On the Trail of the Mysterious Hackney Auto-Plow

1 / 7
One of the selling points of the Hackney Auto-Plow was that it was a "one-man outfit," which was important in the days when farm labor was much needed.
2 / 7
The Hackney was a beautifully colored machine, as shown by this illustration. Note the angled steering wheel; some illustrations show it, some don't. Perhaps the steering wheel could be tilted when drivers exchanged seats (and direction of the vehicle)
3 / 7
This 1913 Hackney, shown at Tulare, Calif., in 1999, is owned by the Tulare County Museum.
4 / 7
The Hackney also came with a grader attachment, as shown here.
5 / 7
A Hackney Auto-Plow being demonstrated, probably in North Dakota, circa 1914. Notice that the guard around the sprocket and chain (just below and to the right of the driver's right leg), and the fender around the large wheel, have been removed. Ads usually show these protectors; photos of actual use in fields usually show these guards removed.
6 / 7
This Nevada Auto-Plows bears an eerie resemblance to the Hackney Auto-Plow.
7 / 7
The Hackney wasn't just for plowing: This one is pulling a grain binder. Note that this Auto-Plow is going the "wrong" direction, with the large wheels in back, and the small, single wheel in front, opposite of all other available photos.

The Hackney Auto-Plow story is a tale of a pair of inventive brothers, their innovative inventions and several unsolved mysteries.

The brothers, Leslie S. and William L. Hackney (known to their family and everyone else as “L.S.” and “W.L.,” says their niece, Lucille Howe), made their stake in North Dakota at the turn of the 20th century, buying and quickly reselling railroad land.

In a 1977 article in Good Old Days Magazine, Mrs. Howe explains how her uncles got their start.

“As you know,” Lucille Howe says, “the government granted huge tracts of land to railroad companies to encourage the building of new roads. In the early years of the century, much of this land was available at very low prices. It was sold also at nominal rates, but the turnover was enormous.”

In 1901, with that money, and partners W.A. Law and A.L. Law, the Hackney brothers formed the Law Manufacturing Company in St. Paul, Minn., manufacturing hay tools, ” … and increasing their business and line in six years,” says Farm Implements magazine of Jan. 30, 1909, “so they were compelled to move twice during that time to larger factory quarters, each time tripling the size of their factory, the last move being to one of the best manufacturing sites in the Twin Cities, which they purchased in order to avoid further moves.”

In early 1909, the company was renamed Hackney Manufacturing Company, probably because their big seller – above their hay tools and sundries, patent gable end door fixtures, litter carriers, hay and stock fixtures, steel lever harrows, steel boss harrows, and hardware specialties – was a farm gate, invented by W.L. Hackney. As Lucille Howe says in Good Old Days, “I remember being fascinated by a working model of a gate opener and closer invented by W.L. No electronic device this, just a simple combination of ropes and pulleys, but, with it installed, a person could open and close the gate without getting out of his carriage or car.”

This was just one of W.L.’s inventions; another invention, one of many by his brother L.S., was a device for easy greasing and cleaning of the underside of a car. A frame held the car and tipped it on its side. But it never seemed to catch on; doubtless the grease pit was more practical at the time.

But these inventions were just for practice. Using the experience gained selling railroad lands in North Dakota, (where, Howe says, “They saw the need of some other power than that of teams of many horses, or big steam rigs, to break the prairie and work the large fields of the ranches,”) along with their native inventive geniuses, they developed their biggest product, the unique Hackney Auto-Plow, a mechanized plow.

But don’t let the name fool you; though it came standard with a trio of three under-slung 14-inch plows, it was designed to assist farmers with other farmwork. In fact, the company called it “a Combination Tractor and Farm Power Machine,” intended for use in plowing, seeding, discing, harrowing, harvesting, road grading, hauling grain, grinding feed, sawing wood, threshing, and so on.

Not only were the looks of the Hackney Auto-Plow unique, but so was “… its unique arrangement (whereby) the operator could run the machine either direction,” says C. H. Wendel in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors. “To facilitate that use, the Hackney Auto-Plow had a pair of seats facing each other, depending on which direction the farmer wanted as ‘forward’,” Wendel says. “For plowing, the drive wheels were ahead, but for road work, the single front wheel led things off.” The early models carried a 22-40 horsepower rating.

