by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Six “agricultural motors” lumbered out from the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition grounds immediately north of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards to take part in a highly-anticipated plowing contest in an open field off McPhillips Street. The rain proceeding the trials on the afternoon of July 16, 1908, meant the machines encountered prairie gumbo at its worst along their route, resulting in two of their number becoming mired in the muck before reaching the test area.
“In spite of the distance from the grounds to McPhillips Street ... and the mud which held undisputed sway, many hundreds of enthusiasts on the subject of farm power, wended their way thither in the afternoon,” reported the July 17 Manitoba Free Press.
While the two heaviest tractors became mired in the mud-covered road on the way to the McPhillips site, they were eventually freed and able to participate in the test, which required each machine to show its prowess in pulling a plow to break land over a two-hour period.
During the three-days of trials, each operator was intent upon proving the worth of their company’s design in North America’s first “agricultural motor” competition.
Originally, seven machines were scheduled to be hitched to plows, but organizers barred the 22-hp Hart-Parr tractor because it exceeded the weight requirement, which stipulated than no machine could weight greater than 7.5 tons in order to keep the more-common steam-powered behemoths out of the competition (in later exhibitions they were allowed to compete). Of the six tractors still in the running for best tractor, only two of the gasoline guzzlers tipped the scales at over five tons.
Ironically, there was some initial prejudice toward gas-powered tractors, so manufacturers intentionally designed the machines to mimic their steam-powered brethren in appearance. When the trail-blazing Hart-Parr gas-fuelled traction engine appeared on the market, it employed a double-cylinder engine that used oil for cooling and had a nominal drawbar rating of 22 hp and a pulley rate of 40 hp (such a rating system resulted in many tractors of the period being designated 10/20 or 20/40; for example, the Titan 20/40 — the drawbar horsepower was always significantly lower than the pulley because of friction in the large gear reduction needed). In common with steam-powered tractors of the era, the 22-hp Hart-Parr weighed a staggering nine tons. Even the smaller 17-hp model was a goliath among gasoline tractors, weighing in at 7.5 tons.
C.W. Hart and C.H. Parr developed the first practical gasoline-power tractors at their Charles City, Iowa, plant. In the late winter of 1901, a clumsy four-wheeled vehicle clanked out of the machine shop of the two young mechanical engineers and lurched down the street, signalling the era of the newest technological innovation that — although unknown at the time — would transform agriculture.
The term “tractor” for these early ungainly machines was coined in 1907 by W.H. Williams, the sales manager for the Hart-Parr Company. Until then, tractors were commonly referred to as “traction engines.”
By 1908, prejudice against gasoline- and kerosene- (coal oil) fuelled tractors was being overcome as the steam-powered behemoths lost appeal and internal-combustion machines gained favour due to their lighter weight to power output ratio. Another disadvantage of steam tractors was that they required several men for their operation, and considerable time was expended for their care and operation as their construction could not withstand the constant strain and rough usage necessary for plowing.
Anyone now gazing upon the yesteryear internal-combustion creations would marvel at their strange designs and wonder how such monstrous and weird-looking machines performed the tasks they were allotted by their makers.
In the face of strong criticism, A. Burgess Greig, a professor of farm mechanics at the Manitoba Agricultural College, came up with the idea of the tractor contest. An engineer by trade, Greig worked hard to make the first-of-its-kind event a success.
As it transpired, the fame of the contest spread across North America and similar events were soon being held in other Western Canadian centres and in communities across the U.S. Midwest. These exhibitions were an important source of information for farmers on the latest tractor developments, as well as an opportunity for manufacturers to test their products and see what advancements their competitors were making.
“To Winnipeg must go the honor of starting an idea which has done a great deal to develop the tractor industry rapidly,” according to a 1919 U.S. Department of Agriculture report reprinted in numerous American newspapers. “These tests were the forerunners of others in various others ... that have given farmers the opportunity of seeing these machines at work and deciding on the merits of the individual tractors.”
“The significance of this contest was that the weak points were shown and that it started the development of practical motors for small farms.”
But the companies participating in the demonstration were taking a big gamble, since hundreds of witnesses were on-hand to judge their success or failure. If a tractor broke down or proved to be unreliable when pulling a plow, the public was there to spread the word of the tractor’s mishaps.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture considered the trials so important to farming in North America that it sent L.W. Ellis to Winnipeg to report on the “agricultural motor” competition at the 1908 Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, which ran from July 11 to 18.
Ellis became noted as an advocate of tractors on American farms. In his 1911 book, Power and Plowing, he wrote: “It takes four or five years to make a good work horse. A modern factory can turn out a 30-horse power tractor in three to five hours. It takes many generations to change the types of an animal, but only a few weeks to adapt a machine to a new condition ... the dominant form of power in our dry farms of the future will be gas power.”
In the same book, Ellis made a point of calling the 1908 Winnipeg tractor competition a glimpse into the future. “We are witnessing in miniature the conquest of the last great West, a fit occupation for the strong.”
