by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
The fate of the Winnipeg headquarters of the Bull Tractor Company of Canada and its factory in Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) was decided by the problems confronting its parent company across the border in the United States.
The Minneapolis-based Bull Tractor Company didn’t 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 interest to cancel the Bull production contract in 1917.
The final blow to the Winnipeg-based subsidiary came with the introduction in 1917 of the Fordson Model F, a machine that was less expensive than the Big Bull, due to being the first tractor to be mass produced on an assembly line, using the techniques Henry Ford developed to make his automobiles accessible to the average worker. In effect, Ford had revolutionized the tractor industry and spurred increased competition; this changed the machine in many ways and brought about the development of cheaper light-weight models, which included row crop tractors as well as the introduction of power take-offs.
Henry Ford & Son Company, the tractor division established by Ford to come up with a production model, also adopted the earlier Wallis Cub tractor feature of a frameless tractor, which did away with the need for a heavy steel frame. The Fordson wasn’t a trailblazer in this innovation, as the Wallis Cub tractor of 1913 was the first to have its chassis replaced by mounting the engine and transmission in a distinctive U-shaped steel housing.
Ford engineer Eugene Farkas took this innovation one step further by using separate component sections — engine, transmission and axle housings — as a frame, which greatly reduced the weight of the tractor and produced clean lines while protecting vulnerable parts from dirt and grim. After being assembled, the three separate component sections were joined together, resulting in a completed tractor rolling off the assembly line.
With the new Fordson capturing a huge chunk of the market, its competitors responded by adopting the frameless design and other features of the new tractor. If they hadn’t, Ford’s competitors would have quickly disappeared from the marketplace.
At first, the Fordson was scorned for its light weight of just 2,700 pounds, or 1,215 kilograms, in an era when popular tractors such as the IHC Titan weighed a more massive 8,700 pounds (3,915 kilograms). However, Ford defeated his critics by selling the Fordson through his extensive automobile dealer network and lured farmers to purchase the tractor with reasonable pricing and a reliable product.
The Fordson sold for $765, which was less than the Big Bull’s $825 price tag at Winnipeg in 1916, but the new model was unencumbered by the supply problems plaguing the Big Bull. With Henry Ford’s vast production facilities at Dearborn, Michigan, he quite easily filled orders. By July 1918, 131 Fordson tractors were rolling off the assembly line every day, and by the end of the Model F production run in 1928, over 500,000 of these tractors had been built.
The Canadian government regarded the Fordson as superior and the supply more trustworthy, so in 1918 it arranged with the Detroit manufacturer to purchase 1,000 tractors and sell them at cost to farmers primarily in the Prairie Provinces. Since manpower was a problem on Canadian farms due to the nation’s contribution of troops overseas (over 600,000 served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force), as well as the ongoing need to increase food production to feed the embattled nations and their armies, the Canadian government looked to the Fordson for salvation.
In response to the demand, Canadian farmers increased the amount of land under wheat cultivation from 10-million acres in 1914 to 14-million acres in 1915. In 1916 and 1917, the acreage again grew, but yields fell due to drought, a late frost and soil exhaustion.
The Canadian government was following the lead of the British government, which had placed an order for 7,000 of the tractors in 1917 in response to a dire need to improve farm production in the United Kingdom to feed troops battling in the First World War trenches of Belgium and France, and a civilian population placed on strict rationing. With millions of its citizens across the English Channel fighting in the war, the British government was desperate to find a way to replace its lost farm manpower, and the politicians believed the answer to this dilemma was provided by the labour-saving Fordson.
There was another reason to improve food production in Britain. While grain still flowed into Britain from Canada and the United States, there was the ever-present fear that this supply could be curtailed at any time by the German U-Boats patrolling the waters around the island nation by the sinking of the ships that transported the food bounty of the New World.
In Canada, the Massey-Harris import agreement with the Bull Tractor Company ended in a miserable failure, and the company was forced to find another way to enter the tractor market. The Minneapolis company struggled to survive, but ceased to manufacture tractors in 1919.
