Before a single Liberty tractor was sold in 1918, the four-wheeled, kerosene-powered vehicle was in trouble. Not because of the tractor’s worthiness, because it took several top honors at various tractor demonstrations, and certainly not in the eyes of its manufacturer – obvious from ads that screamed Sensation! Durable! A Seller! The tractor’s trouble came because of its name.
World War I still raged across Europe when the government’s National Vigilance Committee asked the Elmer Pitcher Co., a Minneapolis tractor firm, whether it was taking advantage of a name used and made famous by Uncle Sam. The NVC’s Guss Husser wrote that ‘… the concern here was advertising a tractor called the Liberty tractor, and … the name ‘Liberty’ is applied to the new government motor as well as trucks, which are being used by the government in the war. We are wondering on what basis this apparently privately-owned concern is making use of the phrase ‘Liberty tractor.”
By all accounts, Elmer Pitcher, manager of the Elmer Pitcher Co., and founder of the Liberty Tractor Co., would’ve made a great politician. Two weeks after the Vigilance Committee’s letter of May 2, 1918, he answered, ‘… we have not as yet put any tractors on the market, we are only getting some out for tests. We adopted the name LIBERTY Oct. 21, 1917.’
That’s all Elmer wrote. He gave no justification for taking the well-known name of a government-made product, although there was the troublesome, little fact that the company didn’t organize until Jan. 23, 1918.
Yet, perhaps Pitcher was justified in his denial. An unsigned letter dated May 31, 1918, said the Vigilance Bureau (a branch of the NVC) discovered that the tractor was designed by ‘a man named McVicar (of the McVicar Engineering Co.), who is said to be one of the recognized tractor experts of this section and a man who seems to be held in the highest esteem in the tractor industry.’
Apparently, McVicar’s reputation carried enough weight that the committee members felt he wasn’t merely a fly-by-night engineer trying to take advantage of war-spawned patriotism to sell tractors.
Either the Vigilance Committee was satisfied by McVicar’s credibility, or the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918, made the tractor’s controversial name a moot point. Regardless, the Liberty tractor entered the Midwest farm equipment market in fall 1918. The company motto declared ”Liberty’ means freedom from tractor troubles.’
Elmer’s response to the committee’s query is curious in light of the Liberty tractor’s carefully planned design compared to forethought given by other tractor makers of the day. Prior to 1920, many tractors were manufactured on a whim, with little or no research involved.
On the other hand, the P.J. Downes Co., a tractor sales and distribution company, which had been involved in the tractor industry for eight years before it began with the Liberty tractor, was a progressive company.
In fact, the Nov. 29, 1918, issue of Farm Implements and Tractors reveals that the company surveyed farmers to discover what they wanted in a farm machine. The company also hoped the study would uncover the flaws farmers found in tractors already on the market.
The survey was fruitful, and the tractor’s promoters determined that the most-economical tractor for the average farmer was the four-plow size, ‘because one farmer could handle four plows without additional time but increased (production) work,’ according to a Nov. 29, 1918, issue of Farm Implements and Tractors.
Thus the Liberty tractor was designed as a four-plow tractor.
The lightweight Liberty tractor weighed 5,775 pounds and used a four-cylinder Climax engine with a 5-by-6 1/2-inch bore and stroke. The tractor had a 15-30 hp rating, and was built to pull four 14-inch plows. The two-compartment fuel tank held 20 gallons of kerosene and 5 gallons of gasoline.
The tractor, truly a different breed of farm machine, was sleek and small for its time. In fact, C.H. Wendel wrote in Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors that the Liberty tractor’s ‘neat and compact lines signified the coming of modern, streamlined machines.’ Further evidence of its fine design is found in a Nov. 29, 1918, Farm Implements and Tractors article that shows the ‘… fine adjustment of bearings makes the Liberty tractor so light in draft that it can be pushed back and forth on the sample floor with one finger.’ The article even added that an oilcan was unnecessary since the tractor’s lubrication was so thorough.
