Did someone try to snuff out the memories of the Pioneer tractors? If so, why? What other explanation can there be for the lack of public acknowledgement of the Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Co. of Winona, Minn.?
In its heyday, about 1917, Pioneer Tractor operated in buildings that totaled several hundred thousand square feet in size, employed a work force of more than 500 people, manufactured tractors bigger than elephants, made what was considered the best tractor of its time and sold tractors all over the world.
Yet the company did not garner a single mention in a 100-year history of Winona, where it thrived for 17 years, or in any other of the numerous area county and city histories of the time.
Originally incorporated in 1909 in Minneapolis, Pioneer Tractor moved in 1910 to Winona, where it was breathlessly touted in the local newspaper, as was the custom of the times. ‘GAS TRACTION ENGINES’ screamed the headline in the Winona Daily Republican-Herald of Saturday, Feb. 19, 1910; the story read in part, ‘The Republican-Herald is able to announce today the securing of a big, new manufacturing industry for Winona.’
On March 4, 1910, the Republican-Herald reported, ‘What promises to be one of the most important manufacturing plants located here in a long time, with great possibilities for growth, is the establishment of the business of the Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Co….’
The company’s founder was lumber baron CM. Youmans, but the public focus was on the general manager and vice president H.M. Wheelock, reported by the newspaper to be ‘a mechanical genius,’ and a member of ‘one of the first families in South Dakota.’
The paper wrote that Wheelock ‘…has for years back been experimenting, and developing a machine that would go into the field and perfectly perform the entire cycle of farm work.
‘Mr. Wheelock in his work has tried out very thoroughly all possible construction that could be utilized in a gas traction engine, and the machine that the Pioneer Tractor Manufacturing Co., is manufacturing today is the result of his very careful comparative tests.’
To pile praise onto praise, A.C. Johnson, general agent of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway company, predicted that the gas engines to be turned out by Pioneer Tractor would ‘easily take a leading place.’ His reported conversations with experts in South Dakota concluded the machines made in Winona had ‘decided advantages over anything else in this line so far put upon the market.’
Also according to the Winona newspaper, the plant initially was to employ from 25 to 30 men, ‘but it is confidently expected that within a year the number of operatives will be increased to at least 100.’
From the very beginning, Pioneer advertising went for the unusual, the knock-out. A 1911 ad in Gas Review magazine, for example, read, ‘They ALL Went to Winnipeg and ALL Received Medals – Of Course.’ The reference was to competitors, and then the ad continued, ‘We Have No Medal: But we have a tractor with all the virtues and none of the vices common to other makes. If you buy, you will have to pay. Therefore, in justice to yourself, see them all, analyze construction, study material; and we will take our chances on your verdict.’
This kind of ‘compare us’ ad was rare in the times.
By 1918, though, the Pioneer attitude toward medals had changed. The firm’s advertising touted how the Pioneer 30, the company’s biggest model, won two first prizes and a second prize in tractor tests in Hungary, and a gold medal in Romania.
The response was very positive, the Winona Independent wrote on Dec. 17 of that year, noting foreign agents ‘… placed an order for 24 large engines to be shipped into Russia…’
A 1912 ad for the Pioneer 30 claimed that a silver dollar balanced on the crank case with the motor running at 550 rpm would not fall over. To prove it, the company hired a photographer to take a 60-second exposure and make a sworn statement to a Notary Public that nothing hidden held up the coin. The ad said, ‘If it is hard to believe, it is only because you do not know the Pioneer.’
In 1910, the Pioneer 30 and another model, the Pioneer 15, hit the market, according to tractor directories, although the Winona Republican-Herald claimed a 40 and an 8 also were being built. But only a dozen or so models of any tractors were produced in 1910 in the United States. Of those, Pioneer tractors appear to have been the best.
The major reason for that claim was, unlike almost every other tractor, the Pioneer had enclosed transmission and engine components, which provided much-needed protection from destructive field dirt.
A Turtle Lake, N.D., banker named William Lierboe wrote to Pioneer in that introductory year with his personal impressions: ‘During the Minnesota State Fair this fall, I had an opportunity to see a number of farm tractors work. I was quite favorably impressed with your engine ‘The Pioneer Tractor’, both as to its construction and to its work. It was the only tractor in which the motor and all the drive gears were entirely enclosed in dustproof cases: this is a very good feature for there is nothing so hard on the working parts of a traction engine as the dust and grit which gets into them…’
Surprisingly, it would take another 10 years before tractor companies routinely enclosed all working gears to protect them from the corrosive effects of field dust.
