; uses washed air.' With slogans like these, and tractor names like Yuba Ball Tread, Bullock Creeping Grip and Lambert Steel Hoof, perhaps it's no surprise that many tractor companies and their machines became extinct and were relegated to history's dustbin, creating what old-iron aficionados call 'orphan tractors.'

Orphan tractors are not, as one might imagine, poor tractors living in leantos, rejected by their families and eking out a meager life on rocky soil. Rather, an orphan tractor is simply a tractor whose parent company no longer exists. Purists define orphan tractors more narrowly as tractors whose companies failed. In other words, because Yuba Manufacturing Co. of Maryville, Calif., disappeared in 1931, Yuba Ball Tread tractors are orphans. Yet, because Cleveland Tractor Co. (as well as A.B. Farquhar Co., Nichols & Shepard Co., and others) were purchased by Oliver Corp., and Oliver eventually purchased by White Motor Corp., Cletrac, Farquhar, Nichols & Shepard tractors aren't orphans because their descendant companies leading up to White -now AGCO Corp. - still exist. Following this logic, they won't be orphans until AGCO goes out of business.

There are many reasons why 900 -yes, 900 - American tractor companies went out of business, most of them from the advent of the 'gasoline traction engine' at the turn of the 20th century through the 1940s, leaving thousands of orphaned tractor models.

Why did they die?

The reasons each tractor maker failed are as varied as the machines they built. Of the 900 orphaned tractor companies, some firms such as Abenaque Machine Works of Westminster Station, Vt., and its Abenaque tractors, disappeared because the factory was too far from major agricultural markets to sell enough tractors. (Early Abenaques appeared to use a box for the tractor operator's seat.) Some became orphaned, like the American Engine &Tractor Co. of Charles City, Iowa, because of bizarre business sensibilities. The company's founders believed its American tractor would succeed simply because it was manufactured in a building where a successful farm gas engine company had previously existed. The Aultman & Taylor Machinery Co. of Mansfield, Ohio, was orphaned because its machines were coveted by other companies, and the firm was sold to Advance-Rumely Co. of LaPorte, Ind., in 1924. Many, like the Geneva Tractor Co. of Geneva, Ohio, and its Adapto-Tractor became orphaned because the concept of a tractor was too new and III- defined, and thus didn't prove feasible in the field. Many, like Electric Wheel Co., along with the Quincy and Allwork tractors, went out of business when the stock market crashed in 1929.

Tractors became orphans for many other reasons. Some were poorly made machines from the start, while other companies suffered the effects of World War I when tractor shiploads were sunk, or tractor loads were never paid for by foreign countries. The Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s, and the Great Depression of the 1930s also crippled many tractor companies. Some were crushed in the price-cutting pincers of The Great Tractor Wars, when major tractor companies dropped prices until they were actually selling equipment below cost in an attempt to force other tractor companies out of business. Still other companies manufactured tractors without field-testing them - a surprisingly common practice before 1915. Some tractor companies that survived the financial and agricultural depressions went out of business during or after World War II from a lack of metal and rubber, or because their factories were required to manufacture war materiel. In short, no single cause can be identified as the reason tractor companies failed and left their orphaned machines for collectors to care for decades later.

'Failure' defined

Many people consider companies whose tractors are now deemed orphans were failures. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If death is the measure of failure, then every dead person was a failure from Henry Ford to Meinrad Rumely. That simples tic view discounts the enormous contributions those now-vanished companies made to the agricultural industry. Of course some orphan tractors are hall marks of true business failures, but many more were victims of their times.