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The Oddball Tractor Company
26. April 2002
Ms. Head, Marketing Cynthia Blackmore
REYNOLDS-ALBERTA MUSEUM, Canada, WETASKIWIN
Written by: Joe Rosich
My name is Farmer Joe. I work here at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada. Now this museum has a great collection of all sorts of machines, and most especially farm machines – more than 1000 in fact. And some of these machines are tractors. So a bunch of us were just sitting around and decided we should pull some of the more interesting ones into the main exhibit building where people can see them, instead of just lining them up in row after row in the warehouse. So we did. We put them in an exhibit called “The OddBall Tractor Company: Strange Solutions to Replacing the Horse.” Folks are getting quite a kick out of it.
I got to thinking about what it must have been like back at the turn of the 20th century for those folks trying to bring power to the farm. The field would have been wide open (pardon the pun). Today, if you asked a three-year-old child to draw a picture of a tractor, it would probably look much like the sort of machine working the fields today. Big wheels on the back, small ones on the front, engine in the middle, driver behind the engine, and so forth. After all, everyone knows what a tractor looks like.
However, if a child of 1910 were asked the same thing, the results would be quite different. Most likely, the response would be a puzzled look because these machines were few and far between. For that matter, the very word “tractor” had only been coined a few short years before. By 1920, the tractor had become more widely used, but its shape was far from being clearly defined. The idea of mobile power for the farm was completely new, and really, no one had any idea what it should look like. The frantic scramble by as many as 200 manufacturers to create the ultimate tractor eventually resulted in the standard shape of today’s machines, but along the way, some of the strangest, silliest, wildest and most terrifying contraptions imaginable were produced. These are a few from our exhibit….
Avery used what might have been the craziest gearshifting mechanism ever built: the sliding frame transmission. The engine, clutch, radiator, and first drive gear all sit on a sub-frame within the main frame. A gargantuan lever at the back slides this whole mess forward to shift between the two speeds - slow and slower.
The “moonshine still” up front is actually a radiator that cools the engine without any moving parts. The exhaust vents in the middle of all those tubes, and creates a draft in place of the fan. When all those beautiful brass tubes rattled apart, ingenious farmers found that bolting on a 45 gallon drum full of water worked just as well.
This tractor uses two carburetors: one to start the engine using volatile gas, and another using cheaper kerosene.
Easily the showiest machine in the exhibit, the dainty little fringe on top and all the pin striping would look more at home on a circus ride than a working tractor. This was the end of the Victorian era, and elaborate ornamentation was the order of the day.
Steamers are basically giant pressure cookers. When water is boiled, it expands, and this tractor uses that expansion to power its engine; steamers can burn almost anything and generate enormous power.
The Avery uses a horizontal return flue boiler that gives it a rather stout look. The design drew on a popular stationary boiler style that just didn’t catch on for traction engines. Among other design shortcomings, the operator stands under the smokestack, so hot coals can pour right down his neck.
1915 Case 10-20 Tractor (photo)
It may be just a coincidence that abstract art was becoming popular about the same time the Case 10-20 was built, but then again, if Picasso had gone into tractor design instead of painting, one could imagine this thing being his work. The total lack of symmetry is amazing. No part seems to bear any relation to the other pieces around it. It is almost as if a powerful magnet were lowered into a junkyard, then pulled out and this is the resulting jumble.
This tractor uses an early form of GPS – a goofy positioning system. The little arrow out front tells the operator where the front wheel is pointing because it is impossible to see the wheel from the seat.
An old farmer once told me “Sonny, there were two good years in Alberta farming: 1916, and next year.” From the turn of the century to the mid-teens, there was a tremendous boom on the Canadian prairies, and it wasn’t about gold or oil, but rather wheat. Thousands of people were pouring in hoping to become filthy rich by farming (as opposed to just filthy, which was sort of a given). This prosperity gave rise to a largely western prairie phenomenon: a golden age of steel-wheeled behemoths like this Big Four.
The Big Four also has the distinction of having the first practical four-cylinder engine used in a tractor. So instead of being deafened by an erratic pop-pop, farmers could look forward to being deafened by a constant drone.
Running the Gray Drum Drive was like taking the garden shed out for a drive. Company literature claimed “The Gray is in a class by itself.”1 Can’t argue with that.
The most unique feature is the huge barrel in place of the rear wheels. It is covered with lugs to provide traction. These periodically require tightening or replacement, and the only way was to unbolt unbolt a tiny access port on the side, and crawl into the so-called “Wide-Drive Drum” with a kerosene lantern and a big wrench. Wide-waist farmers need not apply.
