John Wickre of St. Paul, Minn., could aptly and accurately be dubbed ‘The Father of Minnesota Tractor Information.’ In the span of a decade, he researched almost every Minnesota tractor company that ever existed and compiled a folder of information on each one. Even more amazing, he did it on his own time.
‘For a number of years in the 1970s and early 1980s my family (wife and three children} all lived in Cumberland, Wis., and I commuted there on week ends, leaving my evenings free to do research,’ explains John. ‘It was about 10 years of work, maybe five years of active work, and not all the time, but whenever it worked out and whenever I felt like it, but someone like me felt like it a lot of the time.’
His day job from 1970 to 1990 was as a manuscripts cataloguer at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul. His interest in tractors and gas engines emanated from that work, for among many other materials that he cataloged over the years were the extensive records of the Minneapolis-Moline Company.
When he began the tractor companies information project, John knew little about tractors, though he had a working knowledge from growing up in agricultural Cumberland, and helping farmers at haying time – ‘although I had no great contact with machinery.’ His lack of detailed information didn’t hinder him, though. ‘I didn’t come to it with any preconceived notions, so I could see it with fresh eyes.’
And once he got into it, he got to know a lot about tractors and small gas engines in Minnesota very quickly: ‘You look through all those pages of ads and get thousands of images in your mind.’
Many evenings John sat down at a desk in the historical society’s library with Farm Implements magazine and its successors spread out around him. The periodicals had been bound into heavy books that often ran to 180 or more folio-sized pages. John poured over every one, searching for mentions of Minnesota tractor companies and gas engines.
‘Sometimes it was as simple as one line that said the sales manager from Pioneer Tractor Company was in town talking to someone or other, and though the information might not have been that great, that one clue might be the information that started you checking a company out, or finding out that all the references to a Minnesota tractor company were really for a company outside of Minnesota. That’s why every little thing was important.’
John either wrote down the line or listed its reference or, in the case of longer articles, copied them using the old wet process to make photocopies to slip into their proper folders. ‘The hand written notes were originally just for me. After going through thousands of pages of stuff, my handwriting, which usually isn’t great, was sometimes pretty illegible,’ he laughs.
John discovered that Farm Implements was originally the official journal of early hard ware dealers. ‘It was often hard ware dealers who sold farm implements, and took on different lines,’ he says. ‘Eventually that changed to what we have now, where each company had its own complete line with their own name on it.’
Early Gets Earlier
At first, John started researching from 1910, a time many tractor companies were forming and other companies were making tractors for the first time, but dropped back to 1900 when he discovered that many companies started before 1910 or had emanated from companies that had preceded the tractor companies, ‘like iron works businesses, or something like that.’
In addition to Farm Implements, other sources were used, including incorporation records, city directories, implement and gas engine trade journals, collectors’ magazines, books and similar sources. The end result, as listed in the computerized references of the Minnesota Historical Society: ‘Title: Minnesota tractors research files, |ca. 1860s-1970sJ. Description: 1.5 cu. ft. (4 boxes).’
One of the problems John faced with the project was handling the large volume of materials. ‘I just continued to find so much more material than I thought I would. I’d doggedly go through it, writing down the information. The hardest thing was to decide ‘what is a Minnesota company, and what isn’t?’ I’d see an ad, and just because it said Minneapolis, Minn., you didn’t know for sure until you started collecting information whether it was an actual local manufacturing company or the local sales place for Rock Island or Heider tractors. So I had to be careful, like the one in Stillwater. The Advance-Rumely Thresher Company bought out Northwest Thresher Company of Stillwater, Minn., and started building the Rumely GasPull (to go along with their Rumely OilPull) tractor. So it wasn’t simple to separate companies, even when you did know the names of them. But pretty soon I got to know that kind of stuff.’
Big Tractors, Big Doings
His biggest surprise, he says, was discovering the extent of the tractor industry in Minnesota. ‘During the World War I period, Minneapolis was trying to become the Detroit of the tractor industry. Minneapolis had its implement row -I compiled a file on that, too – where the implement dealers would come to look at stuff and make their purchases. When I was searching the city directory, it was difficult to distinguish if one of the businesses on implement row might actually be a factory that manufactured tractors, or if it was strictly for sales. Sometimes notes that said ‘works’ gave me the clue that the factory was there, and not elsewhere, in another state.’
A quick-run through of C.H.Wendel’s Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1960, shows that 122 of the nation’s approximately 900 tractor companies were located in Minnesota, most of them in Minneapolis.
John says he also was surprised by ‘the number of different tractors, the number of different designs, as well as finding out that they didn’t settle on two big wheels on back and the small wheels in front until Fordson pretty much settled that (about 1917). About the end of World War I, tractor manufacturers were using all sorts of designs for tractors.’
