Answer Man

Tractors as we know them didn’t exist 100 years ago

In this 1898 photo, a gasoline tractor pulls six plows in southern Alberta, Canada.
In this 1898 photo, a gasoline tractor pulls six plows in southern Alberta, Canada. Wikimedia Commons

Q: While recently enjoying barbecue at the Sawmill BBQ Restaurant in Cahokia, a vintage advertising sign about the Waterloo Boy One-Man Tractor caught our eye. We soon began discussing why the sign stressed “one man.” Did tractors once require multiple operators?

Georgia-Ann, of Belleville

A: As hard as it might be for youngsters to imagine now, tractors as we know them didn’t exist 100 years ago.

No air-conditioned cabs with stereos and computers. Not even the primitive-looking Hoyt-Clagwell that Oliver Wendell Douglas took for a spin in his three-piece suit on “Green Acres.” Nope, back in 1900, it took the sweat and toil of two or more workers to plow those back 40 acres, according to Debra Reid, curator for agriculture and environment at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

“Before the one-man tractor, plowing required two men — one to drive the team and one to handle the plow,” Reid (who has on occasion played vintage baseball in Belleville) told me. “With the advent of large traction engines and multiple-bottom plows, an engineer often operated the steam engine while a man rode on the tractor to manage plow levers. Still another man walked along to knock weeds and roots off the plow bottom.”

It was labor-intensive work, but farmers didn’t have a choice. Change, however, was coming. In 1903, two recent University of Wisconsin graduates in Charles City, Iowa — Charles Hart and Charles Parr — built 15 machines powered by the two-cylinder gasoline engine they had developed, according to the Smithsonian Institution. They called them “tractors,” a term with Latin roots that combined the ideas of “traction” and “power.”

Perhaps most revolutionary, they could be operated by one man. But they still had some kinks: These newfangled contraptions were 7-ton behemoths, so most farmers stuck with the tried-and-true.

Finally, in 1912, the tide began to turn when the Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Engine Co. rolled out its first kerosene-powered, two-cylinder Waterloo Boy. The name not only honored the town in which it was built, but also was a takeoff on the “water boy,” who for decades had been indispensable for toting water for the older-style steam engines. Now, not only had the water boy met his demise, but the machine also came in at a svelter 9,000 pounds — and could be run by one man.

“For the one-man tractor, one man could operate the tractor with its internal combustion engine — no steam engineer required — and a rear-mounted plow,” Reid said. “(The tractor) had a lever which the farmer could operate from his seat to raise and lower the plow at the end of fields for the furrow turns.”

As the tractors became smaller, they became more popular, which also resulted in falling prices. Helping matters along was Henry Ford himself, who introduced his mass-produced Fordson tractor in 1917. By 1923, three out of every four tractors sold were four-cylinder Fordsons, according to the Smithsonian. And a big draw in those early days was the “one-man” advertising slogan, Reid said.

“The producers of one-man tractors claimed to reduce the farmers’ concern about labor shortages,” Reid said. “This took on increased resonance during World War I, so a lot of advertising documents one-man tractors in 1920. They claimed to solve the ‘small farmer’s plowing problem.’”

One final note about that Waterloo Boy, which also enjoyed a great deal of success with its single-speed Model R in 1914 ($985 or about $23,800 today) and the two-speed Model N in 1916 ($1,150 or $27,000). In 1918 Deere & Co. bought the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. for $2.35 million and, in 1924, the Waterloo Boy name faded into history when the Model N tractor was redubbed the John Deere Model D.

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Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: If I asked you to paint a picture about surfing, you’d probably turn on some Beach Boys music as you created your masterpiece about bare-chested men and bikinied women enjoying the waves and toasty sun in Hawaii. You obviously haven’t been to Narragansett, R.I., which will host the 50th annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championships next Feb. 17 at the town beach. There, wearing thick neoprene wetsuits, hoods, gloves and booties, surfers will brave the freezing conditions to compete for such honors as riding the “Hottest Wave of the Contest.” It calls itself the oldest mid-winter surfing contest in the world.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer