One of the more famous names among rusty iron enthusiasts is that of the Hart-Parr Co., which has more than one claim to fame. Hart-Parr built the first practical internal combustion tractor engine, was the first factory to build tractors on a production line basis and, although the term “tractor” wasn’t coined by Hart-Parr, as is often claimed, they were perhaps the first to apply it to what was then called a “gasoline traction engine.”
The two men who fathered the company, Charles Herbert Parr and Charles Walker Hart, were fascinating individuals and fast friends throughout their lives, but opposites in temperament and ambition.
Hart was born in Charles City, Iowa, in 1872. He worked at his father’s lumber business and farm before entering the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1893. Charles Parr, born in Wisconsin in 1868, loved to tinker with his father’s farm machinery and worked at Eclipse Wind Engine Co., Beloit, Wisconsin, before he too went to the University of Wisconsin, in 1893.
As the two young men were both enrolled in the college’s mechanical engineering department, it’s not surprising that they met and, due to sharing common interests, became fast friends. They even began to operate a small machine shop to repair farm machines in Madison while still in college. That is where their experiments with internal combustion engines began.
Expansion triggers move
To earn special honors at graduation, Hart and Parr wrote an extensive thesis describing the history and development of internal combustion engines, which at that time were still pretty primitive, as well as explaining their ideas on the ignition, timing, governing, and carburetion. To demonstrate their ideas, they built a 2-cylinder vertical valve-in-head engine that was much simpler and lighter in weight than the engines then in use.
Charles Parr later wrote that while still in college, in 1896 the boys borrowed $3,000, bought a half-acre in Madison where they built a 31-by-56-foot, two-story building. There, after graduation, Hart and Parr built several more engines and perfected a cooling system using oil instead of water. Parr said that during that first year of operation (1897), the fledgling business lost $353.89, and the next year, another $419.17 flew out the window. However, things finally turned around in 1899 with a $454.33 profit and in 1900, $1,564.16.
Apparently, it was during that time that the idea of putting one of their engines into a “farm motor,” or tractor, came to the two men. Engine demand increased and a larger factory was needed, but financing was unavailable in Madison. Charles Hart’s father, back in Charles City, Iowa, offered to help the new company move to that city and enlisted several of his friends to raise financing for the move. Three acres were bought, a new building was erected, and “by Christmas day (1901), transfer of the entire Wisconsin manufacturing operations to Charles City was completed, and the new plant was put into operation with 15 employees on the payroll.”
Rough start for Old Number 1
A tractor was soon built. Parr wrote, “The opportunity to build our first tractor came as soon as our engine business was established in Charles City and resulted in the production of the first Hart-Parr tractor in 1902.” That tractor was the famous “Old Number 1” that was sold to Mason City, Iowa, farmer David Jennings. John Culberson tells of the delivery of this machine in his excellent 2001 book, The Tractor Builders.
The Jennings farm was 36 miles from the Hart-Parr factory and it was decided to drive the big, clumsy machine instead of shipping it by rail. As Old Number 1 was driven across a wooden bridge, the thing collapsed and dropped the tractor into a creek. A nearby farmer was enlisted to bring his team (actual horse power) to pull its mechanical equivalent out of the mud, after which the tractor was cleaned up and made the rest of the run without incident. That first tractor was used by Jennings and other owners for the next 17 years, proving its reliability.
Charles Hart seems to have been the dominant member of the two partners, while Charles Parr, to all appearances, was content to take a lesser role in the organization, as well as less pay. In 1907, for example, Hart, as president and general manager, was paid $4,000 per year, while Parr received only $1,500 in his role as vice president and assistant manager.
Photographs show Hart to be a handsome, dark-haired man, with large eyes that project an intense look, while Parr, equally nice-looking, has lighter hair, a rather bushy moustache and a more laid-back expression.
Workers win housing battle
Business for Hart-Parr boomed during the years prior to World War I. As plant expansion followed plant expansion, workmen became increasingly difficult to find. By 1913, some 150 immigrant Serbian men worked at the plant, making 17 cents an hour. A few of the married men lived in private houses, but most lived in company-owned camps.
That year, as noted in the October 2008 issue of The Floyd County Heritage, published by the Floyd County Historical Society, the company built a poured concrete building divided into small rooms and told the Serbs they would all have to live in that building, and pay $1 per week rent for the privilege. As one of the men recalled in 1943, “The building would have been about right for 20 people, but the company wanted 150 Serbs to live (there).”
Well, the Serbs went on a strike, refusing to work if they had to live in that place. Several so-called ringleaders were arrested and threatened with deportation. However, the rest of the Serbs stuck together and no one would testify against the men, so they were released, and the workers were told they could live wherever they wanted.
There’s much more to the Hart-Parr story, but I thought these vignettes from their early days were interesting. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements, and related items. Contact Sam by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.