Uncovering the Secret Of a Century-Old Tractor
By Tom Seest
At ClassicTractorNews, we help classic tractor lovers keep up with the latest news for classic and vintage tractors.
Before the invention of tractors, farmers relied on backbreaking steam engines to power threshing machines. Froelich was determined to develop a smaller, user-friendly engine.
His tractor started right up upon the first attempt, unlike modern tractors which require extensive tinkering and complex technology. Older tractors also tend to be cheaper to repair.
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John Froelich lived and worked in Iowa at the turn of the 19th century, working on steam-driven equipment and offering his threshing service to farmers who used his team and machine for harvesting grain. Froelich understood the limitations associated with steam power machinery and was determined to find ways to make it more efficient and user-friendly.
Froelich’s solution was gasoline. Together with a blacksmith, Froelich constructed an experimental one-cylinder gas engine that attached to the running gear of a steam thresher engine and performed as planned during harvest tours, using 26 gallons of fuel per day to successfully process over 1,000 bushels per day without issue.
Froelich’s tractor soon made headlines across the country. By 1918, Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company had been purchased by John Deere and became America’s oldest still-operating tractor company; John Deere soon adopted Waterloo’s name. Today, The Froelich Foundation for the Preservation of Farm Tractor History maintains a museum and village dedicated to Froelich’s original tractor and two replicas; over 1,000 visitors annually visit.
Visitors to the Froelich Foundation Museum will also find a general store, one-room country school classrooms, a blacksmith shop, and a collection of vintage farm implements – not to mention an impressive tractor collection! Their board of directors is working hard to increase visitor numbers to the museum.
Though the Froelich tractor was only ever meant to serve as a prototype, several companies followed in its footsteps by designing their own designs over time. One such example is McCormick Auto-Mower, which predates tricycle tractors by employing cast iron frames and featuring power takeoff technology, later becoming standard across modern tractor designs. Patented in 1904, the Auto-Mower became iconic.
The world’s oldest-running tractor is an 18-36 Hart & Parr Tractor currently on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It has been in operation for 17 years and holds the distinction of being the oldest gas-engine tractor ever constructed in North America. Built by Hart-Parr Company of Charles City, Iowa, in 1902 to plow virgin prairies and power other machines for harvests across North America; later merged with American Seeding Machinery Company, Nichols & Shepard Company, and Oliver Chilled Plow Works until becoming Oliver Farm Equipment Company in 1929 when Oliver Chilled Plow Works was created as an industry giant that continues today.
Charles Hart and Charles Parr, mechanical engineering students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, founded this company to produce simple traction engines – precursors of today’s tractors – as part of an extra credit project in the late 1800s. Soon thereafter, they found financial backing to open a small factory.
Hart-Parr’s early tractors were straightforward affairs, with structural steel components assembled and bolted directly to an engine, transmission, and other mechanical parts. Later on, they developed more sophisticated machines like the 30-60, popularly known as Old Reliable due to its reliability – at one point, many sources claim Hart-Parr held 70% of the traction engine market!
When the museum acquired its 18-36 tractor, it was painted solid black without a canopy. Thankfully, however, with help from the Hart-Parr/Oliver Collectors Association, restoration was successful, and museum guests and historians can now appreciate this beloved piece of history.
The museum also owns two 18-36s, a Crop Maker and Steel King, that are in excellent condition and were both able to pass the Nebraska Tractor Test with flying colors – proof that these old tractors were built tough for lasting use! Nearly all their parts were manufactured in-house according to strict quality controls – the crankshaft, for instance, was forged rather than hammer-forged from a solid billet of steel as was more typically done back then.
Early tractors relied on traction engines for power. Unfortunately, these were typically slow and difficult to maneuver; they weren’t nearly as flexible or adaptable as modern gas or diesel-powered models; furthermore, they required an enormous team of people and animals just to operate effectively.
In 1917, mass production tractors saw another significant improvement, with the Fordson tractor being introduced onto the market. It featured an engine and drive train bolted together as one unit on its chassis, thus obviating any need for external frames. This breakthrough represented both versatility and affordability for farmers who could now switch over from horses or mules to tractors more readily.
At approximately the same time, British inventor Daniel Albone created his Ivel Agricultural Motor tractor; an extremely light multi-purpose machine similar to a car and with far fewer moving parts for reduced maintenance and fuel costs than its competitors – setting off an innovation that would dominate the market until the 1930s.
As internal combustion engines were replaced by diesel engines in the 1930s, smaller, lighter, and more efficient tractors emerged. Manufacturers began offering various options tailored specifically for certain uses; for instance, some models featured high ground clearance, making it possible for drivers to navigate obstacles like rocks and logs without issue.
A plow is an agricultural tool used for turning and breaking up soil while also burying crop residues and weeds, helping manage sloping land and improving productivity. Common plow models used today are three-point hitch mounted and come with working widths between 2.5 meters (8ft 2 in) and 13.7 meters (45 ft). Pull-type chisel plows may fold their wings away to reduce transport width, while plows over 4 meters wide may include wheels on each side to control working depth control.
Harry Ferguson created one of the most significant innovations to plows when he developed the three-point hitch system in 1903. Now ubiquitously used on modern tractors, this revolutionary development enabled a single versatile tractor to replace mules and horses on farms, thereby revolutionizing crop yields while helping the world become more self-reliant.
The Model A was first produced in 1912. These classic farm tractors remain popular today on hobby farms, orchards, and other rural settings as they can handle tasks that larger tractors cannot. After this came Model B, which was one-third smaller and produced 25 horsepower but featured steering wheels that were closer together than those of earlier models. Finally came Model M, which boasted a larger engine to deliver 35 horsepower; additionally, the company produced Model WC two-plow machines as well.
The company began producing larger tractors as well, such as the Type C Mogul and Titan models. These stationary engines mounted to tractor chassis could pull plows and belt work for threshing machines as well as be used to pull cars out of snowbanks – earning many Americans’ approval in doing so.
In 1919, International Harvester released the Model A Cub tractor. This more affordable machine featured four-cylinders that were liquid-cooled as well as an improved compact chassis and agile design that became immensely popular across many companies. It became such a hit that other companies quickly followed suit and copied its style and features.
By the 1920s, International Harvester had implemented several breakthrough innovations in their tractors. These included a transmission with an automatic clutch and removable wet cylinder sleeves – two revolutionary technologies of their day. IH also introduced its 50 Series of lightweight tractors designed by industrial designer Gregg Montgomery that gave IH its distinctive appearance.
These tractors were popular among farmers and used in various demonstrations. At this time, the company wanted to bring attention to the hardships facing American farmers, so they organized tractorcades – large parades of tractors driving through city streets that would slow rush hour traffic while simultaneously showing that agriculture needed support from society.
One of the most notable parades was held in 1979 – it was known as the People’s Party Tractorcade and attracted over 100,000 attendees, intended to demonstrate support for agriculture and protest against food shortages.
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