The Grain Belt tractor suffered from the same pangs as those endured by most new tractor companies before 1920: strong competition from hundreds of companies trying to break into the suddenly wide-open need for small tractors like the 15-30 Grain Belt, which weighed 5,700 pounds.
These were years of great hype, seemingly the norm for the times, so future buyers could hardly be blamed for being flummoxed as they tried to figure out which might be the best machine for their needs. With three years remaining until the Nebraska Tractor Tests would begin to help rate tractors – sorting the gold from the dross – buying a tractor was a hit-or-miss affair.
The Feb. 28, 1917, issue of Farm Implements magazine describes the new Grain Belt tractor as “designed for those who want a light, substantial machine, of medium weight, designed and built to give the best service possible. The Grain Belt is substantially constructed, insuring long life and ample power, together with low fuel consumption.” Of course, none of the claims could be tested, unless another farmer had a similar machine.
In Fessenden, North Dakota, the Fessenden Free Press reported that the Grain Belt tractor was the invention of Chas. Himrich of Fessenden (though other references say Heinrich). The Jan. 31, 1917, issue of Farm Implements recorded that, “The Grain Belt Co. has been organized under the laws of Minnesota with capital stock of $1,000,000. The directors are Charles Himrich, Fessenden, N.D., C.R. Fletcher, Minneaplis, and Elmer Pitcher, Minneapolis.”
In Farm Tractors 1890-1980, author C.H. Wendel says that Grain Belt Tractor Co. began operations in Minneapolis in 1917. Pitcher, a well-known player in tractor circles of the time, was also involved in the company’s organization. He may even have been involved in the tractor’s design. Among many patents issued to him was one for a Liberty tractor, though it was not granted until 1919. Despite claims that Himrich (or Heinrich) held patents on the Grain Belt, none have ever been found.
Though some references say the first Grain Belt was a 15-35, it was more likely a 15-30, judging by a 1917 ad announcing that model and indicating that the machine was built in Minneapolis at 2115 Como Avenue Southeast.
Like all ads, this one worked on the fears of farmers, many of whom had been sucked in and bitten repeatedly by new tractor companies with big claims that didn’t work out – or they’d heard of neighbors who’d had problems with new tractors.
In this case, Grain Belt said it had cured the problem of dirt and dust wrecking gears. Similar problems had plagued an earlier tractor, the Little Bull. The Little Bull’s gears, open to dirt and dust, simply quit operating, and the manufacturer recalled hundreds of tractors. That would not be the case with the 1917 Grain Belt 15-30, the ad said.
“The Grain Belt has all working parts running in oil-tight housings,” the ad declared. “The transmission has all gears and bearing in an oil-tight case. The bull pinion and bull gear are also enclosed in an oil-tight case. All moving parts are protected from dirt.” Dirt, the farmer’s greatest asset, was his darkest enemy with machinery, but not if you bought a Grain Belt tractor.
When things didn’t work out for the company in Minneapolis, it moved to St. Cloud, Minnesota. A November 1917 issue of The St. Cloud Press noted that the old-time value of hometown loyalty was well-illustrated in St. Cloud, when former resident A.W. Raymond, then a prominent resident of Wheatland, North Dakota, became interested in the Grain Belt tractor.
“This was being manufactured in Minneapolis,” the article reports, “but the work was not satisfactory, and when the management began looking for a better location, Mr. Raymond, knowing St. Cloud and its resources, so strongly recommended this city that a local firm has been employed to make the tractors. This promises to grow into a big business, as the machine has been thoroughly tested, and is pronounced by experts to be one of the best and most practical on the market, and it is said the demand so far has greatly exceeded the output. Mr. Raymond’s many friends here will appreciate his efforts in behalf of the Granite City.”
The “demand” statement was probably quite accurate, as P.S. Rose, who tracked numbers of tractors manufactured at the time, wrote in Estimated and Manufactured for 1917 that a total of seven Grain Belt tractors had been built.
It is doubtful whether Grain Belt ever built tractors in St. Cloud, as Rose’s listing for tractors built by the company for the first half of 1918 is blank, meaning none were built at all during the period the company would have been in St. Cloud.
