The Belle City Manufacturing Company
Brian Wayne Wells
with the assistance of
Del Gendner of Grand Prairie, Texas
Joe Thome of Racine, Wisconsin
Bob S. McFarland of Sauk City, Wisconsin
Ed Mortensen of Racine, Wisconsin
Gary Oechsner of Fon-du-Lac, Wisconsin
As published in the July/August 1999 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
(NOTE FROM THE EDITOR: Brian Wells relates to us that he was able to write the history of the Belle City Company only with the help of the reading public of the Belt Pulley magazine. Thus, this is the first truly “interactive article” Brian has written. We hope this trend will continue and grow. As you know, Brian has been attempting to write an article on the Wood Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. He is also doing some research on the Rosenthal Cornhusker Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the Electric Wheel Company of Quincy, Illinois. He would appreciate any material on the corporate history of any of these companies.)
All through the 1930s, the Belle City Company enjoyed access to the farm equipment market through the distribution and dealership network of the tractor division of the Ford Motor Company. However, with the introduction of the new Ford/Ferguson 9N in 1939, Ford gravitated toward the Woods Brothers Threshing Company of Des Moines, Iowa. Woods Bros., of course, manufactured the famous “Humming Bird” thresher which was offered in the 21″ x 36″, 26″ x 46″, 28 x 46″ and 30″ by 50″ sizes. (Robert N. Pripps and Andrew Moreland, Threshers [Motorbooks International: Osceola, Wisc. 1992] p. 122.) These threshers covered the entire gambit of the small thresher market, and Ford had no further need of the joint venture with Belle City. Thus, after 1938, Belle City was on its own, and had to start advertising independent of Ford.
At first, Belle City suffered from the lack of the dealership network which it had enjoyed under its contract with IHC during the 1920s and with Ford during the 1930s. Fortunately, however, Belle City had insisted that the slogan “Belle City Built” appear on all its threshers sold by Ford and International Harvester Company. Thus, farmers had become so familiar with seeing that slogan on its threshers that, both during the contract with IHC prior to 1926 and during the joint venture with Ford, farmers began to insist that their threshers be stamped “Belle City Built” if their new thresher had slipped through manufacture without that slogan stenciled on the sides. Consequently, by 1939, when the company had to go it alone as far as advertising, sales, and distribution, Belle City had already succeeded in becoming somewhat of a household name with farmers in the upper midwest.
Among the advertising possibilities for Belle City was the Wisconsin State Fair held on a 200-acre site in West Allis, Wisconsin. In the years just prior to the Second World War, the Wisconsin State Fair consisted largely of tents. There were very few permanent structures. However, it was a very popular event with 602,436 people paying the 25¢ admission fee in 1937, 624,411 people in 1938, and 630,954 people in 1939. Like many other farm machinery manufacturers in Wisconsin, Belle City occupied a site on the fair grounds each year, where they advertised their farm machinery products. They erected a tent on the site where they displayed racks of advertising literature and posters along with a couple of the newly manufactured, freshly painted threshers, silo fillers, cornpickers and other farm equipment products for the fair-goers to see up close. Einar Mortenson, a long time employee of the Belle City Company served as the Company’s Treasurer from 1930 to 1940. Even though he occupied a high position within the Company, he did his part at the Fair and signed up for a shift at the Belle City tent. This was especially needed when in 1937 the Fair expanded from eight days to a full nine days. When Einar made the annual trip from Racine down to the fairgrounds in West Allis in 1937-1939, he would ask his young nephew, Ed Mortenson, if he wished to go along for a day at the Fair. Einar never had to ask twice. A trip to the State Fair was always a big exciting experience for all young boys.
Entry into the Second World War found most United States farm equipment companies thoroughly involved in wartime contracts, manufacturing items for the armed forces. History remembers mostly the government contracts for huge orders of large and expensive equipment–airplanes, tanks, jeeps, etc. However, the war created a huge demand for products of all kinds–even simple products.
Because World War II was the first war to involve airplanes on such a massive scale, there was a demand for everything airplanes needed. One of the simplest, and yet most important, items was a sufficient number of “chocks” to block the wheels of aircraft while they were on the ground. Tying an aircraft down prevented it from moving completely away from its storage place, but only chocking the wheels prevented the aircraft from rolling back and forth at that location, thereby eliminating undue stress and possible damage to the wings and fuselage or breaking a tie-down rope. Every wheel of every aircraft needed to be chocked as well as tied down when the aircraft sat unused on the ground. This meant the government needed millions of wooden chocks to be manufactured and shipped all around the world to wherever airplanes were located. The contract for making this simple and unglamorous product was awarded to the Belle City Company. Also, Belle City received the government wartime contract to make wooden pallets for use in shipping all war materials overseas. This was another unglamorous by important contract that had to be filled as part of the war effort.