According to the report for 12-month period ending March 31, 1916, by Secretary of State P.E. Blondin in the Sessional Papers for the Dominion of Canada 1917, the “Bull Tractor Company of Canada, Limited,” was incorporated in June 21, 1915, with a capital stock of $25,000 in the form of 250 shares valued at $100 each. The corporate members were Garnet Coulter, who would later become the mayor of Winnipeg, Percy John Proctor and John Champion Collinson, with its “chief place of business — City of Winnipeg, Man.”
The Sessional Papers indicate that the company was still in existence at least the spring of 1916, while the various company advertisements show it lasted only to the fall of 1916.
While they were sold, the Little Bull and Big Bull helped transform agriculture on the prairies by demonstrating the potential of and demand for lighter gasoline tractors. In fact, the Bull tractor was the No.1 seller in North America in 1914 and second in 1915, but fell to fourth in 1916 and fifth in 1917, a sure indication that the tractor was headed toward oblivion.
In 1911, The Hero Manufacturing Co., Ltd., of Winnipeg was seeking capital to produce the “Hero” tractor at its Elmwood plant. According to a company ad in the February 1, 1911, Grain Growers Guide, it had “arranged to manufacture a 20-hp gasoline tractor and are now offering a substantial interest in their business to the farmers of this country.”
Under the “Hero” brand name, the company had for six years been manufacturing home washing machines, fanning mills, smut machines, grain tanks and tanks, and “has only recently arranged for the manufacture of a splendid line of gasoline tractors.”
Albert O. Espe, formerly of Crookston, Minnesota, who held the patent and was the manufacturer of “the famed” Hero “tractor machine” was contracted to oversee the factory in Winnipeg. The company purchased Espe’s Crookston foundry and factory machinery for $10,000, which had the capacity to produce four tractors a week.
The ad said the Hero company was seeking capitalization of $250,000 divided into 25,000 shares with a par value of $10 each. “Of this amount $125,000 has been subscribed for and fully allotted to Mr. Espe to cover the patent rights, patterns, plans, drawings, etc., of the tractor, leaving a balance in the treasury of 9,500 shares of stock which is now offered ... The smallest amount of stock which will be allotted to any subscriber is 10 shares ... This payable 25 per cent on application, 25 per cent in two months, 25 per cent in four months and the final 25 per cent in six months.”
The ad asked interested individuals to send in a coupon to “reserve” shares of stock in the company.
It is difficult to determine if or how many of the Hero tractors were actually built, but the company is listed in the Antique American Tractor & Crawler Value Guide (2001) by Terry Dean and Larry L. Swenson, although no in-depth information is provided other than the company name, the fact it was located in Winnipeg and a mention of a 20-hp tractor in 1911.
What is known about Espe is that he was a much-sought-after tractor designer, who worked for such companies as Avery. He did produce a tractor at his Crookston, Minnesota, plant but then sold the licencing rights to his designs to other companies.
Espe received a patent for a design in 1909 and initially, with the support of Stillwater-based capital, manufactured the machine under the name Universal Tractor Company, but then sold the rights to the Northwest Thresher Co. of Stillwater, Minnesota. The Universal Tractor Company of Stillwater advertised in U.S. Midwest newspapers in 1911 promoting its “Universal One-Man Tractor,” which “did the work of 16 horses and four men.”
The “Hero” to be built in Winnipeg resembles the Universal, but with some modifications, as was common practice during the era when tractors of similar design were manufactured under licence in different plants throughout North America.
In 1912, the rights to Espe’s Universal were sold to the Rumely company, which in partnership with Northwest Thresher, made improvements to the tractor and it became known as the Rumely GasPull. With the sale of the design to Rumely, C.H. Wendell wrote in the Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, “the other builders lost their license to build Universal tractors.”
It is possible the licence to build the Hero in Winnipeg ended in this way. But what is more likely is that the company failed in its attempts to obtain sufficient capital to adequately fund their plant even before the sale of the licencing rights to the Stillwater company, resulting in the Espe-designed tractors never being put into mass production in Winnipeg. Unlike the other local tractor plants that were readily funded by wealthy Winnipeg businessmen, the Hero company specifically advertised for share subscriptions from farmers (“the farmer’s real opportunity,” ads proclaimed), who invariably had little cash to spare as their funds were tied up in land, crops and equipment. Even friendly bankers could not be counted upon to lend farmers money to purchase speculative stocks.
