The tractor is the main source of power on a farm, and at the beginning of the 1930s tractors were still relatively simple machines. That was something that LeRoy Hankel's four-year-old son Elroy found out to his surprise.
"None of the first tractors had a battery in them," LeRoy says. "You had to crank the Farmall... We had it standing out in the yard there one time. Our boy was about four years old. And I was in the house for something. And all at once the missus says, 'You know, the tractor is running.' And the boy come in the house, never said a word... He just took a hold of that crank and turned it one notch. Everything was just right, and it started."
As the decade continued, tractors went from two cylinder models to four to six cylinders. In 1936, the Minneapolis-Moline company began offering an electric starter on some models. By 1939, Cleveland Tractor Co. outfitted all of their models with electric starters and lights.
The Depression caused huge changes in the tractor industry. Between 1930 and 1932, production dropped from around 200,000 tractors to only 19,000 as farmers stopped buying almost everything. The number of tractor companies dropped as well, from a high of 90 companies in 1920 to only nine major producers in 1933. But companies continued to innovate, and the buyers returned later in the decade.
Row Crop Tractors
Early in 1930, the Oliver company refined its "Row Crop" tractor with two small drive wheels in front spaced closely together and "tip-toed" in. This design essentially produced a tricycle tractor. The closely spaced front wheels allowed the tractor move easily down the rows of corn or soybeans. A row crop tractor could cultivate a field as well as plow it. Through the 30s, row crop tractors became more and more popular.
In the early 30s, all tractors had steel wheels with lugs jutting out of them. These tires had good traction in the field, but they rode roughly and put divots into paved roads. Herman Goertzen says the rubber wheels were more powerful, gave better gas mileage, kicked up less dust and were more comfortable than steel.
Rubber tires, of course, were used on almost all cars. But it wasn't until orange growers in Florida got fed up with steel lugs damaging the roots of their trees that farmers began experimenting with rubber tires. Before long, large truck tires were being shipped in quantity to Florida, and the tire companies took note. In 1931, B. F. Goodrich Co. brought out a rubber tire mounted to a common steel rim for tractors. Other companies followed and began demonstrating that rubber tires had just as much traction as steel ones.
By 1933, tractor companies began offering models with rubber tires already mounted on rims. Blacksmith shops did a growing business retrofitting steel wheels to rubber ones. By 1940, 95 percent of new tractors rode on rubber wheels.
In the 1920s, hooking up an implement, like a plow, to a tractor was a major task. Farmers had hoists and helpers and inventive ways of getting heavy implements hooked up. Each manufacturer had its own ways of hooking implements to their tractors. With most implements, the farmer had to stop at the end of a row, get down off the tractor, raise the plow or cultivator up, make the turn, get down, drop the implement back into the soil and proceed on the next row. All of that changed with the three-point hitch.
Harry Ferguson invented the three-point hitch in the late 20s. His Ferguson Brown Type A was the first tractor to offer the system in 1936. Later, Henry Ford agreed to put it on his new Ford 9N tractor. LeRoy Hankel says the three-point hitch also made a big difference.
The three-point hitch was put together using a combination of linkages (three different linkage points, two on bottom and one on top) and hydraulics. With the Ferguson System, farmers only had to back up to the implement, hook it up, raise it up with hydraulic hoists, and off they went. The hydraulics also made it easy to raise the implement at the end of a row, turn around and drop it back down.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.