It is well known that the phrase “Greatest Generation” applies to those responsible for victory in World War II.
But relatively few alive during those years were involved in actual combat. In fact, even in the wartime military of 15 million, only one in every 26 soldiers was in combat. Front-line soldiers, sailors and airmen were unique.
A similar situation existed in American agriculture, in what might be called the “Early Tractor Generation.” In the first half of the 20th century – before the great migration from the farm to the city first recorded in 1930 – millions of people performed various kinds of farm work. But few did that work on a crawler.
Crawlers occupy unique niche
Among that shrinking pool of farm workers, only a small number ever used the track-type tractors commonly known as crawlers or tracklayers. Crawlers remain relatively scarce in antique iron circles today. They are rarely displayed at shows, and only occasionally appear in calendars and books and on TV.
There are a couple of reasons for that. At their peak, crawlers accounted for just a small part of total tractor production in the U.S. (The rubber-tracked tractors of modern times are not crawlers: Crawlers had steel tracks.) Secondly, track-type tractors are heavier, slower and much harder to transport than a tractor on wheels. Additionally, track grousers (also known as cleats) damage the ground. They leave their mark traveling straight ahead and are noted for tearing up the surface when turning.
However, when it came to getting farm fieldwork done, crawlers excelled. Track-type tractors were the dominant form of farm motive power in some parts of the country up through the 1960s. Large grain-growing areas of the Great Plains and mountain states relied on crawlers almost exclusively for several decades. The tractor of choice in my part of Idaho was Caterpillar. Small farmers used gasoline-powered Twenty-Two Cats and the later diesel-powered D2s. Mid-size farms used one or more D4s; bigger operations utilized D6s. Less popular were International TD-6s, TD-9s and large TD-14s. Occasionally one would run across a farmer using an Allis-Chalmers HD-5 or a larger model from that line.
Crawlers slow but sure
In south central Idaho (where dry-land winter wheat is common), farms ranged from 1,000 acres up to several thousand, with individual fields commonly 60 to 160 acres in size. Since those fields needed to be plowed, disced, harrowed, summer fallowed (worked to keep weeds from growing and preserve moisture) and then later seeded, they were worked several times a year.
The D4 Cat I drove most of the time traveled at 3.7 mph when working. Even though the Cat could pull quite large implements (we pulled a 6-bottom, 16-inch moldboard plow and harrowed with 10 5-foot sections of harrow covering 50 feet), hundreds of hours were spent every year on every field. Workdays were 11 hours long, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an hour for lunch. If you worked the night shift, you started at 7 p.m. and worked until 7 a.m. with time out in the middle of the night to eat your lunch. A friend told me of working on a field so large that he started out at 7 a.m., made one lap and it was time to stop for lunch.
Since crawlers of that era were all open, the driver sat out in the heat or cold, exposed to the wind and almost constant swirls of dust kicked up by the tracks and the implement being pulled. The driver also endured extreme noise: The diesel engine was unmuffled with the exhaust stack only a short distance from the driver’s seat. The constant loud squeaking of the tracks’ “dry pins” compounded the noise problem: As the pins went around, every pivot point was metal-to-metal.
To say that operating a track-type tractor hour after hour was a miserable job is an understatement. When the driver stopped at noon or in the evening, his ears would be ringing. He was covered in thick dust from head to toe, and a ring of mud surrounded his nostrils and mouth (and eyes too if he failed to wear goggles). However, crawlers did the job asked of them a lot better than wheel tractors because of their much greater traction and lack of soil compaction. Their ability to traverse wet ground that would sink a wheeled tractor was amazing. Those of us who drove them gained a respect and even a certain amount of affection for the huge clanking steel objects.
Like combat soldiers, crawler operators did the dirty work in the “Early Tractor Generation.” I spent the decade of 1956 to 1966 driving those operator unfriendly track-type tractors almost every day all summer long. One would think that memories of thousands of unpleasant hours spent on a crawler would cause me to avoid them at all costs, but it hasn’t worked that way. As is the case with all memories, we remember the pleasant things, and the unpleasant parts fade away. Crawlers have a unique appeal in the way they sound, ride, steer and cover the ground, and the visual appeal of a tracked vehicle in motion is undeniable.
The Struck Mini-Dozer
Although I still help out on the farm every summer, my occupation all those years was that of a high school teacher. Teachers who own no farmland certainly don’t need a large tractor. When I discovered a track-type garden tractor manufactured by the C.F. Struck Corp., Cedarburg, Wis., it was a perfect fit for me. The Mini-Dozer came in kit form. Original models were powered by a 7 hp, single-cylinder engine (in later years 12 hp models were available) and like the real thing, it had steel tracks, steered with levers and could be used with many types of implements. I bought a kit and built one in 1969.
The drive mechanism is five V-belts. It is so well designed that the main drive belt has never slipped no matter how hard I work my 10 hp tractor. The four steering clutch belts – one forward and reverse for each track – are designed to slip if the driver wants to turn, make small direction changes or back up. When firmly engaged, they too never slip. If one lever is pushed forward and the other pulled back, the tractor turns 360 degrees in its own length. Traction is phenomenal. It is amazing how large a load it will pull. (Later versions with higher horsepower had twin V-belts in every application.)
For 40 years the little tractor has been used regularly year round at our place. In the spring, my garden (and those of friends) is plowed with a 1-bottom plow. One 5-foot section of big tractor harrow smoothes the plowed ground. Dirt and gravel are regularly dozed with the front blade throughout the summer. A careful operator can do a fantastic job of earth moving. In fact, contractors sometimes bought Mini-Dozers to landscape around new homes. Utilizing an extra set of smooth tracks, a front-mounted rotary mower makes it possible to keep large areas neatly trimmed.
The most valuable piece in my collection of implements is the snow blower I adapted to the tractor in 1971. I painted it John Deere green because many of the implements we pulled behind big crawlers were made by that company. We use the Mini-Dozer for several months every winter to keep our block-long driveway open. At our elevation (5,000 feet), we get about three feet of snow every winter.
I added the name “Cat D-1” to the little tractor. Like the real Caterpillar, its rugged steel tracks make it possible to do things that no wheel-type garden tractor could ever do. Yes, like the real ones, it rides rough on uneven ground and leaves me out in the elements in inclement weather. However, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It is so basic that keeping it in repair is possible even though the model was discontinued in 1986. One rarely sees a Mini-Dozer offered for sale. If you run across one and would like to become part of an elite group of crawler operators, you should buy it. You won’t be sorry! FCClell Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school. For more than 50 years he’s worked on his uncle’s hay and grain ranch during the summer. Currently they swath, rake and big bale 1,000 acres of dry-land hay each summer. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (Mountain Standard Time) or by e-mail at email@example.com.