Pioneer also offered a warranty that put the company ahead of its time, although the generosity and vagueness of the guarantee may have helped cause the company’s demise. The warranty states: ‘Pioneer Tractor Co. warrants the within described engine to do good work, to be well made, of good materials, and durable if used with proper care. If upon trial, with proper care, the engine fails to work well, the purchaser shall immediately give written notice to Pioneer Tractor Co., Winona, and to the agent from whom it was purchased, stating wherein the engine fails, shall allow a reasonable time for a competent man to be sent to put it in order, and render friendly assistance to operate it. If the engine cannot then be made to work well, the purchaser shall immediately return it to said agent, and the price paid shall be refunded, which shall constitute a settlement in full of the transaction.’
In a case reported in the Nov. 1, 1918, Chilton Tractor Journal, a farmer trying to return a tractor had trouble, but not with the manufacturer. In this case, a Pioneer 30 was delivered to the man’s ranch in California and was repeatedly used in plowing. However, the tractor delivered was ‘found to have been materially different from that bargained for; the radiator holding less water, the gears not being entirely enclosed, the carburetor being of a make other than represented, the fan for cooling air being belt-driven instead of gear-driven, and the engine being in other respects different from that described by the sales man.’
After repeated com plaints, the owner brought the tractor back, but the salesman would not return the $1,500 down payment, claiming the Pioneer Tractor Co.’s warranty was not his warranty. The court stated that was not so and ordered the agent to return the $1,500 to the farmer.
Although they may not have been able, in the end, to both keep their promises and stay in business, Pioneer officials put good customer service in the forefront of the industry. The Jan. 31, 1910, issue of Farm Implements reports on this asset, ‘When someone bought a new Pioneer, a competent man was sent along with it to instruct the purchaser as to operation, and to make sure that the machine satisfactorily does the work which it is guaranteed to do.’ Not until several years later did other tractor companies routinely offer help to farmers, usually in the form of off-season tractor schools. Pioneer’s method, sending an expert out when the new machine arrived, must have comforted farmers who were just adjusting to machines instead of horses.
In several areas of design, the early Pioneers also were ahead of their time. Few early tractors were easy to repair, except for the Pioneer. As Farm Implements said, ‘The design of the motor is such that the entire top of the crank case may be easily removed, giving ready access to all working parts. The motor itself is exceedingly simple…’
And Pioneer thought of the farmer’s comfort too. The tractors came with enclosed cabs, ‘protecting the operator from sand, dust, and inclement weather,’ Farm Implements said. Modern Gas Tractor (MGT), another periodical of the day, also reported on this asset, noting ‘…a comfortable upholstered seat is provided for (the farmer).’ Curtains were optional.
The location of the operating levers was innovative too. MGT noted, ‘The control group is inside of the operator’s cab of the Pioneer gas tractor. In this, the motor speed is regulated by the usual spark and throttle levers mounted on a quadrant forward of the steering wheel. Three hand levers are provided.’
Pricing also put Pioneer tractors ahead of their time, at least initially, for the tractors sold for only about $100 per horsepower when the company first opened. In 1911, the 30-60 cost $2,700, five years later, the price was upped to $4,500.
Pioneer tractors did have some disadvantages, and the biggest was their size. The era when behemoth tractors were used to break the great unbroken prairies was coming to an end, but Pioneer’s major tractor, the 30-60, still weighed a whopping 23,000 lbs. The company even experimented with a heavier one, the 45-90, though few, if any, were apparently ever produced. Wheels on the biggest Pioneer tractor were eight to nine feet in diameter.
By about 1915, farmers wanted smaller tractors, and though Pioneer eventually provided two, the 6,000-lb. Pioneer Pony and the 11,000-lb. Pioneer Junior, other companies were selling smaller tractors too, and probably doing a better job of advertising them.
And the small Pioneers still were larger than many others of the time, including the Strite 3-point, which weighed 4,200 lbs., and the tiny Moline Universal ‘D,’ which weighed only 2,800 lbs. The Pioneer Pony was cheaper, at $765, than the $790 Moline or the $985 Strite, but it was too little, too late.
Pioneer did not go down without a fight, though. About 1924, one of the company’s last ads, for the 18-36, said, ‘Pioneer Tractors, in the field since the dawn of the tractor industry…(have) satisfactory performance and dependability built into this latest product of the Pioneer Factory… It is the final achievement of over 18 years of exhaustive experiments, tests, trials and actual field work. It is not a theory – it is not a freak – it is not a tractor that has been hastily assembled and put on the market.’
In 1925, the company reorganized as Pioneer Tractors, Inc., but could not make a comeback and soon disappeared entirely.
Bill Vossler lives in Rockville, Minn. He can be reached by calling (320) 253-5414 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.