Today a large percentage of homeowners own a riding lawn tractor, even if all the grass they have to mow is a tiny, postage stamp-sized city lot. Rarely is one of these tractors used for anything resembling garden tillage, which was their original purpose back in the day.
Big, heavy, gasoline- and kerosene-powered tractors were introduced to farmers around the turn of the 20th century. Even though the size and weight of these behemoths was greatly reduced during the following two decades, they were still way too large and expensive for the truck farmer or market gardener. Those individuals usually made do with hand tools, or maybe a single horse or mule.
The earliest garden tractors weren’t riding models. They had two drive wheels and the operator walked behind, steering with handles. A wide variety of implements was available. Most were hitched at the rear of the tractor beneath the handles, although front-mounted mowers (both cutter bar and reel types) and blades were common.
Garden tractors were first listed in the Farm Implement News Buyer’s Guide for 1920. There were only a few, among which were names such as Beeman, Universal, Merry, Hurst, Midwest Utilitor and the New Britain, which could do “ … virtually all the work ordinarily done by a horse and a 6 hp engine — and do it better, faster and cheaper. It fills a crying need on thousands of small farms, truck farms, seed farms, nurseries, orchards, vineyards and country estates.”
Birth of the Utilitor
One of these early machines, on the market longer than most, was the Utilitor, originally made by the Midwest Engine Co., Indianapolis, and later by General Implement Co. of America, Inc., with offices in Cleveland.
Atlas Engine Works was established in Indianapolis in the 1870s to build steam engines and boilers. By 1900 the firm had developed gasoline engines; a 1906 ad offering 2 to 5 hp vertical and 6 to 24 hp horizontal engines made the following claims for Atlas gas engines: (the) “Simplest, Cheapest, Safest of All. Most Economical, Simplest of Its Kind, Ready to Run, Needs No Attention, Starts Without ‘Cranking,’ Absolute Safety, Reliable and Durable and Completely Guaranteed.”
In 1912 the company was in receivership and casting patterns and leftover parts were moved to San Antonio, Texas, where production of the Kruger-Atlas engine began. Later that year, the two Lyons brothers bought what was left of the Atlas Engine Works in Indianapolis and started Lyons-Atlas Co. to build the short-lived Lyons-Knight car.
The car was built from 1912 to 1915, when it was dropped and only engines were produced, with the name changed in 1918 to Midwest Engine Co. Charles E. Sargent of Midwest patented a diesel engine in 1919, and the firm built both diesel and gas engines, especially during World War I. When government contracts withered at war’s end, Midwest cast about for a new product and apparently hit upon the idea of a small garden tractor.
In 1920, Sargent filed for a design patent for the new tractor, which became the Midwest Utilitor. The Utilitor was powered by a Midwest 1-cylinder, L-head engine of 3-1/2-inch by 4-1/2-inch bore and stroke, with a large flywheel in the hub of each drive wheel. An Eisemann high-tension magneto provided the spark, and the engine was water-cooled by a thermo-siphon system.
Steering was accomplished by a clutch lever on each handle, with the lever on the left also serving as master clutch. A throttle lever on the right handle completed the driving controls. Starting was accomplished by spinning the flywheels, either by hand or by a retractable crank handle on the left flywheel.
An operator’s manual explains the driving procedure: “With engine running, unlatch the clutch lever on the left handle bar and let it spring forward. This will cause the Utilitor to move forward. Speed and power may be varied by means of the throttle lever on right handle bar. To turn to right, pull clutch lever on right handle bar back as far as it will come. To turn to left, pull clutch lever on left handle bar halfway back. To stop Utilitor, pull clutch lever on left all the way back, where latch will hold it in place.”
One-bottom plows (7- and 8-inch) were available, as were disc harrows, a 3-row seeder and various hitch adapters for horse-drawn machines such as walking plows, harrows, cultivators and mowers. An optional belt pulley attached to the right flywheel furnished 4 hp for driving stationary machines, such as shellers, grinders and the like.
Company ownership seems to have changed as well. In the February 1995 issue of Gas Engine Magazine appeared a letter from Arthur H. Beard Jr. “The following account is based on memory about events my father, Arthur H. Beard, told me through the years,” he wrote.
“My father moved the family from Chicago Heights, Ill., to Indianapolis early in 1924. I was 6 years old. He took over the operation of the Utilitor Tractor Co. In what position I do not know, or what percent of ownership, if any, he had in the company. Business must have been good, because in 1926 my father built a nice home on the east side of Indianapolis across the street from the Pleasant Run Golf Course and we lived there until about a year after my mother died in 1930. I think it was also in 1926, or maybe 1927, that Vincent Bendix (of Bendix starter and brake fame) wanted the Utilitor company, and as my father did not have the financial resources necessary to fight him, my father lost the Utilitor company.”
The Utilitor was built with virtually no changes until 1937 or ’38. By that time, it seems to have become the property of General Implement Co. of America and was modernized, but that’s another story. 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 email@example.com.