The Nelson Tractor

Elaborate media blitz built great expectations for elusive Nelson tractor.

| January 2017

  • The Nelson as shown in a May 1919 issue of Country Gentleman.
    Photo courtesy the Country Gentleman
  • By the time this ad was published in August 1919, the Nelson company had already filed for bankruptcy. It was the beginning of the end for Nelson Blower & Furnace Co., and its subsidiary, Nelson Corp., Boston.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler
  • When Dudley Diebold bought this Nelson tractor in North Dakota, it had traces of red and blue paint.
    Image courtesy Dudley Diebold
  • One of two known Nelson tractors, this one is shown in a demonstration in England, with owner Mick Patrick at the wheel.
    Photo by David Parfit
  • One of two known Nelson tractors, this one is shown in a demonstration in England, with owner Mick Patrick at the wheel.
    Photo by David Parfit
  • In 1915; a larger “7-20” model was introduced which became the “12-24” in 1917. This model is known as the “Big Bull.”
    Image courtesy Work Press
  • The Little Bull tractor – shown here – was the poster boy for false advertising. Most were returned to the factory when they failed to operate as promised.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler
  • This illustration, from a 1919 color ad in Implement & Tractor Trade Journal, shows how the Nelson was supposed to easily go through difficult land, looking as streamlined as a sports car.
    Image courtesy Bill Vossler

“The Nelson tractor is recognized by engineers, dealers and users as the most advanced development of the tractor industry. The Nelson tractor embodies the sturdy construction, weight, power and flexibility to satisfactorily handle any kind of farm or commercial tractor work. No task is too hard for the Nelson.” – excerpt from an ad in the February 1919 issue of Implement & Tractor Journal

If the words above seem like overblown hyperbole, your reaction is well founded. There are no records, but the Nelson was apparently produced in very small numbers. But you wouldn’t know that from the advertising campaign launched for the tractor in January 1919, at a time when the company – and its founder, A.H. Nelson – clearly hoped to take the country by storm.

In fact, if a Jan. 4, 1919, ad in Country Gentleman was to be believed, it already had. “The Nelson tractor, in actual test, has hauled heavy loads through swamps where, in places, the water stood over a foot deep,” the ad declared. “It has climbed a 3,200-foot New Hampshire mountain, breaking its own road through underbrush and over rocks and logs. It has worked steadily on the sandy plains of Arizona under the most trying operating conditions. It has been thoroughly tested, in actual work, in every part of the U.S.”

From a technological standpoint, the tractor certainly sounded good. The Nelson’s 4-wheel drive was said to assure positive traction under any conditions. A new type of chain drive – every other link adjustable and with a tensile strength of 70,000 pounds per square inch (subsequent ads say 200,000 pounds, and still later, 225,000 pounds) – claimed to provide maximum power and flexibility.

“A 14-inch minimum ground clearance, low center of gravity and a 20-inch maximum wheel tilt makes the Nelson tractor practical for working rough land, side hills, orchards, cultivating, and any other work it may be called upon to perform,” ads gushed.

Reflection of the times

In the early years of the 20th century, tractor ads routinely made outlandish, unsubstantiated and overstated claims. Manufacturers did everything possible in an attempt to gain competitive advantage in a glutted market.


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