The Gray came with its own shed: a corrugated iron covering supposedly eliminated the need to put the machine under cover.
Proclaiming, “The best is always cheapest” , Gray spared all expenses on this tractor. Operator comfort was a low priority on most early tractors, but things seemed to really hit rock bottom with this thing. The steel seat is on the very back corner, hanging off to the side and back of everything else. At least it was easy to jump off when the farmer decided to run his Gray Drum Drive over a cliff.
Starting this early diesel meant first preheating the cylinder with a blowtorch, then removing the steering wheel and using it to crank over the engine. This German tractor inspired the 1949 Field Marshall.
Arguably the earliest practical 4WD tractor, this Canadian tractor was strange when it appeared but the style has today become almost standard. The gigantic front wheels combined with a miniscule steering wheel meant maneuvering this thing in tight quarters was a job for only the most Herculean farmers.
Perhaps the most common hallmark of the prairie farmer is the tall, mesh-backed baseball cap from the local machinery, seed, or fertilizer company. Among older farmers, it is typically worn with a bit of a rakish tilt to one side. One might mistake this for a fashion choice, but it’s actually an attempt to conceal the unfortunate neck condition that results from a lifetime of driving down the field with their heads cranked around looking at the implements towed behind the tractor.
Farming in 1920, on the other hand, meant sitting on a little springy seat at the back of a horse-pulled implement and having all the tilling and cutting up front where it was easy to see (along with the horses’ rear ends). To the farmer of that era, the backwards configuration of the new conventional tractors must have seemed like a step in the wrong direction.
That’s where the Moline Universal came in. This was a machine for the traditional farmer. The two-wheeled mechanical “beast” up front provides the power, and in the back, a whole series of implements from a mower up to a full size binder can be exchanged in place of the rear wheels. The driver sat behind the rig controlling the whole mess, able to easily watch for rocks, plug-ups or other problems, without regular trips to the chiropractor. This was the first tractor in the world to use an electric starter.
Seemingly a brilliant idea, the design had its pitfalls. The operator’s manual bragged, “Two of our experts changed from disc harrows to plow and raised tractor in five minutes at a demonstration.” So, if two factory technicians, with all the necessary tools and a clean shop floor took that long, one could just imagine the job ahead for a lone farmer in the back forty, mired in up to the axles, trying to pull the binder off and put on the transport wheels, all with a bent monkey wrench and a piece of haywire.
As an added nuisance, the Universal also had a nasty habit of flinging the farmer over the machine as the light back end bucked up. The company’s sales slogan, “Foresight is better than Hindsight.” had a nice ring, but looking back, their clever concept translated into one of the oddest machines to ever turn a furrow.
Actually, the name should have been the Always-Slip. The Monarch didn’t so much crawl as wiggle its way down a field, because of a unique drive linkage that saw power applied in a rather haphazard manner to each track. The result was a tractor that scuffed along, shuffling its tracks like an old man trying to dance the cha-cha with his shoelaces tied together.
The Monarch had a very circuitous routing for the power. The engine is at the back, and the power is transferred all the way forward, then all the way back again.
Most of the offerings from the Oddball Tractor Company are inventions that didn’t succeed for one reason or another and stand as a testament to genius gone awry. The most notable exception here is the Wallis Cub. It was an oddball when it debuted, no question, but it is the one-in-a-thousand that actually worked. Its contribution was the unitary frame, and it worked so well it redefined the farm tractor.
Previously, tractors were built with the engine mounted in the midst of a separate frame, which left them ungainly, limited in their usefulness, and expensive. By incorporating the frame and the crankcase into one neat package, a much neater and more general-purpose tractor was born. Later, Henry Ford adopted this style of construction for his Fordson, a tractor that truly changed the world.
By the 1920s, this basic design had become the standard. These machines put practical tractors within the reach of every farmer, and they were a major step in the process of agricultural mechanization that continues to this day.
Of course, there are lots of other tractors in The Oddball Tractor Company exhibit. I’m just talking about my favourites; to pick yours, drop by to see us and take a tour of our exhibit (until March 15, 2002) or our warehouse. There’s no doubt the machines are great, but the real stories are about the people who made them, owned them and used them to build a life on the prairie.
Reynolds-Alberta Museum – www.reynoldsalbertamuseum.com
- 2 km west of Wetaskiwin, Alberta, Canada