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Homegrown Minnesota tractors

One of the few remaining C.O.D. tractors is being driven in a parade at Rollag, Minnesota. Bill Vossler Collection

You’ve probably heard of Minneapolis-Moline tractors. Or Twin City tractors, or possibly even Flour City tractors. But how about the Grain Belt tractor? Or the Midget? Or perhaps the Tom Thumb? All were legitimate tractors manufactured in Minnesota. In fact, at least 116 different tractor companies–most in the U.S.–existed through the years in Minnesota; beginning about 1905, there were 87 in Minneapolis alone. Ohio was second with 81, then Wisconsin with 60, and Iowa with 38.

Curious Tractors, Curious Histories

All the tractors listed below had unique aspects, and some heavily influenced the burgeoning tractor manufacturing business before 1920.

The Little Bull tractor of Minneapolis possessed three claims to fame. First, it was the fastest-selling tractor ever, from its inception in 1914. Second, it “revolutionized the farm tractor industry and brought the small tractor to the farm,” said C. H. Wendel in Farm Tractors 1880-1990. Little Bulls weighed a mere 2,900 pounds compared to some Twin City behemoths that weighed 30,000 pounds, and cost about a tenth as much.

The Little Bull was touted as “The tractor sensation–does the work of five good horses and sells for the price of two poor ones. Is light and can travel anywhere. Very durable.”

Unfortunately, the durability claim was not true, as its third claim to fame, sadly, saw it become the fastest-returned tractor in history. Hundreds returned to the factory because with its guts wide open to the dust of fields, the Little Bull choked in dirt and broke down in record numbers.

The follow-up Big Bull attempted to make amends, but it was too late.

Ford Tractor Co. of Minneapolis

Though it carried the Ford name, the company had nothing to do with Henry Ford, but was a blatant attempt to sell tractors on the coattails of the big Ford name.

Tractor built by the Ford Tractor Company, headquartered in Minneapolis. Bill Vossler Collection

The company hired an unqualified man who knew nothing of tractors off the street–Carl B. Ford–to legitimize the Ford name. But few tractors were made, and many people who paid in advance never got their money back.

Two memorable occurrences happened due to this Minneapolis Ford tractor company: Henry Ford’s Ford Motor Co. named their tractor the Fordson, because “Ford” had already been taken. Second, Wilmot Crozier, of Nebraska, bought a Ford of Minneapolis tractor and discovered that, like his previously-purchased Little Bull tractor, neither lived up to their proclaimed billing. So the Nebraska legislator pushed to form the Nebraska Tractor Tests in 1919, which guaranteed farmers that the machines would do what they claimed–and it still does today.

Common Sense Tractor

The Common Sense Gas Tractor Co. of Minneapolis entered the market in 1914, a difficult time for tractor builders. Not because of the market: Sales of tractors were skyrocketing. Rather, due to the lack of knowledge of how to build the best tractor.

Manufacturers were still experimenting–how many wheels? One, two, three, four? Drum-drive, crawler, or convertible? Plows under or behind? Gears open or closed? Field tested before selling, or not? And so on.

The now defunct Common Sense Tractor Co. tried to market their tractor by showing that “even a woman” could drive it when it debuted in 1914. Bill Vossler Collection

Modern Gas Tractor wrote, “Considerable interest is being displayed in the three-wheel constructions. In fact most of the light tractors that are being offered this year (1915) are of the type having a single traction member (or drum drive) and two steering wheels,” exactly the construction of the Common Sense.

The other burning question as the United States entered World War I became: Was a woman actually capable of driving a tractor? The company evidently thought so, as its most-used publicity photo showed a woman driving a Common Sense, not to mention testimonials:

“I have had practically no trouble at all and I keep the machine running from daylight until dark, my sister running the tractor while I go to lunch. Considering the expense we sure make the 20 horses look small. We plowed 17 acres per day and my sister had absolutely no trouble in handling the tractor. I consider that the Common Sense is a very easy machine for a boy or girl to handle.” He was 21, his sister 22.

Outstate Tractor Companies

In this old photo, the inventor of the C.O.D. tractor, Albert O. Espe, stands at left, with one of the investors, A. E. Ogard. The tractor was named after investors’ last names: Conrad, Ogard, and Daniel. Or Clapp, Ogard and Daughenbaugh. Or perhaps ‘Collect On Delivery.’ Nobody knows for sure. Bill Vossler Collection

Twenty-nine tractors were also manufactured in various other Minnesota cities. Like the C.O.D. tractor, of Crookston, which, according to its 1917 ads, was the greatest tractor ever built in the history of the world: “(The C.O.D.) is the result of years of study and effort by the best tractor brains in the country. It has no faults nor weaknesses…built by mechanical geniuses…the troublesome parts have been omitted. The C.O.D. (will do) all farm work. It will operate your silo-filler, corn shredder, corn sheller, feed grinder, thresher, and every other belt-driven utility on your farm. It will do your plowing, discing, harrowing seeding, harvesting, road-grading, hauling, and a dozen other similar tasks that are a part of every farmer’s job.”

