The Wartime Farmall Model H Tractor
Brian Wayne Wells
As published in the July/August 1994 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine
If the experience of our family is any clue, the Farmall H seems to occupy a unique position in the history of tractor-powered farming. There seems to have been a great number of H’s built and sold during the Second World War. However, following the war, and especially into the 1950s, they seem to have been very quickly replaced by tractors which could handle three-bottom plows and four-row cultivators. Production figures seem to support this conclusion, indicating that production of the H fell off after 1950. Red Power March/April, Vol. 7, No. 6.
The Farmall H was introduced in 1939 and, although the tractor continued in production through 1952 and into 1953, it seems to have served as the primary tractor on a lot of farms for only the very short period of time from 1940 to 1946. After this time the H was relegated to a secondary role on the farm. The primary role was taken by three-plow tractors, like the Farmall M. As has been pointed out in prior articles, Antique Power, November/December, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 15-16, farmers in 1939 were at first reluctant to buy the Farmall M because of the reputation of the F-30. The F-30 had a reputation for bulkiness, awkwardness and being hard to handle. Because the M was thought to be the successor to the F-30, sales of the M were not all that they could have been in the early years of production. This may have inflated the sales of the H which was the successor to the very popular F-20.
At any rate, there were a great number of H’s purchased during the Second World War. Indeed a great number of these wartime H’s are still around today. The wartime H’s usually stand out because they are fitted with rear wheels which have been cut down from old steel wheels. As many readers will know, although the H was sold with rear rubber tires prior to the war (notice the reprint of a picture of the showroom of Johnson Brothers Implement in Taylorsville, Illinois, taken in 1941, which is included in the November/December 1993 issue of Red Power, Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 18), during the war the rubber shortages meant that many tractors were once again commonly manufactured with steel rear wheels.
Both sides of the author’s family owned a Farmall H during the war and continued to use the H as the primary row-crop tractor on their respective farms in the same LeRoy, Minnesota neighborhood for a short period of time following the war. As noted in prior articles, The Belt Pulley January/February 1994, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 14, the Howard Hanks family moved to the LeRoy, Minnesota area in March of 1945 to purchase a 400-acre farm in Beaver Township of Fillmore County. This farm was known in the area as the Bagan farm; however, in 1945 the farm was owned by A.E. Rehwaldt. He sold the “Bagan” farm to the Howard Hanks family. Though the farm would be legally transferred on March 1, 1945, the agreement was actually reached in the late summer of 1944. The family moved down to the farm and stayed about 10 days in August of 1944 to do some fall plowing.
Albert E. Rehwaldt also owned a 1942 Farmall H which he wanted to sell. He had purchased this tractor in 1942 under the regulations of the wartime Office of Price Administration (O.P.A.). He had paid $800.00 for the H. Under O.P.A. regulations he was prohibited from re-selling the tractor for more than the original cost of the tractor. Therefore, because the original cost of the tractor was $800.00 in 1942, he was prohibited from selling the H at more than $800.00. Even as a used tractor, the H was worth more than $800.00 in 1944.
One way for a seller to get a better price for his tractor under the regulations of the O.P.A. was to offer the tractor as part of a contract price for a farm. The price of the tractor would be submerged in the total price of the package deal for the farm.
In this way the 1942 Farmall H was purchased by the Howard Hanks family in the fall of 1944 together with the Bagan farm. It was the family’s first row-crop tractor. With the McCormick-Deering 238 cultivator that came with the H, the family would now be able to cultivate two rows at a time. The H had an electric starter, electric lights, and the Lift-All hydraulic which was common to Farmalls introduced in 1939. This 1942 H had steel wheels on the front as well as in the rear. However, in the fall of 1944, while still living on the Goff farm in Mapleton, Minnesota, the family went shopping in Mankato, Minnesota. There in Mankato the Hanks boys happened to find a couple of drop center wheels and matching rims for rubber tires for the front end of the Farmall H. These wheels and rims were purchased and installed on the 1942 H during the spring of 1945.
One of the pictures included with this article shows this 1942 Farmall H in the fall of 1945 with its new wheels and rubber tires on front. The H is hitched to the John Deere No. 7 combine. The picture shows Howard Hanks’ second son (now Reverend) Bruce Hanks preparing to attach the header to the No. 7 combine in preparation for the 1945 soybean harvest.
In 1946, both the rear wheels of the Farmall H and the wheels of the No. 7 combine were cut down and fitted with rubber tires. This was necessary because the Hanks family had used the John Deere No. 7 combine to do custom combining in their old neighborhood around the Goff farm in Mapleton in the fall of 1944. Now they looked forward to supplementing the family income with the same type of custom work in the neighborhood around the Bagan farm. The combine and H would be on the road between farms; therefore, rubber tires were a much needed improvement. The task of cutting the steel wheels down to be fitted with rims for rubber tires was performed by Joe and Earl Lamon, blacksmiths in the town of LeRoy, Minnesota.