The manufacture of airplane wheel chocks and shipping pallets did not demand the whole capabilities of the company; thus, they continued with the production of the thresher throughout the war as well. By the end of the war, however, the Belle City Company found itself in a worse position than most other companies. Not only did the government contracts end, but Belle City’s main product, the thresher, was now rapidly becoming outdated and was being replaced on the average family farm by the smaller model combine that were now being made by nearly all farm equipment companies.
It did not take the officials of the Belle City Manufacturing Company long to determine that they would need to find another niche in the farm market. Consequently, almost as the war was ending, Belle City ceased production of its entire line of threshers. The company then purchased a design for a one-row, pull-type, tractor-powered cornpicker from a third party and began manufacture of the Model ES (snapping) picker and the Model EH (husking) picker. Both of these new model corn
Actually, this was not the first time that Belle City had manufactured a cornpicker. Belle City had previously produced a cornpicker of its own design. Research on this one-row, semi-mounted cornpicker-husker was begun in 1923 with production beginning in 1928.
The cornpicker was made to fit a wide variety of four-wheel standard tractors popular in the 1920s, including the Fordson, the International Harvester 10-20, the Hart-Parr 12-24, the Wallis 20-30, the United tractor, the John Deere 15-27 tractor, and the John Deere General Purpose tractor. The cornpicker would snap ears of corn from the stalks and elevated them to the top of the husking bed which was cross-mounted along the rear of the tractor. After a pass over the husking bed, the ears of corn would be elevated to a wagon being pulled along side of the cornpicker and tractor. Unfortunately for Belle City’s cornpicker, introduction of the tri-cycle style of tractor–the Farmall, by International Harvester–and the almost immediate adoption of the tri-cycle design by other tractor manufacturers eclipsed the four-wheel, standard design tractor in the 1930s. Thus, there was a decline in the market for a cornpicker designed specifically for the four-wheel style tractor. Consequently, Belle City ceased production of the one-row, semi-mounted cornpicker in 1935. The new Belle City corn-picker introduced after the Second World War was a rubber-tired, tractor-powered cornpicker, and was marketed under the Belle City name during 1946 and 1947.
In 1948, the Ford Motor Company came under the leadership of Henry Ford II with the death of his grandfather, Henry Ford, originator of the company. One of young Henry’s first changes was to put a sudden end to the joint-venture created in 1939 between Ford and the Harry Ferguson Company. This was the famous “hand-shake” agreement between Harry Ferguson and the first Henry Ford that resulted in the production of the Ford/Ferguson model 9N and later the model 2N tractors. Young Henry’s decision to end the joint venture would lead to a bitter lawsuit between Ford and Ferguson which would drag on for years in the courts.
Meanwhile, however, both Ford and Ferguson struggled to bring its own tractors out into the market in 1948. In Ford’s case, it had the advantage of a well-established distribution and dealership network; and its contractual relationship with Wood Brothers Threshing Company became even closer as Woods Bros. relocated its factory works from Des Moines, Iowa, to Dearborn, Michigan. Ford also changed the color of its line of farm machinery from gray to the new “Ford red.” (Woods Bros. would eventually be purchased by the Ford Motor Company.)
Ferguson, on the other hand, was disadvantaged by both the lack of a distribution and dealership network and by the lack of a full line of farm machinery. Thus, Ferguson needed to quickly develop its own line of machinery to accompany its tractor. To fill this need, Ferguson turned to the Belle City Company. Thus, in 1948, Belle City’s new tractor-powered, one-row cornpicker began to be sold as part of the Harry Ferguson Company line of farm machinery. Here again, just as Belle City had done in joint ventures with IHC and Ford, Belle City required that its name appear on the cornpicker. Accordingly, while the Harry Ferguson Company name appeared on a small plate on the rear of the cornpicker, the front and back of the cornpicker and both sides of the wagon elevator were decorated with the Belle City name printed in large, block-style letters. In actual fact, Ferguson may not have needed much encouragement to make use of the Belle City name. In a 1950 advertising movie called “Uncle Ray Finds a Way,” Ferguson showed the one-row cornpicker at work in the field, and the narration made note that the picker was a Belle City picker. Ferguson’s printed literature also advertised the cornpicker in its line of farm equipment as being a Belle City picker. Additionally, the slogan “Belle City Built” was decaled both on the side and back of the husking unit elevator housing. Obviously, the slogan “Belle City Built” had a magic with farmers–a magic that Ferguson wanted to use in the selling of its new line of tractors and farm machinery. (“Uncle Ray Finds a Way” is available on VHS videotape from Keith Oltrogge, P.O. Box 529, Denver, Iowa 50622-0529, Tel:  984-5292 [days] and  352-5524 [evenings].)
