Homemade Tractor Craze

Farmers economized by building homemade tractors, resulting in the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

| April 2013

Farmers have always been inventive. So when commercially manufactured tractors became available in the early 1900s, it was only natural that the handy farmer would try to make his own. Such labors were spurred by high prices, tales of defective products and overhyped machines, the desire for equipment customized to meet unique needs, frustration with horse farming, or simply the challenge of creating a useful tool to ease the back-breaking labor of farming.

“May solve the problem”

Farm magazines of the era enthusiastically promoted the idea of home-built tractors by publishing readers’ letters and photos. “As most farmers are handy with tools and machinery,” noted a writer in a 1914 issue of Farm Implements, “homemade tractors for general farming can easily be rigged up. The time is coming when the same engine that pumps water, saws wood, grinds feed, etc., will also be used for plowing and hauling. The new field for the homemade tractor may solve the problem for the man who runs a farm too small in size to justify a regular farm tractor but who appreciates its advantages. When not in use for plowing and hauling the engine can perform its usual tasks.”

The writer went on to point out how enterprising machinery dealers in Larimore, N.D., “evolved an efficient and satisfactory farm tractor from a Fuller & Johnson 5 hp engine (see photo 7 in the Image Gallery). The outfit not only proved a great (exhibition) attraction, but in actual field tests successfully pulled a gang plow and loads that would stall a 4-horse team.”

Benjamin Pittsley, Berg, N.D., was among those who were successful in building their own tractors. From a letter he wrote to Gas Review in 1917: “I am enclosing a picture of my homemade tractor taken in the fields pulling a gang plow 5 inches deep. I made the radiator myself. The tractor works nicely when the ground is dry, but if it is wet the wheel slips. The tractor only weighs 1,800 pounds. This is the third tractor I’ve made. I am using the engine to grind feed for the neighbors. I can clear $6 (about $108 today) outside of expenses when I work all day.”

John E. Wagner, Ensign, Kan., was equally proud of his homemade tractor, which he described in a 1922 letter to Tractor and Gas Engine Review. “This outfit has given me a good service since it was built and, with a few repairs on the motor, it should give service for several more years,” he wrote. “I bought the motor, gearing and other parts from different companies I saw advertised in the Gas Review.”

In addition to regular two-wheel drive tractors, some farmers tackled more ambitious machines, like William Pullman, Rochester, N.Y., who created a four-wheel drive tractor (see photo 4 in the Image Gallery). In a 1918 issue of Tractor and Gas Engine Review, Pullman lauded his tractor’s success at plowing, cultivating, harrowing, “and heavy hauling of all kinds for the past four years and more.