Many of the wartime H’s were cut down and fitted with rubber tires in this manner to extend the usable life of the tractor in modern farming operations. Anyone who has driven one of these H’s will remember that the process was never perfect and usually resulted in the wheels having a slight wobble which became noticeable at high speeds. The drop center rims for rubber tires on the rear as well as the front was a preferred solution because they were perfectly round and did not wobble at high speeds; however, cutting down of steel wheels was a cheaper alternative.
Although the H had always been a five-speed tractor, when the steel-wheeled version was ordered, International Harvester installed a cap screw on the operator’s platform near the gearshift lever, which would prevent the tractor from accidentally being shifted into 5th gear. This resulted in the steel-wheeled H being a four-speed tractor with a top speed of 5-1/8 mph. C.H. Wendel Nebraska Tractor Tests, p. 122. Custom farming required that tractors and machinery be moved from farm to farm in a hurry. Transport time was wasted time. To be sure, the 5-1/8 mph speed was an improvement over the only other tractor owned by the family when they moved to the Bagan farm, a 1931 John Deere D. (This John Deere D is pictured elsewhere. Antique Power, May/June 1994, Vol. 6, No. 4, p. 22.) The two-speed 1931 D had a top speed of 3-1/4 mph, (C.H. Wendel Nebraska Tractor Tests, p. 60). Still, the H was painfully slow on the road, so it was a noteworthy day when the rubber tires were finally mounted on the back in the spring of 1946 and the cap screw on the platform could safely be removed! Suddenly the top speed of the tractor was increased by more than three times to 16-1/8 mph!
At times, the Hank’s Farmall H performed tasks which were not strictly related to farming operations. In April of 1947, Bruce Hanks was getting married and leaving the farm. It had been a wet spring and the roads were in bad shape. The wedding took place on April 2, 1947 at the Little Brown Church in Nashua, Iowa. (This is the church that inspired the hymn “Little Church in the Wild Wood” where so many weddings have been held.) After the wedding was over and the bridal party was ready to head out on the honeymoon, it was discovered that some of the luggage had been left back at the house on the Bagan farm in LeRoy. Howard Hanks headed out after the ceremony in his 1936 Plymouth. The last mile over the township road (called the “rabbit road south” so as not to be confused with the “rabbit road north!”) leading to the house from the U.S. 56 was so muddy that he did not think he would make it. However, he did pull up into the yard and did retrieve the luggage. Rather than set out again in the car he started up the 1942 H which was now outfitted with rubber tires and the fifth gear, and while driving with one hand and holding the luggage with the other, Howard brought the luggage to the corner of U.S. 56 and the rabbit road south where the bridal party awaited their luggage and the start of their honeymoon. Admittedly, this is an unusual task for a farm tractor, but the Farmall H had saved this most important day!
As the Farmall H headed back toward the farm on the afternoon of April 2, 1947, Howard Hanks must have been looking out over the fields of the farm with some foreboding. The economic difficulty caused by the general decline of farm prices following the war would, in 1947, be further intensified by the wet spring which would continue on into the summer. 1947 was beginning to look like a year of crisis for the Hanks family. Just at they had contracted to make payments on the 400 acre farm (large by comparison for the times) prices and now the weather seemed to be conspiring against their success on the new farm. The story of the year of 1947 is, however, another story for another time.
The 1942 Farmall H played the leading role on the Hanks farm for the critical year of 1947 and continued to serve in this role until 1951 when it was traded off for a new 1951 Massey-Harris 44 and a four-row cultivator. This Massey-Harris 44 is described and pictured elsewhere. The Belt Pulley, July/August 1993, Vol. 6, No. 4. The Hanks farming operation had moved to three-bottom plow and four-row capacity farming. At this level of capacity the H was outmoded.
As mentioned above, the author’s father Wayne Wells farmed in the same LeRoy neighborhood. Wayne Wells’ father George Cleveland Wells had purchased a 160-acre farm only two miles to the west of the Bagan farm in 1936. George and Louise Schwark Wells and their three sons Floyd, Donald and Wayne, and one daughter Winnefred, moved from a rented farm in Chester, Iowa in the spring of 1936. George Cleveland Wells was farming 160 acres with a 1931 Farmall Regular which had been purchased in the late fall of 1939. It had been retrofitted with rubber tires in the front to aid in steering; however, it still had steel wheels in the rear. George’s No. 2 son Donald Wells (later a fighter pilot in the Navy, now from Seattle and currently restoring a Farmall C and a McCormick grain binder) had been assigned the cold and day-long task in the late fall of 1939 of driving the Regular from the purchase site southwest of LeRoy to the Wells farm northeast of LeRoy. This was a distance of some 15 to 20 miles. Although the Regular had rubber tires on the front, the steel lug wheels on the rear meant that Donald had to take all the back roads and stay off the cement and asphalt highways. This further lengthened the trip. At the same time, the Wells family had purchased a new John Deere Model 82 two-bottom plow for use with the Regular.