Ferguson met its need for a distribution and dealership network by hastily signing up existing businesses as dealers and distributors. Readers of the first part of this two-part series will remember that in Rice County, Minnesota, in the small town of Lonsdale (1940 pop. 545), Frank Balek had a Ford tractor dealership located on the southern edge of town. Now, in 1948, with the split between Ford and Ferguson, the Balek dealership suddenly had competition when Ed Douda began selling Ferguson TE-20s tractors at his Standard Oil gas station on the northern edge of Lonsdale. (In 1950, Ed Douda retired and sold his Ferguson franchise to Turek Farm Equipment which continues to this day as a Massey-Ferguson dealership on Hwy #19 East in Lonsdale.) In neighboring LeSueur County, in the unincorporated community of St. Henry, Ferguson sales representatives found the Selly Brothers Trucking business receptive to the idea of taking on a Ferguson franchise. (Selly Brother’s continued selling Fergusons until the 1955 merger of Ferguson and Massey-Harris.) In Owatonna, the county seat of Steele County, Minnesota, Ferguson signed up the Leo Collins Produce Company located on Cedar Street near Central Park in the main section of town next to the Bank and across from Alexander Lumber Company. During the war, Leo Collins had become quite a large concern, buying eggs for the government which were then powdered in order to preserve them for the trip overseas to be fed to the United States military fighting in two completely different theaters of war. With the war over, the Leo Collins Produce Company no longer had the government contract and was receptive to the idea of taking on a Ferguson franchise. (Leo Collins continued to sell Ferguson tractors until 1952, when he sold his franchise to the Paul Mathews Case dealership. Paul Mathews continued selling Ferguson and later Massey-Ferguson for many years thereafter.)
In the southern Wisconsin town of Sauk City, Ferguson enlisted the famous McFarlane distributor/dealership as one of its distributors for the upper midwest. McFarlane’s was founded by Earl McFarlane, who had first come to Sauk City in 1918. Earl, together with John Westmount from Madison, Wisconsin, formed the Wisconsin Tractor Company and designed a tractor which they hoped to manufacture in Sauk City. Indeed, production of this tractor was begun in Sauk City in 1918 and continued until 1924. However, the Wisconsin tractor fell victim to the post-war agricultural depression and the tremendous popularity of the Fordson tractor. Consequently, in 1924, Earl and his wife, Alice (Beggs) McFarlane, a former school teacher from Hudson, Wisconsin, left the Wisconsin Tractor Company and established the current McFarlane’s in Sauk City which is still active today. (The Wisconsin tractor can be seen in C.H. Wendel’s book: the Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors [Crestline: Sarasota, Florida, 1985] p. 283.)
Initially, McFarlane’s was solely a retail outlet for a number of different farm machine companies serving the machinery needs of farmers in the Sauk, Dane and Richland counties along the lower Wisconsin River in the heart of the Wisconsin dairy land which lies primarily in the valleys of two rivers–the Fox and the Wisconsin. Only in 1934 did McFarlane’s become a distributor, or block house supplier, to other retail dealerships for a variety of different farm equipment manufacturing firms–including Oliver tractors. In 1946, McFarlane’s became the regional distributor for Belle City, even before its contract with Ferguson, and took delivery of two railroad car loads of the new Belle City ES and EH cornpickers.
One particular Ferguson/Belle City Model EH cornpicker, complete with rubber tires and a husking bed, emerged from the Belle City Taylor Avenue plant in Racine, Wisconsin, sometime between 1948 and 1954. This particular cornpicker was fitted with all the proper Belle City decals and was shipped to the Ferguson distributor for southern Minnesota. At the distributor, the cornpicker was adorned with the markings of the Harry Ferguson Company. After a few weeks on the lot, the cornpicker was consigned to one of the new Ferguson dealerships which had been recently franchised by the Harry Ferguson Company–perhaps the Selly Bros. Trucking Company of St. Henry, Minnesota. No doubt someone at Selly Bros. drove a truck to the distributor and picked up the model EH cornpicker and brought it back to St. Henry where it was “dealer prepped” before being delivered to the farmer that had contracted for purchase of the cornpicker. This farmer, no doubt, put the cornpicker to use in his fields for a couple of seasons. However, after limited use, the farmer backed the cornpicker into an out-of-the-way place in the back of a machine shed where it sat until it was purchased at auction in the 1980s by Wilfrid Preuhs of LeSueur, Minnesota.