Even Henry Ford, the inventor of the automobile assembly line which churned out millions of Model As and Ts, recognized the importance of the Winnipeg competition. When he decided to enter the tractor manufacturing field, he went to the 1910 Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition to view his competition in action.
The tractors eligible for the 1908 trials in Winnipeg included three produced by the International Harvester Company of Chicago, one made by Marshall, Sons & Co. of Gainsboro, England, one by H.P. Saunderson & Co. of Elstow, England, another made by the Transit Thresher Co. of Minneapolis (later the Gas Traction Company), and one from the Kinnard-Haines Co. of Minneapolis which could run on either gasoline or kerosene. The number of machines was cut to six when the four-cylinder 20-hp Thresher tractor broke down and could not be repaired.
The trials at the exhibition tested hauling capacity (including plowing), distance travelled before refilling a tank with gas or a radiator with water, turning, protection of working parts, accessibility of parts, ease of handling, clearance of working parts from ground, steadiness of power belt running, and selling price at Winnipeg. Each category was scored on a point system ranging from five to 15 with hauling capacity having the highest rating, while a perfect score was 140 points.
With so many categories and so many potential points, judges William Cross of the CPR and A.R. Greig of the Manitoba Agricultural College were hard-pressed to decide upon an overall winner. “Effort was made to base the award upon the excellence of the motors as general purpose machines, not laying undue emphasis upon their success in any one test,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on July 20, 1908.
“As a matter of fact the points gained in the plowing contest, the part of the trials which aroused most popular interest, would have placed the outfits in the same order as the complete, three-fold test (plowing/hauling, handling and design) eventually gave them.”
When reporting on the plowing contest, the Free Press said: “The rain, which handicapped the engines so greatly in getting to the field, helped them fully as much when they started to plow, for the sod turned over like cheese and ... the engines were able to travel right along and do very satisfactory work work even if the field did contain considerable Red River gumbo.”
While the six eligible entries laboured to plow their furrows, further to the south the Hart-Parr tractor held its own unofficial demonstration. “The work of their outfit was much admired by the large numbers of spectators who walked over to see it.”
With a total of 117.5 points, the four-cylinder 30-hp Kinnard-Haines machine, called the Flour City, took first place, while second place went to the 15-hp single-cylinder built by the International Harvester Company which earned 117 points, and third place was awarded to the 30-hp two-cylinder tractor built by the Marshall Company with a total of 108.3 points. The machines weighed in at 13,630, 9,920 and 10,680 pounds, respectively, and cost in the same order $2,270, $1,800 and $2,700.
The credit goes to A. Burgess Greig for coming up and promoting the idea of a tractor contest at the annual Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, but aiding his effort was the fact that Winnipeg was an important player within the North American agricultural community. Winnipeg was the major distribution centre for Western Canada, and the city was the headquarters of the grain trade in Canada, making it the voice of wheat production in Canada. After the Grain and Produce Exchange (Winnipeg Grain Exchange) was established in 1897, the city gained significant influence over the international wheat market.
Success in Winnipeg guaranteed tractor manufacturers extensive sales across the grain growing regions of Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest.
In light of such influence, it is not surprising that American tractor companies were clamouring to gain a presence in the city. As a major force in Western Canadian manufacturing, including plants devoted to producing steam and gasoline engines, it was a natural progression to become involved in the manufacture of tractors, which were the newest technological marvel to transform farm production. The combine was an innovation still years away from participating in the 20th-century agricultural revolution.
The industrial Bureau of Winnipeg embarked upon advertising campaigns to bring American industries to the city and was subsequently inundated with inquiries. In a 1914 report, bureau commissioner C.F. Roland said over 100 different commodities were discussed with American manufacturers, including “five inquiries as regards the manufacture of stationary and portable engines and oil tractors.”
According to the February 25, 1911, Free Press article, Future of the Gas Tractor in Western Canada, a “great change” was taking place on the prairies, “where at one time countless herds of horses and cattle roamed the vast stretches ... the tractor with its big outfit of engine gang plows is fast turning the virgin prairie into a vast wheat field to help swell the contents of the world’s granaries.”
Million Dollar Tractor Company was the headline of an article in the November 8, 1913, Manitoba Free Press. The article announced that a group of Winnipeg businessmen were forming a company that had acquired the Canadian licence to manufacture the Bull tractor.
According to the announcement, it was to be the only gasoline-powered tractor manufactured in Western Canada. As it turned out, this claim was misleading. Besides, the tractor was not the first to be gas-powered machine to be manufactured locally.
In 1910, the Gas Traction Company of Winnipeg, a branch plant of the Minneapolis-based Gas Traction Company, was established. The Minneapolis company started out as the Transit Thresher Company in 1906, but was re-organized as the Gas Traction Company in 1908 when it began to only manufacture "Big Four” tractors.
The Winnipeg company’s manufacturing facility was in Elmwood, “across the Louise street bridge from Higgins avenue.”
(Next week: part 2)