The research project also turned up some insights about the great agricultural depression. ‘Most people remember the Great Depression in the 1930s,’ John says, ‘but they don’t realize that the agricultural depression started in 1920.’ Part of the reason was the return of millions of horses and thousands of tractors from the battlefields of World War I. Farmers had no money, so they couldn’t buy machinery. Overnight, prices of many tractors plunged 30 to 50 percent.
One of the primary benefactors or John’s research was U.S. farm machinery historian C.H.Wendel. ‘When I found out he was doing his encyclopedia, I sent him all my notes for the Minnesota tractors, and kept an eye out for non-Minnesota stuff,’ John recalls. ‘My stuff makes up a small part of what he did, but I was happy to give him everything I had. I didn’t consider it that great. What I had was great for this small time period and small geographic area.’
Tractor Slide Shows
Eventually, as John collected massive amounts of data as well as expertise, he began giving slide shows on Minnesota tractors. ‘The State Historical Society had an outreach program, so I put together a slide show. I started out being a hesitant speaker, but eventually got to the point where nothing could faze me, including the electricity going off. After that I got some requests from people who found out about the slide show, so I went out to different places across the state, including the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion at Rollag (Minn.).’
The slide shows eventually expanded from slide shows about just tractors and gas engines: ‘The slide shows still had a lot of stuff on tractors, but would lead up to it with doing things by hand, horse-drawn implements and so on. One of the threads that always wound through the slide show was the man with the pitchfork. T’d show this manual machinery, but the man with the pitchfork had to be there to do some of the farm work. Then I’d show some automation, with farm implements, and you’d have the man with the pitchfork. Show the most modern stuff, and still you’d have that man with the pitch fork. There’s still a lot of hard manual labor in farming.’
One of attractions of the slide shows was the beautiful color slides made from old-time tractor company catalogs. ‘Before 1920 there were some big beautiful catalogs that had everything a company made in them, wonderful color drawings and photos. Minneapolis-Moline had a lot, Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company had some really great ones and there were others.’
John also noticed that just before 1920, tractor companies stopped making these all-encompassing catalogs. ‘They realized farmers don’t buy everything at once, so they started bringing out leaflets, which farmers could pick up one at a time.’
Minnesota’s state prison also made farm implements, which was another oddity John discovered in his research. ‘There are whole articles in the archives on that. They made twine, and there was a twine controversy, because the manufacturers and dealers didn’t like the state coming in and undercutting prices. They got into the farm machinery business -they never did any tractors – and made implements from about the 19-teens until the 1970s. They also had some nice catalogs.’
John says he found the advertising in the old magazines especially delightful.
‘The ads were interesting, the way they talked about the gas engine tractor as ‘so simple even a woman can drive it.”
Compiler’s Work Is Never Done
When John came to the last line of the Farm Implements magazine (and its various successors), he says he felt, ‘As usual, a combination of sadness and relief. In a way I never considered the project finished. There is a lot of stuff I would keep adding to it, but I was finished with the intense work.’
He’d like to do two more things with the collection: ‘First, transcribe my scrawled, handwritten notes into electronic form so they can be printed out. And secondly, recopy the old wet-process photocopies of ads, many of them from Farm Implements magazine.’
‘I do wish I could do all that research now instead of back then. Not only would I put notes in electronic form, but I’d be able to use a digital camera to capture right off the page. I’d do a lot more with graphics, too.’
Now 58, John does freelance archival work, industrial archaeology and serves as a docent at the Minnesota Transportation Museum’s Jackson Street Roundhouse, a working railroad muse um with a newly installed turntable. He also does research at the museum.
‘I guess I am surprised at how much information that small collection represents,’ he says. ‘Researchers have told me, ‘You have saved me hours and hours of effort.’ Maybe, now that I’ve talked to a few people the work has helped, I’m really beginning to appreciate what I did during all those hours.’ FC
Bill Vossler is a farm toy collectibles expert, author and freelance writer. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: email@example.com
Tracking down the research
John Wickre’s research on Minnesota tractors as well as the Farm Implements magazines that were his primary resource are on file at the Minnesota Historical Society Museum in St. Paul.
The tractor files focus on the years 1910 to 1920, but some materials relate to other agricultural machinery and internal combustion engines.
The files were compiled from studying incorporation records, city directories, implement and gas engine trade journals, collectors’ magazines and books, and similar sources.
John also has compiled information on steam tractors in Minnesota and on three Minnesota-based railroads that is on file at the same location.
Contact the museum at 346 Kellogg Blvd., West St. Paul, MN 55102-1906; (651) 296-2143.