The company’s lack of capitalization is evident by the fact it could only pay $10,000 in cash for Espe’s manufacturing equipment with the balance of his fees paid in Hero stock, which at the time only had a paper value.
The evidence that a prototype of the so-called “Hero” tractor was built is a picture in the February 1, 1911, advertisement with the caption, “The ‘Hero’ in the field.” The ad said the photo was taken “in a field of heavy soil with four 14 inch bottom plows at Crookston, Minn., U.S.A (where Espe had his original Universal plant). This machine plowed over 800 acres last year, and the cost of repairs amounted to less than $5.00.”
The ad seeking capital in an almost pleading manner said, “This machine (in the picture) is not an experiment, but a thoroughly tested gasoline tractor and one to which we do not hesitate giving the name ‘Hero.’”
Since this tractor was used in Minnesota, it was probably manufactured in the United States and not in Winnipeg. The local company appears to have merely used the U.S.-built tractor in its promotional material to raise money for its plant in Winnipeg.
Tractor companies sprang up overnight across North America, many of which were the fly-by-night variety. But there is no reason to believe that the Hero company was of this variety, as it had a long history in Winnipeg of manufacturing farm implements — it simply lacked the necessary capital to commence mass production.
By 1910, there were over 1,000 companies in North America promising to build or which were actually building tractors. Typically, the new companies made tractors from off-the-shelf parts, including radiators, ignition systems, bearings, stampings and forgings, as well as complete engines and transmissions, in order to cash in on the tractor craze sweeping Western Canada and the U.S. Midwest.
In his book, The American Farm Tractor, Randy Leffingwell, outlined how so-called farm tractor manufacturers sprang up overnight with no interest other than raising capital. Leffingwell used the example of W. Baer Ewing and his usurpation of the Ford name. Ewing founded the Ford Tractor Co. in 1915 and incorporated it in South Dakota. He hired Paul Ford (no relation of Henry Ford) and falsely promoted him as the designer of a tractor Ewing planned to manufacture. As it turned out, this was just one of the tricks Ewing used to cash-in on the growing demand for tractors.
To finance the tractor, Ewing sold shares through his own company, Federal Securities. He then sold tractors to unsuspecting farmers as Fords, but the few tractors he built were so poor in quality that the company soon went out of business.
Ewing managed to keep the patent and design for the tractor as well as the company name and moved his operations to Minneapolis where he began to sell his Ford Model B for US $350. He only built a few tractors, which were primarily used to raise capital for his company. It was basically a fraudulent stock scheme which soon got his Ford Motor Co. embroiled in a New York court case. His partner was convicted of conspiracy to defraud investors. Ewing avoided a similar fate by fleeing to Canada where he was said to have wanted to form yet another tractor company.
During the tractor craze, Ewing wasn’t unique. Other so-called manufacturers organized a company and built a prototype which was then used solely to sell stock. Once enough money was raised to satisfy their greed, the company vacated its offices, closed the doors and sold for cash the sole prototype to an unsuspecting victim.
The end of the fly-by-night operators came when Wilmot Crozier, a victim of Ewing’s tractor scheme, was elected to the Nebraska State Legislature and had a law passed which required all new tractors sold in the state to pass a series of independent tests. L.W. Chase of Iowa, who had been involved in the early “agricultural motor” contests at the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition, was hired to implement the program which became an industry standard. Tractor companies with nothing to fear welcomed the Nebraska testing, as a result, the shady operators began to fade away.
Henry Ford’s tractor passed the Nebraska tests. He gave it the brand name Fordson (from Ford and Sons) as Ewing controlled the rights to “Ford” for tractor manufacturing. The Detroit auto manufacturer used Fordson because he refused to go through the legal costs of reclaiming his own name for the true Ford-built farm machines.