One of the early members of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association, Wilfrid Preuhs, was also the uncle of Pioneer Power founding member Dave Preuhs. (See Build it and They Will Come” on page 33 of the summer 1996 issue of Hart-Parr/Oliver Collector magazine for the story of Dave Preuhs and the founding of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association.) “Uncle Wilfrid,” well-aware of the fine condition of this Ferguson/Belle City model EH cornpicker, could tell it had not been used extensively. Although dating from at least the early 1950s, the machine was not as rusty as one would expect if the machine had been stored outdoors since the 1950s. Out of concern that the model EH cornpicker was an uncommon machine, of which few would ever be found, Uncle Wilfrid, purchased it with the thought of saving it for future generations to admire.
It is not known why the farmer that originally owned Uncle Wilfrid’s model EH Ferguson/Belle City cornpicker ceased using it to pick his corn crop; however, a hint might be obtained from the experience of McFarlane’s with the sales of the models ES and EH cornpickers in their region of Wisconsin. McFarlane’s had just started selling the first of its Belle City cornpickers when they began to hear complaints. Farmers were dissatisfied with the cornpicker, and McFarlane’s found that sales stalled almost to zero. Part of the problem was that many farmers were turning to one of the newer, higher capacity, two-row cornpickers which were now available on the market–in particular, the very fine New Idea model 6A two-row, pull-type cornpicker. (See the March/April 1999 issue of Belt Pulley for the story of the development of this picker.) Thus Earl McFarlane’s son, Bob, remembers that his father was worried about ever being able to sell the remaining Belle City cornpickers he had in inventory and refused to take delivery on any more.
McFarlane’s was not alone in experiencing dissatisfaction over the one-row cornicker. The ES and EH tractor-powered cornpickers were also a disappointment for Ferguson and for Belle City. However, Belle City did manufacture one product which McFarlane’s continued to order and to sell. This was the stationary corn sheller which went into production in 1950. It was a corn sheller which really carried the company into the 1950s, as production of the Model ES and Model EH tractor-powered cornpicker was halted.
In 1954, the merger of Ferguson and Massey-Harris resulted in the Massey-Ferguson Company. Later in that same year, Belle City sold its Taylor Avenue factory site to Massey-Ferguson, and the Belle City Manufacturing Company was reorganized as the Belle City Manufacturing Company, Inc., which had the responsibility for continued production of the stationary corn sheller and for selling spare parts. In 1960, Belle City Manufacturing Company, Inc., became a division of the Rajo Motor Company. After 1973, the name Belle Manufacturing no longer appears in the Racine City Directory as an enterprise doing business in the city of Racine.
Thus, only memories of the Belle City Company are left–memories and the remaining threshers, corn shellers and cornpickers which made up the farm machinery line of equipment sold by the company. Uncle Wilfrid Preuhs realized this at the time he purchased the model EH cornpicker which is now part of the permanent collection on the Pioneer Power Association Showgrounds. For many years, Uncle Wilfrid’s model EH cornpicker was stored outdoors. This was really a shame for a machine that had been stored indoors for much of its life. However, Pioneer Power members, including Wayne Svoboda who takes an active interest in anything related to Massey-Harris and Massey-Ferguson, have recently expressed interest in Uncle Wilfrid’s model EH Ferguson/Belle City cornpicker and it has been moved indoors. It is hoped that this machine might someday be restored to useable condition. (Such restoration may be more in the form of a clean up and lubricating of the cornpicker because of its good condition.) Unfortunately, such restoration will not take place in time for the 1999 LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show. Nonetheless, Uncle Wilfrid’s model EH Ferguson/Belle City cornpicker, in its present state, will be a part of the exhibits at the Show, held on August 27, 28 and 29, 1999, which will feature the National Ford Tractor Collector Association’s Summer Convention. Because this model EH Ferguson/Belle City cornpicker represents an integral part of the story of the of not only Ferguson but in particular the relationship between Ford and Ford/Ferguson, Uncle Wilfrid’s cornpicker is properly be a part of the 1999 Show. Additionally, the restoration of this picker would be a fitting tribute to the little company from Racine, Wisconsin, which made famous the slogan “Belle City Built.”