Since about 1905, 112 different tractor-manufacturing firms have called Minnesota home
Best-known as the land of 10,000 lakes, the northern state has unofficially birthed 112 different tractor-manufacturing firms since about 1905. For comparison, industrial Ohio, agricultural Wisconsin and farmland-rich Iowa produced 81, 60 and 38 different tractor companies, respectively.
A handful of those Minnesota tractor companies are very well known, such as the Minneapolis-Moline Co. The company was formed in 1929 by the merger of Moline Plow Co. of Moline, Ill., and two Minnesota tractor companies (Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. of Hopkins, Minn., and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. of Minneapolis).
The company manufactured – among others – the UDLX Comfortractor, designed so farmers could work in the comfort of an enclosed cab during the day, and drive the family into town on weekends. Farmers rejected the novel concept – only 125 or so were sold – but their rarity makes them more collectible. In fact, one recently sold at auction for the tidy sum of $111,000 (read more, “Going ... Going ... Gone!”).
Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. originally sold steam traction engines, but the firm built tractors starting in 1912, ranging from the 22,500-pound Model 40-80, down through the 6,400-pound Minneapolis All-Purpose Model 12-25. Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. manufactured the well-known line of Twin City tractors between 1913-1920, which sported round, horizontal radiators and a large TC logo on the sides.
Prior to 1920, the company specialized in extremely large tractors such as the 28,000-pound Twin City Model 60-90 – which sold for an astounding $6,000 in 1917 – and the Model 40-65, which weighed 23,300 pounds and could pull up to 10,280 pounds. These behemoths usually pulled heavy breaking plows in the virgin sod of the prairie states. Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. also manufactured smaller tractors such as the 12-20 and 17-28 models.
Other well-known Minnesota tractor companies included the Pioneer Tractor Co. of Winona, Minn., that built the luxurious Pioneer Model 30-60 tractor. It came equipped with curtains in the cab, removable windows and 8-foot-high rear drive wheels.
Pioneer also produced the prototype Model 45-90 with 9-foot-high rear drive wheels. One farmer joked that when the Model 30-60 misfired, the owner saved a quart of gasoline. A Pioneer Model 30-60 in average condition is worth about $40,000, according to C.H. Wendel’s Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors.
Then there was the Bull Tractor Co., whose meteoric rise and fall from first to forlorn was among the fastest in tractor history. Within a year of the Little Bull tractor’s introduction in late 1913, the company led the market in tractors sold.
Four years later, persistent mechanical problems in the Little Bull – and its tendency to tip – led most farmers to return the machines to the company, subsequently sinking the business.
Kinnard-Haines Co. of Minneapolis manufactured the well-known and successful Flour City tractors in several sizes. The firm also turned out giants like the 21,000-pound Flour City Model 40-70 in 1910, down to the Flour City Junior and Junior Model 14-24, which weighed “only” 6,700 pounds.
Minnesota companies also included Gas Traction Co., which made the Big Four tractor, P.J. Downes Co., which manufactured the Liberty tractor, but was better-known as a manufacturer of tractors for other Minnesota companies, as well as a tractor distributor, and the Nilson Tractor Co. and the Strife Tractor Co. All these companies operated out of Minneapolis, to varying degrees of success.
Besides equipment makers that gained attention far beyond Minnesota, the state also was home to many lesser-known tractor companies. The Adams-Farnham Tractor Co. built the Adams-Farnham tractor in 1909 and 1910. This gasoline tractor weighed 11,000 pounds, but quickly disappeared from the market.
One of its inventors, Harry W. Adams, resurfaced in 1915 in another Minneapolis concern, the Common Sense Tractor Co., which astounded the tractor world by actually testing the proposed machine in the field – in this case, North Dakota – and ironing out kinks before it was sold on the market.
Other lesser-known Minnesota tractor companies included the McVicker Engineering Co., whose owner, Walter J. McVicker, designed early Twin City tractors for Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. The Kinkead Tractor Co. – which started production in 1915, but quickly ended when R.S. Kinkead, the owner, was drafted during World War I – and the Minnesota Tractor Co. that manufactured the Minnesota Model 18-36 in 1919, were also flashes in the pan among agricultural equipment producers in America.
Perhaps the most popular of the little-known companies was the Farmers Union Central Exchange of St. Paul, Minn., due in no small part to its CO-OP tractor, which was produced in at least five different cities by five different companies. The tractor was popular, in part, because it was built in so many different places, but also because the cooperative movement was strong among farmers when the tractors were produced during the 1930s-1950s.
Some Minnesota tractor companies organized, like the Challenge Tractor Co. of Minneapolis, but never manufactured a single machine. Challenge Tractor applied for a trademark on Dec. 26, 1916, but that was the beginning and evidently the end of the road, according to records.