The color of the Hackney Auto-Plow was also unique. At a time when many tractors were still drab black, the Hackney Auto-Plow was painted brilliant red, with yellow striping. The wheels also were also painted yellow.

The company started with a bang; Farm Implements of March 20, 1912, says, “On August 1, 1911, when the Hackney Manufacturing Company began manufacturing their Auto-Plows, the directors expressed the opinion that if they made and sold 25 machines during the first 12 months, they would feel satisfied. Up to the middle of April (1912) they had already sold 100 machines, and are confident they will dispose of at least 350 during the first year. From their advertising in trade journals they received 2,358 inquiries.” Their payroll increased from “twenty-two workmen and three stenographers” in 1911, to 157 and 12 by April 1912.

To illustrate how quickly the machine was catching on, FI added that C.W. Robinson of Baker, Mont., had ordered one of the Hackney Auto-Plows, but on April 12, 1912, “… they loaded three of these tractors for shipment … Mr. Robinson ordered one, and before shipment could be made, sent in orders for two more. The company are refusing orders which call for shipment before May 15.”

Half a year later, on Dec. 21, 1912, FI wrote that the growth of all tractor companies had been rapid, but “… that of the Hackney Manufacturing Company, who manufacture the Hackney Auto-Plow, has been little short of marvelous. The reason for the wonderful strides made by this company is due, no doubt, to the fact that their machine is especially adapted to meet the requirements of the small farmer, or rather the farm of average acreage, where it would be quite impracticable to employ the large type of tractor.”

Advantages of the machine included: it required only one man to run it; it was not large and cumbersome; it could turn in its own length; it could get close into fence corners to work where even a team of horses couldn’t; it could be backed up; and it could be equipped with attachments for other farm work.

Due to the success of the Hackney Auto-Plow, the company enlarged its new factory three times, but still had to buy a new site, and built its new factory there, at the corner of Prior and University in St. Paul.

“For a few years,” Lucille Howe says in Good Old Days, “they sold a considerable number of the plows, their largest sales in the Dakotas and Minnesota, but they also sold the plows in other parts of this country and even some abroad. Things looked very promising.”

Lucille recalls several were sold in their county, which was 100 miles from St. Paul, and her brother was allowed to sit on one when it was being demonstrated in their town.

What Goes Up…

But something went wrong; the plow didn’t always perform as well as promised, while stiffer competition due to more tractors and excellent plows diluted sales. Whatever the reasons – it was not unusual for tractor companies to start up, do well, and disappear practically overnight – the Feb. 25, 1914 issue of Farm Implements said, “The Hackney Manufacturing Company … have sold to the Standard Motor Company of Mason City, Iowa, their entire business, including the good will and patents for the U.S. and Mexico. The real estate and buildings are retained by the present owners. The Hackney interests will be represented in the Standard Motor Company by J. M. and L. S. Hackney, who become members of the board of directors.” FI said later, “The Standard Motor Company will continue to manufacture the Hackney Auto-Plow and, in addition, a line of motor trucks and automobiles.”

Unfortunately, about this time, according to Beverley Rae Kimes and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., in Standard Catalog of American Cars, “Standard Motor Company (of Mason City, Iowa), which had been largely a gigantic promotion scheme, found itself in deep trouble.” Its major subsidiary company, Colby Motor Company, had just gone bankrupt. Kimes and Clark say, “Purportedly … the Colby company had been kept alive through the generosity of a 74-year-old Iowa widow who had been left a fortune. According to press reports, ‘whenever money was needed to operate the Colby plant, she was visited and prevailed upon to give accommodation notes that were cashed by bankers and others throughout the northern half of Iowa. It is said that the old lady’s paper is widely scattered and that should any of its holders attempt to enforce collection, the attempt will be legally resisted, as it is claimed that she was not of sound mind when she signed the notes.'” So Colby, and Standard Motor Company, were bankrupt, about the time they purchased Hackney Manufacturing Company.

