A Rare Pair of Walk Behind Tractors

Early Ward walk-behind tractors add a unique touch to a Michigan man's collection.

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by Dennis Merlau
Both of these units are driven by wide flat belts instead of the V-type, which is common today. “That’s just a neat touch of the old ways,” Dennis says.

When we think of farm equipment today, we don’t think of department stores where we can buy everything from clothes to appliances – but that is where some of us would have gone looking for such things in the past.

In the mid-1800s, salesman Aaron Montgomery Ward traveled through rural America, selling wares to the country and farm folks with no convenient source for “the nicer things” unavailable at small local stores. Over the years, he paid close attention to his customers’ wants and needs. He sought sources to provide the products and then made arrangement for delivery direct to the customer.

Ward did this for some time before founding the Montgomery Ward & Co. mail order and department store in Chicago in 1872 (the company closed its doors in 2001). As the years passed, Ward continued to listen to his customers’ needs and find suppliers to fill those requests, which included varied types of machinery. The fact that Ward offered a line of credit and a new catalog every year sweetened the deal.

First Bolens, then Simplicity

In the 1930s, farming was a major business in rural America. Ward was quick to identify the need for smaller farm equipment. Details on one particular deal are in short supply, but it seems Ward contacted Bolens Equipment Co. in Port Washington, Wisconsin. Bolens was already an established manufacturer of small tractors. Ward negotiated a deal to have Bolens build a walk-behind tractor for him in late 1937 for the 1938 season. From what is known, the deal did not go well, as few units were built.
Still wanting a small tractor, Ward approached Simplicity Mfg. Co., also in Port Washington, about building a series of units for the 1938 season. It appears that Simplicity did, in fact, build a series of tractors for Ward, as well as for themselves.

Ward’s larger units were powered with Wisconsin engines built in Milwaukee; Simplicity used Briggs & Stratton engines. It is believed that few of the larger units were built from 1938-’40 and that the venture was not a successful one.

Oddly, no front-mount implements

The large Ward tractor from the late 1930s is an uncommon unit in the collector world. Dennis Merlau, a Delton, Michigan collector of early garden tractors and lawnmowers, has a pair of these early Ward units.

The first one he found was a 1938 3hp Plow-Trac with hood and decals in original condition. A short time later, he found a larger 1938 5hp unit. “The odd part is, both are called Plow-Trac tractors,” he says.

Dennis has original literature for both units, and from that he has learned that the names of the units changed over the few years they were made. For clarity, he identifies them as the 500-lb. unit and the 1,000-lb. unit, referencing their listed shipping weights. The smaller unit has 16-inch wheels; the larger one has 22-inch wheels (steel wheels were available as an option).

Interestingly, no front-mount equipment – no plow, disc, planter or cultivator – is listed for these tractors. A sickle bar mower was available with the big unit, but the offering did not include a snow plow or any other front-mount equipment. The 500-lb. machine has a side flat belt pulley to run various pieces of equipment; the 1,000-lb. unit also had a side pulley available.

Searching for parts

The 1,000-lb. machine was found at the same location as the other machine, but in another part of the same building. This machine was missing most of its original engine. Finding an engine of this size and age is a problem. “It had an extra engine with it,” Dennis notes, “but it was not the correct engine size for the tractor.” The needed engine is a 5hp Model AF. “It is the same physical size as it’s big brother, the 8hp AH,” he says. “The only real difference is the bore, and the cylinder is a bolt-on piece.”
These two engines were the largest single-cylinder engines built by Wisconsin in the 1938-’40 timeframe. The 1,000-lb. machine has a 2-speeds forward/one reverse transmission with drop-down gear drives on each wheel. “The thing about this machine is, if it does not run, you are not pushing it,” Dennis says. “The gear train gives too much resistance.”
Eventually, he was able to find the parts to get the original engine back together and running well. “That is the only way to own one of these big machines,” Dennis says. “That means you can drive them. It is a pleasure to walk behind one of these big old pieces of history.” The 500-lb. machine is a single-speed unit that is easy to push if not running, which is a plus when moving it around the shop or at a show.

Over the years, Dennis has seen and heard of a few of the big machines, but the hood was missing on each of them and that was a major problem. “The hood is the eye-catcher at a show,” he says, “as it is big and has a lot of style.” But if you ever had to work on the engine out in the field, he says, you would understand why there are no hoods around. “They probably rotted away in the fence row as they are a real pain to take off and put on,” he says. “Plus, they are heavy as well.”

“A tractor saves the farmer money”

The fact that the model names were changed during the short production run is probably little more than a sales gimmick intended to capitalize on the perceived appeal of a new product. The 500-lb. machine as seen is a Plow-Trac, but some manuals call it a Cult-Trac. The 1,000-lb. machine is called the Plow-Trac as well. Montgomery Ward also had a small machine with 12-inch wheels called a Hoe-Trac. The 8hp Team Trac looked like the 1,000-lb. machine but it had an extended frame with a steering wheel. Plagued by mechanical problems, Dennis says, this unit caused Ward real trouble in the field.

Color was another interesting thing, “The big ones were blue with the gray belt like the one we have – or they were blue with a different design on them, blue and silver, or orange and green, and there was a reddish-brown one like the 500-lb. unit,” Dennis says. “The different colors were probably nothing more than an effort to help sell them as ‘new and improved’ units.”

The 1hp Hoe-Trac with 12-inch wheels was recommended for a 1-acre garden. The 2-1/2-3hp Cult-Trac was recommended for the commercial gardener farming 2-1/2 to 10 acres. The 5hp Plow Trac was recommended for poultry and orchard applications, as well as for small fruit businesses of 2-1/2 to 20 acres. The 8hp Team Trac was for farm operations of up to 40 acres.

A tractor for all needs was the Ward idea. “The company’s sales pitch was ‘A horse eats into profits too heavily: A tractor actually saves the farmer money,'” Dennis says. FC

Dennis Merlau is always looking for old tractors and early mowers to preserve and display. Contact him at 5850 Otis Lake Rd., Delton, MI 49046;
email: merlauj@aol.com; phone (269) 623-8545.

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