A hundred years ago, there were more than 20 million horses working on US farms. In South Africa, teams of oxen were used. But change was coming.
Although tractors might be taken for granted today, back then no one could have foreseen the agricultural revolution that was coming when those first mechanical monsters puffed their ponderous way out of the factories (invariably breaking down sooner rather than later).
Birth of the caterpillar
Benjamin Holt’s company built its first steam-powered crawler tractor in 1904 in Stockton, California. Holt tractors became famous for hauling heavy artillery during the First World War. By the end of the war, about 10 000 had been built.
In 1925, Holt merged with Best Tractor to form the Caterpillar Tractor Company. The Holt 120 seen here at a vintage ploughing match in East Yorkshire in 2004 had a 89kW petrol engine.
The first Waterloo Boy tractors were produced in 1913, when 20 were sold. The Model R launched the following year proved more popular, and over 8 000 were built before the line was discontinued in 1918. In the same year, Deere & Company purchased Waterloo. Waterloo Boy tractors continued to be sold until 1923, when the John Deere Model D was introduced. The Waterloo Model N seen here was photographed at the Smithsonian Museum.
In 1912, the Avery Company of Peoria, Illinois, was renowned for its steam and petrol traction engines, self-lift ploughs, farm wagons, corn planters and threshing machinery. It also claimed to be ‘the largest tractor company in the world’, with a range of eight machines from a one-row cultivator to a huge 60kW tractor. The company did not survive the Great Depression and today Avery tractors are very rare and highly prized among collectors.
Rumely Oil Pull
From 1910 to 1930, the Advance-Rumely Thresher Company of La Porte, Indiana, built a range of tractors under the Rumely Oil Pull brand name. Most had paraffin engines designed to burn all grades of paraffin or kerosene. The first Oil Pull was the Model B 25-45. Its two-cylinder horizontal engine had a special carburettor designed by John Secor and WH Higgings that injected water to help control the combustion process. The characteristic cooling tower used oil, not water as engines normally do.
According to a contemporary review, the popular Type F model “was started by the operator stepping out of the cab via the large iron rear wheel, climbing onto the flywheel and using his bodyweight to get it turning, then quickly rushing back into the cab to adjust the choke and try to keep the engine running”.
The history of the Wallis Company is too convoluted to delve into here. Suffice to say that it initially produced the giant Wallis Bear, which looked like a steam engine. Later models, such as the Wallis Cub, were much smaller and lighter. More importantly, they had a patented one-piece curved steel U-frame. Connecting the engine and transmission, it changed the way tractors were built.
Wallis was taken over by Massey Harris in 1928, and the Massey Challenger and Pacemaker models of 1936 both had the curved frame. The Wallis tractor seen here was one of those built under licence in the UK by Ruston & Hornsby in the 1920s.
Henry Ford built a number of experimental tractors, using automobile components, and in August 1915 launched a prototype known as the Model B. The first production Fordsons were exported to the UK in 1917, where they were desperately needed. The Model F, seen here at the 2010 British national ploughing championships, was one of 750 000 built between 1917 and 1928.
The GO tractor
The Denning Tractor Company of Cedar Rapids marketed the Denning tractor in 1916. In 1919, General Ordinance bought Denning and renamed the tractor the GO. Apparently there are only about eight survivors of this brand, of which only two are in running condition, including this one.
Emmerson Brantingham’s giant Prairie tractors, with rear wheels nearly 2,5m tall, were used to break up and plough the wide plains of the US. But the West had been won – soon the demand was for smaller tractors, and the company went out of business in the early 1920s.