In 1942, a new Farmall H had been ordered by a neighbor, Mel Anderson, under the regulations of the O.P.A. However, when it arrived he had decided not to buy the tractor. Mel then offered to let George Wells buy the H in his place. (The only picture that exists of the George Wells 1942 Farmall H is the picture at the top of this article.) Because it was known that obtaining a tractor was becoming an arduous task, even in that first year of the Second World War, George Wells knew that he had better act while the opportunity was open. Therefore, three years after purchasing the Regular the Wells family decided to trade off the 1931 Regular and the McCormick Deering Model 229 cultivator (C.H. Wendel 150 Years of Intenational Harvester, p. 101) on the purchase price of this new Farmall H while the opportunity presented itself.
The George Wells 1942 H was a very good tractor. It had lights, an electric starter, and the Lift-All hydraulic system. Furthermore it had factory-mounted drop center rims for rubber tires on the front as well as the rear. The tractor was accompanied by a two-row model 238 International Harvester cultivator. This tractor was a big improvement over the Regular in that it had the worm gear type of steering on top of the steering column. Driving the H was a much safer proposition than the Regular with its bevel gear type of steering which frequently caused the steering wheel to break loose from the operator’s grasp upon hitting a rock with the front tires. When driving the Regular, you always made sure your thumb was on the outside of the steering wheel! Also, the Regular was not the tractor for installing a steering knob on the steering wheel!
The Wells family found that the H was a good match for the newly acquired Model 82 John Deere two-bottom plow. Following George and Louise Wells’ retirement and move in the town of LeRoy, Minnesota in 1947, their third and youngest son, Wayne A. Wells, took over operation of the home farm from his parents. The 1942 Farmall Model H continued to serve as the only tractor in the Wells farming operation until 1950 when it was traded for a new Farmall M, a new three-bottom Little Genius plow (Wendel p. 229), a new six-foot McCormick-Deering Model 25 mower and a new 438 four-row cultivator. Together with a used Model 112 four-row corn planter, also purchased in 1950, the Wells family moved to four-row and three bottom capacity farming. Consequently, the day of the Farmall H had passed for both the Wells and Hanks family farming operations.
However, fond memories remain of farming with the Farmall H in the years during and immediately following the Second World War. The Wells family is currently restoring a 1944 Farmall H (Serial No. 173,093). It helps us capture some of the sights and sound of farming as conducted by both sides of our family during the period of time from 1942 until 1951 when the Farmall H was the leading row-crop tractor on both farms.
No. 173093 was purchased from Fred and Jan (Miner) Netz of Traverse Township in Nicollet County, Minnesota. Fred and Jan Netz were teachers in the Nicollet Public School system, in Nicollet, Minnesota. However they also worked a small farm in traverse Township where they raised cattle and had a large garden. They used No. 173093 on their farm to till the garden and to put up hay for the winter to feed their cattle.
The 1944 H (serial No. 173,093) purchased by the Wells family in the summer of 1993, however, differs from the 1942 H’s owned by the Wells and Hanks families in the late 1940s in that the current 1944 H has the optional disc brakes which International Harvester offered. This option is rare enough that some observers have thought that this 1944 tractor was actually a Super H. The disc brakes on the 1944 H are quite different in outward appearance than the disc brakes which were offered standard on the Super series of Farmalls. The pictures included with this article show this difference.
However, working mechanism of both the optional disc brakes offered before 1953 and the standard equipment disc brakes offered after that date operate by the same means. As the brake pedal is applied, the balls inside the actuating disc are forced up a little incline, following a path. As this occurs, the balls cause the two halves of the actuating disc to spread apart and rub against the asbestos-lined discs which are attached to the counter shaft of the transmission. This slows the tractor.
The Farmall disc brakes have had a bad reputation with farmers and tractor restorers dating from the time they first came out as standard equipment on the Super series of the Farmalls in 1953. The problems with disc brakes seem to fall into two categories. One problem seems to involve the glazing over of the surfaces of the asbestos-lined discs. Mel Duerst, who was a mechanic at the Thompson (later Phillipson) International Harvester Implement dealership in New Glarus Wisconsin in the 1950s, reports that many of the first disc brake models had problems due to operator’s riding the brakes and glazing over the asbestos surfaces. Mr. Duerst, who now lives in Sheridan, Wyoming, remembers that it became official International Harvester policy to warn operators against riding the brakes on the new Super series tractors. He feels that the disc brakes should be as effective as the old band brakes were under normal circumstances.