It is unclear what happened next, but doubtless the Hackneys had the company back in their own hands very quickly; Hackney Auto-Plows continued to be manufactured, along with a variety of Hackney machines (of which very little is known). In 1917, the company produced five separate Hackney machines: Hackney Auto-Plow No. 3, a 16-32 rated tractor for 3 14-inch plows or a 28-inch thresher; Hackney Auto-Plow No. 4, a 20-40 recommended for four 14-inch plows and a 30-inch thresher; Hackney Auto Tractor 17-32, probably a variety of the Auto-Plow; the Orchard 7-13, a four-wheel tractor; and a Corn & Cotton 8-14 tractor. Little is known of these last three machines, and no photos are available.

The company limped on for a few more years; in January 1918 the factory burned down. Nevertheless, Hackney Auto-Plows and a Hackney Corn Planter were made in 1919 at an unknown location. Lucille Howe says she would see the old factory lot full of the unsold Auto Plows from the window of the streetcar when she attended college in St. Paul about this time.

Shortly thereafter, the Hackney Auto-Plow became a part of agricultural history.

A Family Reunion

Like many of the early tractors, the Hackney Auto-Plow is rarely seen today. Lucille Howe said in a 1977 interview in Good Old Days magazine that she had heard a lot of talk about the “tractor with the family name,” but had little interest in it until she and her siblings got older.

“We began to talk and wonder about our uncles’ invention. Might there possibly be one still in existence somewhere? One sister took up the question in earnest, and after looking over many engine magazines and corresponding with many gas engine buffs, found that a collector in North Dakota had one in such good condition that he had recently driven it in a parade.”

In the summer of 1967, Mrs. Howe, a sister and brother (and his wife) went to North Dakota to see a Hackney, “and I found ourselves in the presence of a memory come to life.

“My first impression was its great size. Secondly, it looked as new as if it had just come from the factory; the paint was bright, the plow shiny. Mr. H. (the owner) explained that it had been in a shed with door and windows boarded shut for many years. A widow, liquidating her estate, advertised it for sale, and that was how Mr. H … was able to buy it. The widow was able to produce the manual that came with it from the factory, so he was able to paint it as it had originally been. In that manual, we found a picture of W.L. (Hackney) in a group watching the plow at work.

“Mr. H. drove the plow out into the yard so we could take pictures and see it move. My brother drove it, and we all discovered a couple of things about it that we hadn’t known before. For one thing, it had a hitch so it could pull machinery, too.”

She added, “You really auto see that auto plow.”

Was It That John Froehlich?

John Froehlich is credited with inventing the first tractor ever made, in 1892 in Waterloo, Iowa. Then, in 1919, Chilton Tractor Journal said that the chief engineer of the Hackney Manufacturing Company of St. Paul was John Froehlich. As C.H. Wendel writes, “Although it has been impossible to verify that this was the same John Froehlich earlier involved with Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, it seems likely that this is true,” especially when one considers proximity of Iowa and Minnesota.

Who Copied Whom?

Several auto-plows of the era all bear uncanny resemblance to each other. The Opsata Motor Plow, the Gramont traction plow (January 1913), and especially the Nevada Auto-Plow (1913), were all similar to the Hackney Auto-Plow, which was first built in mid-1911.

Nobody knows if one company copied the other company’s machines, although it was not unheard of, and considering how close in design these vehicles are, it seems very likely. And since the Hackney Auto-Plow was the earliest …

Did Hackney Manufacturing Company Sell Land, and Where Was It?

In a move unheard of in tractor circles, Hackney Manufacturing Company not only offered to sell their Hackney Auto-Plow to farmers, but also land on which the plow could be used. On credit. As one of their first ads read, “We have several thousand acres of splendid flax land for sale and will allow the purchaser of one or more of the Auto Plows to select their land and make the first payment on the land Nov. 1st, 1911, out of the 1911 flax crop, and allow easy terms on the balance.”

Unfortunately, there is no record of how much land they sold, or to whom, or where it was located. FC

Bill Vossler has published more than 2,300 articles in 160 different magazines in his writing career, and is a regular contributor to Farm Collector.

Farm Collector Magazine
Farm Collector Magazine
Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment