The time they tried turning Model T Fords into farm tractors

Had to go here and there over the weekend, and couldn’t help but notice all the water standing in fields here in the Fox Valley.

While I was up north trying to entice nice plump walleyes to take my bait, it apparently rained a lot around these parts. Farmers who were lucky enough to get their crops planted in those fields now sporting ponds of various sizes will be forced to replant. These days, it’s expensive in energy, seed, and fertilizer costs, but at least it’s doable. Back in the day before motorized farm equipment, such a condition could lead to economic disaster.

When World War I broke out, farmers in Europe and North America almost exclusively farmed with horses. From pulling plows and other soil preparation equipment to providing the power to run elevators and other on-the-farm equipment, the horse was king.

Steam tractors had been in use for decades prior to that time, but they were mostly used simply to tow threshing machines and their related equipment from farm to farm, upon which they supplied stationary steam power via pulley and belt to run the machines.

1912 Rumely Oil Pull

The kerosene-fueled Rumely Oil Pull was one of the first popular internal combustion engine farm tractors. Heavy, underpowered, and expensive, they weren’t overwhelmingly popular.

But with the continuing development and perfection of the internal combustion engine, change was on the horizon by 1914. By then, a few tractors with kerosene-fueled internal combustion engines had already appeared on farms around the country. The new machines were still big, expensive, underpowered, and often unreliable, and farmers were concerned that they had to purchase fuel for them instead of growing it on their farms like they did for their horse teams.

When war broke out, however, the European armies began buying huge numbers of horses and that, to the consternation of U.S. farmers, caused the price of even mediocre horseflesh to skyrocket.

On Dec. 9, 1914, Hugh R. Marshall reported in the Kendall County Record that: “A representative of the Montreal Horse Company, who was in Yorkville last week, gives some interesting information. He was here buying [horses] for the artillery and cavalry of the European armies and says that England and France have placed orders for 80,000 horses…The average price now being paid for horses is about $110 each, he says, and if the present demand continues an ordinary plug horse will next summer be worth $300.”

When the U.S. entered the war three years later, the demand for horses just kept climbing. But by then, tractor manufacturers were working hard to perfect their machines, none more so than Chicago’s International Harvester Company. By the time the U.S. entered the war, IHC was marketing Titan tractors along with their own IHC brand.

Moline two-wheeled tractorIn 1910, there were just 10 tractor manufacturing companies in the U.S. By 1920, the number had skyrocketed to 190 companies. Most of the machines being produced were of the familiar wide front end four-wheel design, although three-wheeled tractors and four-wheeled tractors with narrow front ends were not uncommon. And starting in 1913, the Moline Plow Co. in Moline, Ill. had begun manufacturing a two-wheeled tractor, sort of like a giant modern garden tractor, designed for use with a variety of attachments, including plows, harrows, planters, cultivators, and mowers.

But tractors, even two-wheeled Moline Universals, were expensive and farmers, always short on ready cash, were looking for something cheaper.

1917 27 Jun 20th Cent Farm HorseEnter American ingenuity.

By 1917, the Ford Motor Company had manufactured two million Model T’s. In their myriad of variants, Model T’s were everywhere doing about everything a motor vehicle could be modified to do. So it was almost a natural progression when some bright inventors created Model T add-on attachments to transform the ubiquitous vehicles into lightweight farm tractors.

In Yorkville here in Kendall County, while Hemm and Zeiter were selling two-wheeled Moline Universals and Jacob Armbruster was marketing hardy 10-20 Titans, J.E. Price became the local dealer for the 20th Century Farm Horse, an eyebrow raising tractor attachment for the Model T.

Manufactured by the Farm Tractor Company at Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, the attachment kit cost $190, a fraction of the cost of a new traditional tractor. For that amount, the purchaser received a kit that bolted onto the rear of a Model T frame, replacing the Ford’s rear wheels and differential with a sturdy two-wheeled carriage and heavier differential featuring two large steel wheels with lug treads.

As Price’s ad in the June 27, 1917 Record put it: “The 20th Century Farm Horse is guaranteed to equip any Ford car to do the work of 3 to 4 horses on any farm. Why pay $700 or $800 for a heavy tractor when your Ford will do the work for one-fifth the money?”

20th Century Farm Horse in action

After bolting the 20th Century Farm Horse attachment onto his Model T Ford, the farmer still had to figure out how to use it, especially with some tow-behind equipment like this farmer’s binder. It often wasn’t an easy thing to do.

Indeed, it seemed like a tempting deal. “Not only is the original cost small, but the cost of running is away less than horse feed,” Price contended. “They don’t eat when not in use. They don’t get tired. Flies don’t bother them. In hot harvest weather they don’t drop in the harness. In the rush season, plowing can be done at night by means of the Ford headlights. When the plowing season is over, two hours’ work and you have a Ford pleasure car.”

So, what wasn’t to like? Well, it turned out that while Model T’s were perfectly fine for driving around the countryside on the often-terrible roads of the era, they really weren’t built to be driving across farm fields pulling agricultural implements. The kits not only lacked air and oil filters to prevent damage to the Model T’s engine, but there was no additional oil capacity for the engine crankcase.

Actual tractors of that era were, according to The Agricultural Digest of November 1917, designed for three major purposes: belt purposes, heavy drawbar work, and light cultivation work. The 20th Century Farm Horse was fine, it appeared, for light cultivation work. But it was less able for heavy drawbar work—pulling plows and other such tasks—and totally unsuited for belt work. What was belt work? Tractors were expected to be able to use their power take-off pulley to power grain elevators, threshing machines, hay presses (stationary hay balers), and other equipment. Model T’s were built without any sort of a power take-off.

Still, the lure of only having to buy one complete motor vehicle that could be quickly transformed from the family auto into a tractor and back again was a strong one.

Intrigued by the idea, The Agriculture Digest conducted a trial with a 20th Century Farm Horse and, unfortunately, found it wanting. The machine was barely capable of pulling a two-bottomed plow through even mildly heavy soil. Further, the two-hour change-over promised in Farm Horse ads was wildly optimistic, the magazine found. In fact, it became almost standard practice to buy an old Model T and just leave the Farm Horse attachment permanently installed.

The era of tractor attachments for autos was a brief one, ending by the mid-1920s. And there is no telling how many—or few—Kendall County farmers bought into the idea. But farm equipment collectors still prize these unusual vestiges of the era when farm mechanization was just getting a good start in the U.S.



1 Comment

Filed under Business, Farming, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Technology, Transportation

One response to “The time they tried turning Model T Fords into farm tractors

  1. Bert Gray

    Great story, Roger.:)

    From: historyonthefox To: Sent: Monday, May 16, 2016 1:55 PM Subject: [New post] The time they tried turning Model T Fords into farm tractors #yiv9678624766 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv9678624766 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv9678624766 a.yiv9678624766primaryactionlink:link, #yiv9678624766 a.yiv9678624766primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv9678624766 a.yiv9678624766primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv9678624766 a.yiv9678624766primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv9678624766 | RAM posted: “Had to go here and there over the weekend, and couldn’t help but notice all the water standing in fields here in the Fox Valley.While I was up north trying to entice nice plump walleyes to take my bait, it apparently rained a lot around these parts. Far” | |

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