An Idea Whose Time Never Came

Motor cultivator offered an alternative to tractors…just not a very good one.

| September 2020

Harry Cleaver cultivating corn with a Bailor Model A motor cultivator on his farm near Burlington, Iowa, in 1920 or 1921. Harry was the uncle of Lindsey Gillis of Scenery Hill, Pa., who provided the photograph.

Sometime ago, I received in the mail a copy of an old photograph of a young man cultivating corn, using an unusual, steel-wheeled tractor. Helen Gillis of Scenery Hill, Pennsylvania, discovered the original photo in the attic of her farmhouse. Helen’s husband, Lindsey, believes the picture was taken in Burlington, Iowa, about 1920 or ‘21, and that the man driving the tractor is his uncle, Harry Cleaver. Lindsey wondered if I could identify the make of tractor that Uncle Harry was operating.

The tractor in the photo isn’t really a tractor at all, but a motor cultivator made by the Bailor Plow Mfg. Co. The first motor cultivators appeared in the mid-teens and, by the time of the Great Depression, most had disappeared.

Tractor builders of the day believed they could wean the farmer from his horses by developing light, engine-driven machines that could take over the duties of planting and cultivating row crops, jobs that were impossible with the heavy, awkward tractors then in use.

Motor cultivators never caught on, mostly because of their expense. The average price of a motor cultivator in 1920 was more than $500, a large expenditure for a machine that would be used only during the short cultivating season. In addition, many motor cultivators were poorly designed, suffered from mechanical problems and upset easily on hilly ground. The machines were difficult and tiring to operate, requiring both hands to steer while the feet were used to control the shovel gangs for close cultivation.

One of the firms that tried to cash in on the motor cultivator craze was the Bailor Plow Mfg. Co. of Atchison, Kansas. Little information on the company is available. A 1916 history of Atchison County tells us that the Bailor Plow Co. was started in 1910 to manufacture a 2-row cultivator invented by S.E. Bailor. Mr. Bailor, then of Beatrice, Nebraska, had developed a 2-row cultivator, horse-drawn, of course, around 1890. A wealthy Tarkio, Missouri, farmer named David Rankin bought 50 of Bailor’s cultivators in 1905, and put them to work on his 25,000-acre farm. Rankin liked the cultivators and convinced Bailor to build a manufacturing plant in Tarkio.


Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

Save Even More Money with our SQUARE-DEAL Plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our SQUARE-DEAL automatic renewal savings plan. You'll get 12 issues of Farm Collector for only $29.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and send me one year of Farm Collector for just $34.95.

Facebook Pinterest YouTube