Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

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15-30 tractor
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Allwork tractor
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Nichols & Shepard tractors
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Tractor blueprint
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Wisconsin 22-40
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Square Turn tractor
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Igneco tractor
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War tank
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Steam-traction engine

‘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.

Several abject failures included the Minneapolis-built Beltrail, an unusual tractor with a single-drive track, and the Corn Belt tractor, built by Corn Belt Tractor Co. of Minneapolis. The tractor was announced in 1914, a couple of prototypes were built and exhibited at the Minnesota State Fair, but it was never heard of again. Diamond Iron Works of Minneapolis built a tractor for only three years and then dropped out of the business. Some might consider the company a failure, but it built tractors for other companies before con structing its own farm machine, and later secured a foothold in engineering and machinist work.

Some tractor companies and their tractors were rousing successes, such as the Aultman & Taylor Machinery Co.’s 30-60 tractor, which the late tractor expert, Danny Roen, of rural Comstock, Minn., acknowledged as the best-built tractor of its era. Historical accounts concur with his judgment. Successful tractors still included in the orphan category include the Big Four tractor, built by a small company – Transit Thresher Co., which changed its name to Gas Traction Co. – that was quickly gobbled up by Emerson-Brantingham Co. to enhance E-B’s stature in the tractor field. The Big Four’s rear wheels were 8 feet high and dwarfed every person who stood near. Yet another successful tractor was the Frick, not exactly a household name for agricultural machines. The Frick Co. of Waynesboro, Pa., built an unusual-looking machine with front wheels that were more than half the size of the rear wheels. Frick sold it successfully from 1913 to 1928, stopping for no obvious reason other than to concentrate on building refrigeration equipment, which it also made and sold.

Emerson-Brantingham Implement Co. of Rockford, Ill, was also a very successful farm machinery company. In 1912 it bought a pair of tractor companies – Reeves & Co., and Gas Traction Co. -whose tractors were respected and began selling Reeves and Big Four tractors. By 1917, the company manufactured its own E-B tractors, which lasted until at least 1928.

One of the best-known orphan tractors is the Buffalo-Pitts, made by Buffalo-Pitts Co. of Buffalo, N.Y. Though it’s a well-known name, little is known about the company. As historian C.H. Wendel writes in Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890 to 1960, ‘Information on the Buffalo-Pitts tractors is exceedingly difficult to find.’

Then there’s the Fairbanks-Morse tractor, manufactured by Fairbanks, Morse & Co. of Chicago, the extension of a company organized in 1820. The firm sold tractors from 1910 to 1918, though it’s unclear why the company quit making tractors.

Another well-known company is Reeves & Co. of Columbus, Ind. The story of inventive genius Milton Reeves, . who started building grain threshers in 1874, is interesting. He received the Edison Award in 1910 for his farm related inventions and gave all the credit to his wife as his inspiration.

Nichols & Shepard Co. was a well known business that originated in a blacksmith shop owned by John Nichols in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1848. Nichols & Shepard became well known for its steam-traction engines, which were very well built and had an excel lent reputation. Grain threshers were also part of the company’s success. Its tractors were sold from 1911 through 1927, and several are found in private collections today. Though Wallis tractors, built by the Wallis Tractor Co. of Racine, Wis., weren’t well known, but they became well known when they merged into the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. The Wallis tractor logo was a bear with ‘Wallis’ on the side, and the company sold tractors named ‘Cub’ and ‘Cub jr.’ long before International Harvester Co.

Who are they again?

Many companies aren’t well known, but nevertheless interest or entertain old-iron collectors. The Four Drive Co. of Big Rapids, Mich., for example, was perhaps the first viable four-wheel-drive tractor. Or the Kardell tractor, manufactured by the Kardell Truck & Tractor Co. of St. Louis, made the Kardell ‘Four-in-One’ tractor and used the slogan, ‘Four machines in one – and each machine has special features.’ The Indiana tractor, manufactured by Indiana Silo & Tractor Co. of Anderson, Ind., weighed only 2,200 pounds, and though it was a dangerous machine when backing up with loads – it tended to flip – it was manufactured and sold from 1919 through 1924, probably the worst economic time in the history of American agriculture.

The obscure Sandusky tractor was manufactured by Dauch Manufacturing Co. of Sandusky, Ohio. First built in 1912, Sanduskys claimed to be ‘cheaper than horses.’ Two of the Sandusky models were odd, almost futuristic looking machines. The Moline tractor, manufactured by the Moline Plow Co. of Moline, Ill, isn’t well known either, but the Moline name is familiar to collectors because of its association with the Minneapolis-Moline Co. In 1929, the Moline Plow Co. merged with two other companies to form Minneapolis Moline. The Moline Plow Co.’s Universal tractor wasn’t well known, although the Universal tractor it spawned, manufactured and sold by other companies, sold well. The Moline Plow Co. also built the little-known Stephens automobile.

With so many companies and a myriad of machines built before and after the turn of the 20th century, it’s no wonder that collectors can be confused by the often-muddled history behind the tractors and companies that built them. Even though most of those businesses failed and are long-forgotten by most Americans, their impact on agriculture and farmers is undeniable. Perhaps most importantly, those companies that shot into existence nearly overnight and blazed out just as quickly left old-iron lovers with orphaned tractors to polish and restore for posterity. FC

– Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. His newest book, More Orphan Tractors Vol. II, will be available in December. For questions and comments, write Bill at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; or call him at (320) 253-5414;  e-mail:

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