Records show that the Liberty appeared to be a solid tractor. As Elmer, the tractor’s inventor, prepared for the North Dakota Tractor Demonstration in 1918, he called on a man identified in records only as Mr. Jenkins, Minneapolis branch manager for the Oliver Chilled Plow Works, to furnish four breaker bottoms. Jenkins inquired about the Liberty’s weight, and when he learned it was only about 5,800 pounds, Jenkins scoffed at Elmer’s assertion that the tractor could pull four breaker bottoms. Elmer assured Jenkins the Liberty would perform beyond expectations.
Jenkins wasn’t the only doubter. At the tractor tests, one skeptical farmer offered to bet $1,000 that the Liberty tractor couldn’t pull four 14-inch breaker plows. Lucky for the farmer, no one accepted his bet. Despite the detractors, the Liberty tractor pulled the plows ‘steadily and easily,’ according to a Farm Implements and Tractors report about the tests.
At the Fourth National Tractor Demonstration held July 1918, in Salina, Kan., the Liberty tractor made another grand showing. The tractor pulled four 14-inch stubble plows for six days under a variety of conditions without stopping.
Shortly thereafter, the Liberty set a record with a fuel-labor cost of 93.8 cents per acre at the northern Illinois Tractor Meet held in September 1919. Just as Elmer predicted, the tractor beat the odds and proved all skeptics wrong.
Bankruptcy blues & Liberty II
Unfortunately, the tractor’s abilities weren’t the company’s biggest problem. The trouble surfaced when Chilton Tractor Journal wrote on April 1, 1919, that the P.J. Downes Co. presented a fine display at the Kansas City Show of the Liberty tractor, but added that the Downes Co. is the sales organization.
As the tractor’s sole distributor, Liberty’s eggs were all in one basket. When P.J. Downes Co. went into receivership in 1921 due to the nationwide agricultural depression, Liberty tractors had no outlet. In fact, the Midland National Bank owned all the tractors, and none were left to sell.
Two years later the Feb. 28, 1923, issue of Farm Implements and Tractors wrote that P.J. Downes Co. planned to re-enter the implement business in its former Minneapolis location under the Downes Implement Co. name. ‘Arrangements have been made for the sale of the stock of Liberty tractors taken over by the Midland National Bank following the P.J. Downes Co. receivership …’
Nothing apparently came of this 11th-hour effort, however, and the Liberty tractor joined the long roll of failed American tractor companies. FC
– Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; or call him at (320) 253-5414; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Three Liberty tractor companies operated independently in the Midwest at the same time. The Minneapolis company was in business from 1917 to 1921, while the Dubuque, Iowa-based Liberty Tractor Co. formed in 1919. It offered its own tractor named Liberty – also known as the Klumb tractor -with a different badge, and two other tractors, a Model 10-20 and a Model 16-32. That Liberty company originally was named Klumb Engine & Machinery Co.
A third Liberty Tractor Co. was incorporated in 1918 and based in Hammond, Ind. Yet, it doesn’t appear that it was a viable company, because no Liberty tractors were produced.
Unfortunately, every story about old tractors is limited by available information, and Liberty tractors are no different. One curiosity about the tractor is that all the published research information discusses the Liberty Model 15-30 tractor as if it were the only model ever made. However, an undated farm magazine ad – undoubtedly an early one, as the P.J. Downes Co. was listed as the distributor, and the Liberty Tractor Co. as manufacturers, and those two entities only existed up until 1921 – describes another Liberty tractor as a Model 18-32.
Additionally, advertising materials variously list the weight of the tractor as 4,700, 5,775 or 5,800 pounds, and the width as 66 or 68 inches. Since much of the information is undated, it’s difficult to put into perspective. Most likely the 4,700-pound, 66-inch width information was preliminary, listed before the tractor even entered the market, but no one can tell for sure.
No records exist to tell how many Liberty tractors were made, but at least one is restored and shows up regularly at the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion held annually at Rollag, Minn. The tractor is rare enough that C.H. Wendel’s price guide, Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors 1890-1960, doesn’t list a value for the unique Liberty tractor.