And on and on.

Wow! Despite claims like, “I would not be without (a C.O.D) any more than I would try to keep house without a stove,” or another man’s, “I had not thought plowing could be so perfectly done,” the claims evidently didn’t hold up. About 200 tractors were built before the company collapsed in 1919; five remain today.

And how was the company named? After the last names of the three main investors, Conrad, Ogard, and Daniel.

Pioneer Tractors

Call the Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co. of Winona the company of mystery. Despite a workforce of 500 who manufactured tractors as large as elephants in massive buildings, nothing about Pioneer is listed in early area city or county histories reflecting the years it operated, 1910 to 1925.

Oddest and most mysterious of all: When Pioneer Tractor Mfg. Co.’s first president, C.M. Youmans, died Nov. 24, 1946, the company was not mentioned in his obituary or the lengthy newspaper article about him and his businesses. Even the founder’s grandson, Jay Youmans, said “He did something like that, too? I knew about a few of his other businesses, mostly the lumber yard, but not this one. He was quite an entrepreneur.”

A few of the rare Pioneer tractors are still available, as in this photo. Photo by Bill Vossler

Additionally, the company’s vice president, E. M. Wheelock, invented the first-ever tank used in war, “a bullet-proof, self-propelled conveyance,” said the Winona Republican-Herald of July 31, 1942, “for effective use in attack against entrenched defenders…shortly after the outbreak in Europe of World War I.” No commonly used tank existed at this time.

Made of 3-inch-diameter iron pipes screwed together, Wheelock figured they could be transported abroad more easily if basic parts had to be simply unscrewed, packed, shipped, and then screwed together near the battlefield. Shattered pipes could also be replaced.

After testing it on the sand flats of the Mississippi below the Burlington Railroad bridge in Winona, Wheelock sold one to the U.S. War Department for $15,000, but nothing came of it. Blueprints sent to the British garnered only ridicule.

But two years later, as The Minneapolis Journal wrote, “After the battle of the Somme,” the Minneapolis newspaper reported, “it was reported that funny-looking (British) cheeseboxes were going over the top and chasing the Germans.” Identical to the Pioneer tank, The Winona Republican-Herald wrote.

Pioneer tractors were huge; their largest proposed tractor had rear wheels 9 feet tall. One man said when the tractor backfired, it used a quart of gas. One selling point was balancing a silver dollar on the frame of a running machine and taking one-minute timed photos to exhibit how vibrationless the tractor was. It also promoted a warranty on its tractors, perhaps the first for such a machine.

Pioneer tractors were sent all over the world, where it won prizes. But it faced changing demographics back home, and by 1924, the company was defunct.

The Universal tractor by Northwest was a much more modern looking one than their earlier steam traction engines. Bill Vossler Collection

Universal Tractor of Northwest Thresher Mfg. Co., Stillwater

Like all the Minnesota tractors listed in this article, Northwest Thresher Manufacturing Co. also presented a unique front to the tractor-manufacturing business. They used convict labor from the Minnesota State Prison in Stillwater to build their machines. As Independent Farmer and Fireside Companion wrote, “Here are horse thieves, petty thieves, forgers, defaulters and murderers, some of whom were once lawyers, doctors, merchants, farmers and mechanics, all filing, fitting, cutting and hammering at the various parts that go to make up the perfect machine. As you go through one room, blue-eyed Bob Younger looks up from his work, and Cole gives you a look like a startled wolf, while Jim hangs his head sullenly,” working on the Minnesota Chief thresher, as well as Minnesota Giant, and Northwest, steam traction engines.

Minnesota Giant Self-Steering Traction Engines were sold all over the U.S., for about $1,350 to $1,550 each, depending on the size.

Another company oddity was that its Universal tractor had a unique drive train. As C. H. Wendel wrote, “Two speed ranges were available by removing one idler gear and replacing it with another one supplied with the tractor.”

The company was purchased by M. Rumely Co. of LaPorte, Indiana, in 1912.

Each of these old-time Minnesota tractor companies left their mark on the manufacturing of tractors across the United States.

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