A Brief History of Tractors


Authors note: The purpose of this blog is to open a conversation about tractors. It is intended for the small to medium sized farmer. I believe that the best way to start this type of conversation is with a bit of history to set the stage.

In colonial times, oxen were the mainstay of colonial farmers. They were cheap. To continue producing, milk cows need to be dried off — stop producing milk and bred. If the calf is a bull, it is easy to make it into an ox. Another advantage of oxen is they can be worked hard immediately after a layoff. On the other hand, if a horse is worked too hard after a layoff, it can founder.

As farms grew in size, horses became increasingly important. The opening of the west to farming could not have occurred without the horse. Horses are faster than oxen, so they can cover more ground. In the first part of the twentieth century, the focus slowly shifted to tractors as farms continued to grow.

Early tractors were essentially steam locomotives built to run on roads instead of rails. They were known as traction engines. In their new role, a different drive system was designed. The steam produced by the boiler was used to drive a piston connect via a connecting rod to a crank shaft. The crank shaft turned a bull gear. The bull gear then turned the wheels through a clutch and a chain driven transmission system. These tractors were large and very heavy. Many of the very early ones were not even self-propelled — they would be towed to where a source of energy was needed. A sheave drove a belt that that ran a thresher or other stationary machine.    

Due to their size and slow speed, the traction engines were replaced in the early twentieth century with gas engine tractors. At first, these were nearly as large as the smallest steam tractors. Indeed, they even used iron wheels. Many had various types of spikes to provide traction in the fields. Amenities on both the steam tractors and the early gas tractors were nonexistent. A few had sheet metal roofs and — if you were lucky — a seat. Implements, for the most part, were adapted from horse-drawn equipment and towed behind the tractor.

The next revolution in tractors was the three point hitch. The three point hitch takes it’s name from the three points of attachment between the tractor and the implement. Two lower arms are attached under the rear axle of the tractor via a ball joint that allows them to pivot sideways and up and down. The lower links or arms attach to two lift links that are raised using a hydraulic piston mounted under the driver’s seat in the upper section of the axel casting. The third component is a top link that has ball joints like the lower links. It is attached to the tractor with a pin that passes through two cast ears just above the attachment point of the lifting links. A lever next to the driver raises and lowers the lifting arms. On many of the newer tractors it can be set to monitor the pressure on the lifting arms. For example, when plowing, the plow(s) can be set to rise automatically if they hit a rock.

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In February 2012 I interviewed my dad to find out when my grandpa switched from horses to tractors and what brands and models of tractors he owned. My dad was the youngest of 12 children and the last one living. I already knew all the tractors my dad had owned because he always kept all the owner’s manuals for all of his equipment. I had planned on writing a story on the tractors my grandpa, dad and I owned. I was surprised when dad not only listed my grandpa’s tractors but also for his 5 brother’s and 2 brother-in-law’s that farmed. He was able to bring them all up to the mid 1940’s to the early 1950’s. He was just 5 years old when my grandpa bought his first tractor in 1929. Since he had so much information I decided to really expand my story to eventually have a book of 100 years of family tractor history. I contacted all my first cousins and asked them to help fill in their dad’s tractors where my dad left off and then to list all their tractors and include any stories that they may have to add to the book. I also contacted the great grandsons that are farming and had them give me a list of their tractors. As of the end of 2013 I now have 84 years of tractor history and a list of over 250 tractors. The next 16 years we will continue to add to this story and then in 2029 we plan to make a book out of it for our family. My cousins have asked me this fall if we could do the same thing for the harvesting equipment. I have just interviewed my dad this past week and now realize that I should have done this last year because my dad’s memory has failed a lot this past year. What I did get from his was that my grandpa and his two brothers owned an Avery Steam Tractor with a Nickels & Shepherd Separator. My dad doesn’t know what year they were. He was the youngest of 12 children and born in 1924 and he could always remember those two machines being parked in the barns. As dad got older he got to be the water-jack for the steam engine and get to run the steam engine once in a while when the man who usually ran it had to leave for a little while. Dad could not remember what the size of the steam tractor or separator were. At first he thought maybe the cylinder was a 36” but then he didn’t think he was right. All he could remember was that it was big enough to pitch bundles in from both sides. If anyone has any idea of what size of separator it could be and what size of steam tractor would be needed to run it please let me know. Also if anyone has any idea when these machines were made it would help too.

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