At the time, many companies resorted to using the same names for tractor models, which today adds confusion when attempting to sort out who manufactured what. In the 1910s, farmers also had problems separating the same-named tractors, which was undoubtedly an intentional ploy by some manufacturers to take advantage of popular models produced by other companies.
By 1915, there were three Generals, four Uniteds, five Universals, six Westerns, and 10 companies calling themselves the American Tractor Company, according to U.S. agricultural historians Glenn Heirn and C.H. Wendell.
In the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum in Saskatoon sits one of the rarest tractors ever produced (only two remain), which was known as the Manitoba Universal Farm Tractor that was manufactured by Western Steel & Iron Works Limited of Winnipeg, which also produced other farm implements.
In his report for the 12-month period ending March 31, 1916, in the Sessional Papers for the Dominion of Canada 1917, Secretary of State Blondin said the “Manitoba Universal Farm Tractor Company, Limited” was incorporated on May 14, 1915, with a capital stock of $50,000. There were 500 shares issued at $100 a share.
According to the report, the “corporate members” were William Brydon, valuator; Hubert Irwin Call, engineer; Charles McPherson, sales agent; and Claude Isbister, barrister, “all of Winnipeg, in the province of Manitoba ... Chief place of business — city of Winnipeg, Man.”
A July 28, 1915, advertisement in the Grain Growers Guide, called it “the most practical light farm tractor in Western Canada.” Subsequent advertisements in the same magazine call the Universal, which cost $697 in Winnipeg, “the light weight tractor with a big pull.” It was a three-wheeled tractor producing eight hp on the drawbar and 16 hp on the belt, allowing it to pull a two-bottom plow.
The company’s 1917 sales catalogue said the 4,000-pound (1,814.37-kilogram) Manitoba Universal would do the work of six to eight horses, and “leave others for the jobs they can handle better ... It costs less than horses when operating and eats no feed when idle.”
Another ad on January 12, 1916, urged out-of-town curlers participating in the February 12 to 22 Winnipeg Bonspiel (today’s annual MCA Bonspiel) to visit the local plant in order to view the Universal. “Take any (street) car going east past the CPR depot and ask the conductor to put you off at Talbot Avenue. Then walk straight east on the CPR tracks. The factory stands at the corner of Chalmers — just ten minutes trip in all from the depot.”
The photos accompanying the ads show a tractor with two small 42-inch (1.28 metres) front wheels and one massive five-foot (1.524-metre) diameter back wheel (“masterwheel”). The drive for the tractor was provided by a rather dangerous looking bulky chain running to the back wheel from the engine located midway between the two front wheels and the single rear wheel.
The operator sat in a seat to the right side of the engine with all its operating parts exposed with the possibility of snagging clothing. It is also disconcerting to observe that the gas tank was placed quite near and level to the operator’s head.
When researching the tractor for the Saskatchewan Western Development Museum, collections curator Ruth Bitner uncovered a story about two Alberta brothers who each lost an arm in the open drive chain of a Manitoba Universal.
According to Bitner, the museum’s Universal was purchased in Brandon in 1948, while the other remaining Universal is privately owned by an undisclosed resident of Manitoba.
A July 14, 1915, Free Press article reported on a demonstration of the tractor about 10 kilometres north of Winnipeg. “The tractor was hauling a plow with two 14-inch shares and was running along very steadily at the rate of two miles per hour ...
“Part of the field was scrubby but the little tractor went right along without any puffing of the exhaust.”
The newspaper article said the tractor used two gallons of gasoline per acre.
“The manufacturers of this tractor confidently claim that the Universal has solved the farm tractor problem by reason of its simplicity, its direct pull, its economy in the matter of gasoline and the low cost of its manufacture.”
After 1917, nothing is heard about the Manitoba Universal tractor, which quickly faded into history as did all the other early models produced in Winnipeg.
Although the Winnipeg companies formed in the early-1900s had short life spans, there still is a strong tractor manufacturing presence in Winnipeg. Versatile tractors are today built locally by Buhler Industries, which is the last tractor factory remaining in Canada.