The Golden Years of Tractor History

In the short span of 1917-1920, tractors were used to replace farm horses conscripted to World War I battlefields, where the animals' lifespan averaged two weeks.


| September 2006



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Happy Farmer tractors were manufactured first in Minneapolis, then in LaCrosse, Wis.

When 1921 rolled around, the 166 tractor companies in existence in the United States had no idea most of them were doomed. How could they?

Everything was going swimmingly. Tractor sales leaped from 29,670 in 1916 to 203,207 in 1920. In the short span of 1917-1920, tractors were used to replace farm horses conscripted to World War I battlefields, where the animals' lifespan averaged two weeks. Tractors were being used to replace men who were away fighting "the war to end all wars." During the war years, tractors were used to increase U.S. farm production: tractors outworked horses, and they didn't eat grain. At the same time tractors were being used on the battlefield, their role as a vital machine on the farm was gaining traction.

It was no wonder, then, that from 1917 through 1920, tractor manufacturers introduced, manufactured and sold at least 300 new models. These included all different brands, some of them very well-known, like the Rumely 30-60 OilPull, Avery 6-cylinder, 14-28 and trio of motor cultivators, Case Cub Junior 15-30, 9-18, 10-18, 12-20 and others, as well as the popular Waterloo Boy Model N 12-25.

Other models were less well-known: the Big Bull 12-24, Big Four 20-35, Emerson-Brantingham 9-16, 12-20 and others, and Fair-Mor 10-20 and 12-25. Still others were complete strangers on the scene: the Appleton 14-28 and 12-20, the Chase 8-16, Farquhar 15-25, 18-35 and 25-50, the Keck-Gonnerman 18-35 and the 25-50, and Kinkhead 12-25 and 12-30 (which went out of production when R.S. Kinkhead was drafted into the military).

In modern parlance, those years could be called the VHS-Beta test years. Which form of the tractor would prove most useful, most effective, cheapest, longest-lasting, and ultimately, best? Which type would win out? Would it be the tricycle, drum wheel, four-wheel, auto plow/motor plow, half-track, full crawler or even tractor-wheel add-ons?

Tricycle type tractors

Tricycle (or three-wheel) type tractors had been popular since the astounding success of the Little Bull tractor from 1913-1914, when it became the fastest-selling tractor yet and took over the tractor production lead. Other three-wheelers followed in quick succession, among them the New Age, Happy Farmer, Square-Turn, Wharton and Dixieland.