That old Titan tractor that came to Muddy Creek in the early part of 1917 was aptly named. Titan! A mythical Greek god known for his gigantic power and strength. It was a giant compared to the four-footed horse power, or even to the speedy and popular Fordson that could and did run circles around it. The old Titan tractor plodded along at its 2.5 mph road speed. It pulled a three-bottom, 14-inch plow to open a furrow 10 inches deep. Appearing much like the uneven contest of Aesop’s fable, the tortoise and the hare, the Titan could turn 10 acres of sod in a “can see to can’t see” 10-hour work day, while the smaller, scampering Fordson was doing 15 but pulling two 12-inch bottoms that opened but a four- or five-inch deep furrow.
The Fordson had the unpleasant habit of “rearing” and even turning over backwards, much to the dismay of the operator, when the load was suddenly increased, especially at excessive speeds. That, probably, is why most operators plowed so shallow.
The Titan tractor was built by International Harvester, and Dad bought his first one through H.O. Stout in Sumner. This would have been in the spring of 1917. By that time, more than two years had passed since the first one was built, and the Titan tractor had joined the long list of mechanical monsters that were steadily but slowly replacing that old dependable hay burner, the horse.
Every Titan operated successfully on low-grade and low-priced kerosene. “You can always get a plentiful supply of distillate or kerosene at reasonable prices,” reads the full-page ad in the October 1917 Country Gentleman. There were two sizes offered: a 10-20 and a 15-30. Dad owned two over the years, both 10-20s. That is, 10 hp on the drawbar, and 20 on the belt for wood sawing, silo filling or feed grinding. The 1917 ad reads further that “the smaller size is recommended for most farms. It has two plowing speeds, 1.85 and 2.50 miles per hour, which means it can turn 7 to 10 acres of ground in an average day, pulling a three-bottom plow.”
A full-page ad in a 1920 Prairie Farmer gives a bit more sales talk and a smattering of information. It reads “Next spring, you will suddenly decide that the time has suddenly arrived when you cannot possibly get along without a tractor: a Titan 10-20 to be specific. This is the tractor you will want to buy for the simple reason that it operates successfully on kerosene, and you get more real value for the $1,000 purchase price than in the price of any other tractor, to say nothing of our unexcelled repair service rendered through the 92 branch houses and thousands of dealers.
“So you go to your dealer, and then, to your surprise and dismay, find that the dealer is sold out of Titans – that the demand has absorbed the entire spring stock which he ordered months previously. You may find that you will have to wait, perhaps indefinitely, for your tractor. This happened hundreds of times during the fall of 1919. Be forewarned: Don’t take chances on an over-demand, or on a possible railroad or other strike that could tie up production, or more likely, the possibility of the price of steel and all steel products going up. Order your Titan today, so that it will be ready when you are ready. The wise buyer looks ahead.”
End of ad talk. Whew! Times haven’t changed much, have they? Lots of words and little meat. That old Titan was a huge machine, standing on its foot-wide steel wheels with their two-foot long diagonal-set lugs, about as high as a John Deere 40-20 does today. But there the similarity to any modern tractor ends. There was no radiator. The two-cylinder engine, with its six-inch bore and 12-inch stroke, was cooled with water from a 50-gallon tank that was mounted over the front three-foot high wheels. The water circulated by gravity, and was soon piping hot and had to be replenished constantly with additional fresh water. Using a half-bushel basket and dipping it from old Muddy Creek was a constant, not-looked-forward-to chore.
Oiling was by means of a “lubricator” that fed oil by the drop method to each bearing, and there were some 20 of them with the copper lines skillfully running to each, and a tiny sight glass in each to gauge the flow. The lubricator was powered by a cam and ratchet running off of the flywheel. One of the first steps in starting the old girl was to “turn the crank on the lubricator 50 to 100 times.”
The owner’s manual goes on to state: “Then set the magneto on ‘start’; advance the spark to the starting range; open the prime pet cocks to allow a bit of gasoline to dribble into the cylinders; Be sure and open the pet cocks on the bottom of the two cylinders.” This was to allow some of the compression to escape as this was so high that cranking was almost impossible unless the relief valves were open. As soon as the engine fired and took off, the wild whine of the escaped gas shrieked an ear-deafening scream until the valves were closed.
“The water mixer valve must be closed,” the manual continues. This was a very important part of the Titan’s success, as the water vapor was skillfully mixed with that of the low-grade kerosene to give a very efficient fuel mixture.
“Prime by squirting a bit of gasoline into the prime cups using the squirt can provided.” Dad soon found that a quart whiskey bottle worked much better than the squirt can, as it was necessary to constantly prime the engine when climbing one of the rolling knolls on the farm.
“Crank till the engine fires.” Boy, how innocent that sounds, and simple? Not by a jug full. The crank was about three feet long and weighed at least 20 pounds. It fit over the two-inch crank shaft, and locked on to a key on the flywheel. The operator placed his right foot on the rear wheel, reared up, and by using his strength plus the momentum from his dropping body, gave that engine a sharp quarter-turn that was supposed to start ‘er a rollin’, but seldom did. I have cranked and cranked and cranked on that old girl. Dad one time rigged up a self-starter by wrapping a hundred or more feet of hay rope around the belt pulley and then tying the other end to the saddle. Then he’d have me race Old Doll as fast as she could go to spin the engine over. Sometimes it even worked.
Most of the time, once we got her started, that old engine would run all day and sometimes all night, as coal oil was three cents a gallon, and sweat seemed to be worth a lot more.
Oh, yes, I forgot to tell you that there were 47 grease cups to keep filled and to screw down a half-turn twice a day. FC
Perry E. Piper’s recollections of his childhood on Muddy Creek – “which lies astraddle of the Indian Boundary Line that old Chief Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison laid out back in 1803” – appeared in newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for 12 years.