The Corn Belt Tractor Co., which made at least one tractor, also disappeared shortly after its inception. Crown Iron Works is listed as a tractor manufacturer in 1921 records, but it never made a tractor.
Enterprise Machine Co. listed both a Westman Model 40-45 and Model 20-22 tractor, though neither illustrations nor tractors have ever been uncovered to verify the firm built a tractor. Others that claimed active tractor production included the Guaranteed Tractor Co., M&M Tractor Co., and Midget Tractor Co. All these companies called Minneapolis home, along with a half-dozen other firms that failed.
A number of Minnesota tractor companies gave their products unusual names or odd characteristics, such as the peculiar Tom Thumb Tractor Co.’s Tom Thumb tractor. It looked like a full-length tractor cut in half. Mayer Brothers’ Little Giant, and Humber-Anderson Mfg. Co.’s Little Oak tractor also stand out among the unusual names.
Short-Turn Tractor Co.’s Short Turn tractor – a drum-type machine touted for its sharp turns – sported an interesting name as well. The first Short Turns were produced in 1916, and a factory was built to manufacture them in Bemidji, Minn., in 1918. Two years later, the company and tractor disappeared, probably as a result of the Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s.
The oddest-looking tractor award might go to the Victor tractor, which looked like a washing-machine drum turned sideways. It was made by the Victor Tractor Co. and sold for $1,685. (This company shouldn’t be confused with the Victory Tractor Co., also of Minneapolis.)
Minnesota’s vast number of tractor companies created a tooth-and-nail competition among firms, which produced some deceiving sales tactics. The most offensive firm may’ve been the Ford Tractor Co. of Minneapolis – which had no association with Ford Motor Co., except in name. It was so-named by the owners to sell tractors on the coattails of the well-known automaker.
In fact, Ford Tractor Co. went so far as to pluck a man off the street with the last name of Ford – Carl B. Ford, sometimes cited as Paul B. Ford – in order to legitimize the “Ford” name. In the process, the tractor company swindled hundreds of people who purchased “Ford” tractors for later delivery.
In 1915, the Lion Tractor Co. was prohibited by court order from producing Lion tractors (“strong as a lion, made of steel, sensation of the world, never tired, never hungry, never sick ...”) because, the complaint read, Lion misled buyers to believe they were buying a tractor made by P.J. Lyons of the Bull Tractor Co. A portion of the Lion’s design also was borrowed from the Little Bull Tractor Co.
The Lion Tractor Co. took payments from many farmers but never delivered tractors, and also claimed it manufactured hundreds of tractors, when in reality only three were produced. The company flouted the court ruling and continued to make Lion tractors even after an injunction.
Another company that bamboozled its customers was Pan Motor Co. of St. Cloud, whose Pan Tank-Tread tractor was hyped in magazines and at tractor shows. However, only one machine was ever produced, and the prototype didn’t have an engine mounted for months. Other less-than-stellar companies included the Diamond Tractor Co., which was exposed in a Jan. 7, 1919, Better Business Bureau investigation:
The Diamond Tractor Company was (L.A.) La Fond. He was all of it. He admits it. He had a free hand, and could as easily have assumed the title of office boy (had there been an office) or president as that of chief designing engineer. La Fond, on his own statement, never designed a single tractor, which has been successfully marketed. As a “tractor designing engineer,” his own creations – three tractors ... failed in inception. ...
Two more of La Fond’s tractor companies also never flew straight, the Dakota King Tractor Co. and the Hi-D Tractor Co. Besides those tractors, La Fond also designed the Pan tractor. La Fond was generously described in Pan Motor Co. literature as “one of the greatest Tractor Engineering Experts in America ... chief designing engineer of the Pan Tank-Tread Tractor ... a man of wide experience in the farm tractor business ...” and formerly “chief designing engineer” of the Dakota King Tractor Co., the Diamond Tractor Co. and the Hi-D Tractor Co. In fact, La Fond was a self-promoting huckster without the slightest record of success. His Pan, Dakota King and Hi-D tractors were all busts, and the Diamond Tractor Co. consisted only of a sign in a Minneapolis office building’s window in 1915.
Excluding a few bad apples in the bunch, however, Minnesota’s numerous tractor companies that attempted to garner a share of the burgeoning tractor market hoped to live the classic American dream of self-determination.
Although none of those 112 firms achieved long-term success, they stand as a testament to the pioneering nature of early Americans. Those companies may be gone, but their tractors still delight collectors who’re lucky enough to find them in the barns and back 40s across America. FCBill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys and tractors. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.