Early local tractor factories — Gas Traction Company manufactured popular“Big Four” tractors

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
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 exclusively manufacture “Big Four” tractors.
The Winnipeg company’s manufacturing facility was in Elmwood, “across the Louise street bridge from Higgins avenue.” 
“This factory is well worth a visit for it is up-to-date in every respect, and installed with the latest type of machinery suitable for turning out an ideal gasoline engine,” according to a July 16, 1910, special feature in the Free Press.
The article claimed the capacity of the plant was 10 complete tractors a month, “but this is already inadequate to meet the demands, and the plans are now being prepared to at least double this by enlarging the shop.”
The company manufactured a behemoth 7.5-ton (6,803 kilogram) four-wheel four-cylinder 30-hp tractor dubbed the “Big Four.” The two rear wheels on the tractor were massive, measuring over eight-feet (2.44 metres) in diameter. 
The Big Four was extremely popular in Western Canada where large tracts of land had to be cleared and cultivated. In 1910, four of the “traction engines” were on display at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, “giving daily demonstrations: three are on lot 98 on the south side of the main thoroughfare, and one is demonstrating the gas tractor binder hitches in the west corner of the grounds, back of the manufacturer’s building.”
An April 17, 1912, Gas Traction Company advertisement in the Grain Growers Guide, includes a testimonial from Culbertson Bros. of Bowman, North Dakota, as well as a picture showing them seeding with a “Big Four 30.”
“During the season of 1910 we operated a 30-horse double-cylinder undermounted steam engine, but at the end of the season we found the expenses to be so great that we were compelled to lay it aside and we replaced it with a Big Four 30, which we never had occasion to regret.”
The brothers claimed they could break as many acres of land in a day with the Big Four as they could with a steam engine, but at one-fifth the expense.
It is difficult to determine how long the company lasted in Winnipeg. The parent company in Minneapolis was sold in 1912 to the Emerson-Brantingham Implement Company of Rockford, Illinois. The new company made improvements and continued the “Big Four” line of tractors throughout the 1910s, but it discontinued the model in 1920. By that time, “monster” tractors were increasingly out of favour with farmers who began to prefer lighter and more manoeuvreable models. In addition, there was a demand for “light” tractors on farms with smaller acreages.
A September 4, 1915, Free Press article explained: “The heavy tractor of five years ago was a monster, too big for any but the largest farms or syndicate tracts of wheat lands. It was too expensive even for many of the big farms to operate at a profit. But the success of the big tractor, in the few cases where it could be operated successfully, and even its general failure, had proven to the farmer and manufacturer that traction power, fitted to the farm, was the solution of his problems ... He knew that if a tractor could be made small enough, yet powerful enough to do all the heavy work on the farm and do it economically, he would need that tractor on his farm, provided that its cost was low enough to make its operation profitable.”
An advertisement in the Free Press, dated April 12, 1913, shows that production of “Big Four” tractors had ceased in the city, as the Emerson-Brantingham Company makes no mention of the local plant, naming only Canadian sales agents Tudhope, Anderson Co., 1441 Princess St., Winnipeg, as dealers for the “Big Four 30.” In fact, the ad told anyone interested in the Big Four to write to Illinois for more information about the tractor, a change from earlier promotional material. 
The ad appeared in a four-page supplement entitled, The Modern Horse. Throughout the supplement, there is no mention of a local company manufacturing tractors. If manufacturing was still occurring, the newspaper undoubtedly would have proudly heralded the plant’s presence in the city.
In November 1913, the Winnipeg businessmen, who announced the coming of the new million dollar plant, said “the new Bull tractor will revolutionize power farming on the western prairies as it will be sold at such a price that it will be possible of purchase by any farmer no matter how small a farm he is operating.”
The executive, headed by president W.H. McWilliams, said the company was importing the tractor from the manufacturer in Minneapolis until their Canadian factory was completed. At the time, the location had not been determined, but Brandon was “making a strong bid.”
Regardless of the factory’s location, the company’s head office was to be in Winnipeg at 333 Main St. As it turned out, the Western Dry Docks Company in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay), became the manufacturer, although the facility had a relatively short life span as a tractor factory.
The Minnesota-based Bull Tractor Company first produced a 12-hp three-wheel model known as the Little Bull, which at US $395 “cost no more than one good team of horses.” Throughout the 1910s, the U.S. dollar and Canadian dollar were roughly equivalent in value, but tractor prices were significantly higher in Canada due to transportation costs and import duties. A local manufacturing plant would help solve this out-of-pocket problem for Western Canadian farmers.
The company promised “the Bull tractor should in a very short time occupy the same position in power farming that the Ford car occupies in the automobile world.” 
In 1915, a larger 25-hp twin-cylinder 4,500-pound (2,041.165-kilogram) model was manufactured and named the Big Bull. According to company literature, the tractor could use either kerosene or gasoline for fuel.