Charles (Dick) Smith used the new Super M’s in the early 1950s for plowing on his farms located in western Iowa near Red Oak. On one hillside portion of his land plowing created problems for the tractor operator. To keep the tractor plowing straight around the slope required the operator to ride the brake of the Super M’s until the brake housings became discolored and smoked from the excess heat. Mr. Smith dismantled the disc brakes on his Super M’s each night after this hard usage to clean up the actuator, roller balls and the paths followed by the balls when the brakes were engaged. He humorously injects that he became pretty familiar with the disc brakes during this period of time! He acknowledges that plowing on the hillside areas was abnormally rough on the braking system of his Super M’s. He also concurs that under normal conditions the disc brakes should be as effective as the older band brakes. For the restorer, the problem of glazed asbestos surfaces of the discs is solved by various methods of roughing up the surface of the asbestos pads on the discs.
The other problem common to disc brakes is that they have a tendency to lock up. This problem appears to be caused by dirt and rust building up inside the actuating discs of the brake. The dirt and rust interfere with the balls in the actuating discs rolling back to the released position when the brake pedal is released. Rust is created inside the actuating discs when the tractor is left exposed to the elements for a good portion of its life. This problem should not create difficulty for restorers, however, as most restored tractors tend to be stored inside out of the elements.
One other cause of the disc brakes locking up is that the balls inside the actuating discs will create a slight depression in the path the ball is supposed to follow when the brake pedal is released. The ball gets stuck in the depression and the brake is locked. The process of creating the depression is called brinelling and is described in an article by Lester Larson in a recent issue of Antique Power. Antique Power, January/February 1994, Vol. 6, No. 2, p. 16.
It also seems that the lack of adjustment of brakes will lead to problems with disc brakes. The Owner’s Manual for the Farmall H instructs the owner to adjust brakes so that free movement of the pedal is limited to only 1-1/2″. Farmall H Owners Manual, p. 59. As a boy growing up on the Wells farm in the 1950s, the author remembers few tractors which were adjusted to this standard. With band brakes, proper adjustment was not so crucial. If the operator kept pressing down on the pedal, sooner or later the brakes would engage. However, as noted above, the disc brakes are operated by balls following a path inside the actuating discs. If the brakes were not fully engaged by the time that the balls reached the end of the path, further pressing on the brake pedal would be meaningless. The message to restorers is that proper adjustment of brakes is much more important for disc brakes than for band brakes.
In about 2003 the Wells family agreed to let the 1944 H become a working tractor as a part of the Melounek-Deutsch Saw Mill on the grounds of the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association. As such the 1944 Farmall bearing the serial No, 173093 was fitted with a buck saw which is used for cross cutting “slab” wood (a by product of sawing logs into lumber) into useable pieces for burning in the numerous steam engines located around the grounds during the August show.
In the years since this article was originally written, No. 173093 with its “buzz” saw, or “buck saw,” mounted on the front continues to be employed by the “Sawmill gang” on the grounds of the LeSueur Pioneer Power Association to reduce the slab wood by-product of the sawmill. Indeed just prior to the 2016 August Show on the Pioneer Power grounds, the current author and Mark Wells, brother of the current author had a chance to work with the sawmill gang cutting up slab wood with No. 173093 and its buzz saw and putting the resulting fire wood into the Anthony wagon box mounted on the Ralph Nash homemade wagon gear which was another restoration project of the Wells family. (The story of the Anthony wagon is told in the article on the Anthony Company of Streator, Illinois which is also contained on this website.)
In the absence of No. 173093, the Wells family purchased another 1946 Farmall H which had been part of a fleet of tractors owned by the Campbell Soup Company of Napoleon, Ohio. This tractor bears the serial No. 219955. It is intended that this tractor will be changed to make it look like the George Wells 1942 Farmall H shown at the top of this article. Toward this end, a pair of non-adjustable front wheels were purchased in the town of Charm, Ohio in the Amish Colonies in October of 2013. Over that winter of 2013-2014, the older standard equipment seat of No. 219955 was renovated and in the summer of 2014 No. 219955 was transported to Minnesota to be stored in the new Wells family workshop located at 764 Elmwood Street in LeSueur.
During the summer of 2015 a new wiring harness, battery box and a new muffler were added to No. 219955 and the tractor began to look a lot more like the George Wells 1942 Farmall H. This is the role that this tractor this tractor is currently playing. However, the does have its own interesting history as a member of a fleet of tractors owned and operated by the Campbell Soup Company of Napoleon, Ohio. Accordingly, an additional article is being planned for the actual history of No. 219955.