In January 1918, The Gas Engine magazine reported that permission had been granted to Grain Belt Tractor Co., Fargo, North Dakota, to sell $60,000 worth of capital stock “to be used in establishing an assembling plant in Fargo for turning out tractors manufactured under patents held by Charles Heinrich of Fessenden.”
In June, the Fessenden Free Press reported that, “Three Grain Belt tractors were unloaded here the first of the week and two of them were taken immediately, one by Wm. Shaver and one by Andrew Crean, of Bowdon. Mr. Shaver will use the one he bought on his large farm west of town, while Mr. Crean will employ the engine in road grading work near Bowdon.” Rose reported production of just four Grain Belt tractors in the last half of 1918, for an annual output of the same number. The company, however, was bullish, predicting production of 200 tractors in 1919.
In its Oct. 29, 1918, issue, Farm Implements and Tractors announced reorganization of Grain Belt Tractor Co. The company was renamed Grain Belt Mfg. Co., and two other companies joined the operation: Fargo Foundry & Engineering, manufacturers of firefighting apparatus, and Dakota Welding & Mfg. Co., a welding and general machinery business. “These various undertakings will be continued by the new corporation and the business extended as rapidly as possible,” the article noted.
When a new company broadens its scope of activities, it is not generally interpreted as a good thing. Rather, it suggests that the company’s main activity – in this case, tractor manufacture and sale – was not proceeding as well as hoped. Grain Belt said the new incorporation came about to create “the first unit of a manufacturing plant which may be enlarged as necessity requires.”
Little is known about the company for another year. P.S. Rose used question marks instead of numbers for Grain Belt’s 1919 output. In its July 31 issue, Farm Implements and Tractors said the company was building a new plant in Fargo. “Plans for the erection of a modern plant have been completed, and contractors Meinecke-Johnson Co. have a force of men working on the building. The factory will cover considerable area, and would have been started some time ago if the lack of building materials had not prevented it. According to Mr. Prentice (Grain Belt president), the demand for their product is far greater than the supply, each machine being taken as soon as it is ready to leave the factory.”
That may have been true, because very few Grain Belts were built, certainly fewer than a hundred.
In its December 1921 issue, Agricultural Engineering magazine put the final nail in Grain Belt’s coffin, saying, “L.R. Van Valkenburg, formerly service engineer for Avery Co., recently became associated with the Grain Belt Tractor Co., Fargo, North Dakota, whose plant is being turned into a school of mechanics, and known as the Grain Belt School of Mechanics. Mr. Van Valkenburg holds the position of superintendent, and instruction will be given in automobile, truck, tractor and gas engineering, also in machine-shop work.”
As with many other tractor companies of this time, the fierce Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s, along with price wars launched by a couple of major tractor manufacturers, spelled the end for Grain Belt Tractor Co. FC
Three models of Grain Belt tractors were said to have been built, beginning with the 15-30 model, which was produced at least from 1917 to 1919. According to early company literature, the 5,700-pound tractor was recommended for use with four plows. It measured 156 inches long by 78 inches wide, with a 60-inch drive wheel and 18-inch face. With a Waukesha vertical 4-cylinder engine, cast in pairs, the tractor was priced at $1,150 ($18,029 today).
Oddly enough, 1919 references to the 15-30 list it at a beefed-up 7,200 pounds. It was still equipped with the same Waukesha engine and rated for four plows, but its dimensions had changed to 144 by 90 inches. Priced at $2,250, the tractor was said to be capable of 2-1/2 mph (forward and reverse) – the 1917 model was said to have speeds of 2-1/2 to 4 mph in forward only.
The Year of the Tractor mentions the Grain Belt 15-35, with a 4-3/4- by 6-3/4-inch bore and stroke, and weighing in at 7,400 pounds. In that report, the tractor is recommended for three to four plows at 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 mph. Could that have been the correct designation for the 7,200-pound 15-30? It remains unclear.
An 18-36 Grain Belt model is also listed. According to noted authority C.H. Wendel, the 18-36 was little more than a “redesigned version of the 15-35.” A photo of the 18-36 looks suspiciously like a photo of an early 15-30.
One thing about the Grain Belt tractors: a great deal about them is confusing. Many details have been lost to time, and perhaps will never be known.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.