In the last years of the 19th century, agronomists discovered that cultivation of orchards and vineyards with tools such as a spike-tooth drag pulled by a horse markedly improved the yield and quality of the harvest. The advent of the gasoline tractor occurred at about the same time. Like the steam tractors that came before, these early gas tractors were too big and cumbersome for orchard use.
Yet in 1912, Avery Co., Peoria, Illinois, promoted its new Model 12-25 for orchard work. The 12-25 was a 7,500-pound monster that only fit between the rows of orchards specifically designed for it, and it was much too tall to fit under limbs hanging with ripening fruit.
In the summer of 1914, Holt Mfg. Co., Stockton, California, introduced its Baby Caterpillar “18” crawler. This was the first tractor specifically tailored for orchard work and was built both low and narrow. Avery, realizing the shortcomings of its Model 12-25, came out with a new Model 8-16 that same year. It featured a short cooling exhaust stack, a low driver’s seat and fenders over the rear drive wheels.
Over the next decades, most major tractor makers adapted their smaller standard-tread tractors for orchard use. Steering brakes, not usually found on standard-tread tractors, were added to these versions. Lowering the operator’s seat and narrowing the tread width were major modifications made by some manufacturers. Because of the relocation of the seat, foot clutches were sometimes replaced by hand clutches. Also, an “O” for orchard was added to the official designation.
Orchard tractors, as offshoots of standard tractors, but with fancy sheet metal capes, came into vogue in the early 1930s and continued into the 1960s. They were specifically tailored to slip through low-hanging branches and navigate the rows and steep hillsides typically found in fruit orchards and vineyards.
These machines had features that appealed to the fruit grower including a lower overall profile, underneath exhaust pipes, built-in or retractable headlights and sheet metal fairings that allowed branches to deflect and slide off rather than catch. Further, the operator’s station was lowered and a windshield-like fairing was usually added for operator protection.
Crawler tractors were preferred for use on the hilly orchards of California, Oregon and Washington due to their lower center of gravity and their ability to stick to side slopes. Brothers Jesse and Harry Lindeman of Lindeman Mfg. in Yakima, Washington, converted unique insights into a legendary orchard model.
In 1925, the Lindemans lost their Best crawler dealership to another Yakima company and were seeking a way to continue serving their orchard trade. In 1930, the brothers acquired a John Deere dealership in Washington. As they became increasingly familiar with John Deere Model D and GP tractors, they realized neither was well suited to orchard work in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1932, Lindeman Mfg. modified three John Deere Model D tractors by installing tracks from Best crawlers. One was shipped to Deere & Co. in Moline, Illinois, for testing. While it worked well, it was considered to be bigger than necessary, and the ground clearance was less than desired.
Attention shifted to Deere’s Model GP for crawler conversion, and, later to the Model B. Wheel-less tractors were shipped to Lindeman for the addition of the Lindeman-developed crawler running gear. Some 1,700 of these nifty John Deere-Lindeman BO crawlers were sold to fruit growers. Eventually, Deere bought out the Lindeman operation and continued making crawler versions of their smaller wheel tractors.
In the Midwest and East, custom-built orchard tractors were popular. These had fairly high road speeds and were designed to haul loaded wagons right from the orchard to the distributor in town. Two makers from Benton Harbor, Michigan (and probably related) were Parrett Tractors Inc. and Kaywood Corp. The products of both of these companies had shift-on-the-fly transmissions and top speeds of 20 mph.
Jabez Love, an engineer working for Parrett, broke away from Parrett and made his own tractor using Ford components. A Model B Ford truck engine and transmission were used with a 2-speed auxiliary mounted behind the transmission. A Ford truck rear axle and Fordson tractor front axle and steering were also used. The “bull nose” and fold-away headlights were similar to those on Parrett tractors, as was the top speed of 20 mph.
Another offshoot of the Benton Harbor orchard tractors was the post-World War II Friday Model 048, virtually the same as the Love machine, except it used Dodge truck components, including a 218-cubic-inch, 6-cylinder engine. Besides a 5-speed Dodge transmission, a Dodge truck 2-speed rear axle was employed, giving 10 speeds forward.
A unique brake system included individual hand brakes to assist in steering plus a foot service brake pedal. In addition, a hand-lever parking brake was provided. A hydraulic lift system and rear PTO were options. The engine was equipped with a governor that limited the top speed to about 35 mph, but by overriding the governor, 60 mph was possible. Records suggest that the Friday was built into the 1950s.
Probably the most unusual and collectable orchard tractor of all time is the Allgaier Porsche P312 Kaffeelug. About 300 were made to use in cultivating Brazilian coffee plantations, but only one is known to have survived. These were originally powered by a 2-cylinder Porsche diesel, but the engine was later converted to gasoline and spark ignition because diesel exhaust lent an unpalatable flavor to the coffee.
In the 1970s, orchard tractors gradually lost the streamlined fenders and other characteristics in favor of just narrower wheel tread. Because of the development of dwarf trees with “vertical axe” (straight-up growth and short lateral limbs), the requirement of maneuvering through thick, low branches has been mostly eliminated. Trees have been developed that actually need poles and wires to hold them up when the fruit begins to grow.
Now, although row spacing has become narrower, tractors can be taller, even equipped with cabs. The major players, such as AGCO, Case-IH and John Deere, have moved toward what are now called “specialty tractors” designed specifically for the fruit industry. These specialty tractors may become of interest to collectors in 30 years or so, but today’s orchard tractor collectors still fancy those with the sweeping, streamlined accoutrements. FC
After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.