A Free Press ad in 1915 priced the Big Bull at $695 at Port Arthur with shipping charges from the factory adding to the final total — the further away the more the cost. The ad claimed the Big Bull had the pull of seven horses, “costs less to buy, costs less to keep, does more work and does it better than horses yielding the same horse power.” The Big Bull was “the latest word in small tractors,” according to the Bull Tractor Company of Canada ad.
The dimensions of the tractor were listed in an accompanying article as 13-feet 11-inches (3.99 metres) long, six-feet five-inches (1.98 metres) wide, and six-feet two-inches (1.89 metres) high. 
A unique design feature of both Bull tractor models was the left rear wheel being significantly smaller in diameter that the right rear wheel. The company said this design was incorporated to ensure the Bull tractor models remained level on uneven ground. 
The company promised the Big Bull could pull “two 14-inch plows, pull the disc harrow and seeder, or a manure spreader or binder, or two loaded waggons (sic) on good level roads.”
Simplicity was to be the main selling feature of the Big Bull, which possessed an engine that  could easily be handled and maintained by “anyone of ordinary intelligence,” claimed the company, adding it was a “one-man” tractor.
A September 4, 1915, Free Press article told of a crowd gathering at the corner of Portage and Main, “giving the impression that something important had happened.” The event being reported was the arrival of a Big Bull tractor, one of a train car load brought to Winnipeg from Port Arthur. The tractor on display was taken to the farm of V.C. Maddock in St. Charles, which was then outside the city’s west boundary. Maddock was slated to give daily demonstrations of his Big Bull on behalf of the company. The point of the demonstrations was to show that a light tractor could successfully be used on the “average Canadian farm.”
Testimonials from farmers were printed in newspapers, including one from John Weibe of Rosenthal, who said he used his Big Bull in connection with a 28-10 separator and “had done excellent work.” F.W. Peters of Altona wrote that on the same day his Big Bull arrived he began plowing. “He plowed four acres that morning and was in rapture at the success of the ‘Big Bull.’”
Another ad boasted the tractor was, “The Bull with the Pull.”
A January 8, 1916, advertisement promised to add only $105 to the cost of a Big Bull. Although costs of material had increased, the factory’s “increased output and exceptional manufacturing facilities” allowed the company to reduce the overall cost to $800 at Port Arthur. The company also said it had 62 tractors on-hand that were manufactured in late 1915 — “much less than our monthly output.” These tractors were only available for purchase in January at the old price of $695 at Port Arthur. The terms offered were $100 cash with each order with the balance of $595, plus shipping costs, due when the machine was delivered to the farm.
After the summer of 1916, nothing is heard of the Winnipeg company as a manufacturer. An August 2, 1916, ad in the Grain Growers Guide still talked of the Bull Tractor Co. of Canada Ltd., 333 Main St., Winnipeg, but no further information about the company can be found after that. “For the sake of more rapid production and delivery,” according to the ad, “to be nearer our markets, to give better direct service for repairs, etc., and to avoid a growing congestion at our Port Arthur plant, we are installing a new auxiliary plant in Winnipeg. The company has expended a large amount of capital in the purchase and reconstruction of the Doty Engine Works. New machinery is being rapidly installed and the new plant will be devoted solely to the outputting of tractors.”
In late 1916, notices began appearing in Winnipeg newspapers announcing that Sterling Engine Works at the foot of Water Street was the “successors to the Doty Engine Works.” In none of the announcements is the manufacture of tractors mentioned. The notices talk only about “steam and gasoline engines,” and “castings in iron and brass.” 
But a February 10, 1917, advertisement announced the manufacture of a “one-man, all-purpose, light-weight tractor” that could run on either gasoline or kerosene at the Sterling Engine Works, Ltd., in Winnipeg. The Sterling Tractor bore no resemblance to the Big Bull, as it was a four-wheel tractor while the Big Bull was a three-wheel tricycle-type tractor. The Sterling Tractor, “made right here in Winnipeg,” was a two-cylinder model that resembled the kerosene-fuelled machines then being built in North America.
How many of these tractors and how long they were built in Winnipeg is difficult to determine. The only real reference to their existence are the ads placed in newspapers over a short period of time. Actually, the introduction of the Sterling model came at an inopportune time in the history of farm machinery, as the giant of the automobile industry was about to enter the tractor field.
The Massey-Harris Company, based in Brantford, Ontario, imported the Big Bull from the U.S., but the new model was plagued by supply difficulties. 
In fact, the Minneapolis company didn’t even fabricate its own tractors, but had a production contract with Minnesota Steel to manufacture 4,500 Little Bull and Big Bull tractors. Since Minnesota Steel manufactured its own tractor, called the Twin City, which was in direct competition with the Bull tractors, the company decided it was in its best interests to cancel the production contract in 1917. 
Toro Motor Co., another Minnesota manufacturer founded in 1914, had the contract to build the engines for the Bull tractors, but when  Minnesota Steel dropped out, it was on its own and began specializing in other products. The company still exists today.
(Next week: part 3)