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Allis Chalmers Farming (Part I): Dry-Land Farming
by Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the January/February 2007 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
Wyoming is divided between the rocky Mountains in the west and the plains of the eastern part of the state. Ever since the earliest settlers, cattle raising has been a part of the state’s eastern plains. In the 1870s and ‘80s the cattle industry in Wyoming boomed, as the number of cattle grew from 8,143 head in 1870 to a maximum of 2 million head in 1885. Two counties over which these cattle grazed in the eastern plains of Wyoming were Sheridan and Jonson Counties.
The cattle ranchers were not the only people that were attracted to the Wyoming plains. In the 1880’s the eastern plains of Wyoming began to attract settlers intent on making a living tilling the soil of the plains to raise marketable crops—especially wheat. The competition for land and water in the arid environment of the plains of eastern Wyoming, created tension between large cattle ranchers and the farmers who fenced in the open range. In 1889, this tension exploded into open warfare in what became known as the “Johnson County War.” While the cattle barons won battles in this conflict, they lost the war. Wave after wave of settlers coming into eastern Wyoming doomed the large scale cattle ranchers. Helping the setters was a new federal law passed in the United States congress in 1862—the Homestead Act.
The Homestead Act had, originally, been passed by Congress in 1862 and was signed into law by President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War on May 20, 1862. Originally, homesteaders were allowed to take up land under the Homestead Act in tracts of 160 acres. By moving onto the land, building a dwelling and staying on the land for five (5) years, a settler could “prove up” title on the 160 acre farm and become the owners of the land without spending any money purchasing the land.
The Homestead Act was a popular law. Vast areas of the Midwest were settled under the provisions of the Homestead Act. However, whereas the 160 acre allotments were the perfect size for a family attempting to build a farming operation in the rich well-watered soils of states like Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota , 160 acre allotments were simply too small to support farming on the dry lands of Wyoming. Thus in February of 1909, under the guidance of Wyoming’s own congressman Frank W. Mondell, President Taft signed the Homestead Act of 1909. This Act revised the Homestead Act of 1862 by doubling the amount of land available to an individual settler to 320 acres. In 1916, the Homestead Act was revised again to provide 640 acres available to each homesteader as a grazing allotment. This legislation was again introduced by Frank Mondell and was specifically tailored to promote settlement of the dry Wyoming plains. Homesteading had first become widespread in Wyoming in the 1890s. However, homesteading picked up in the first two decades of the new Twentieth Century and the greatest boom years for homesteading proved to be 1919, 1920 and 1921.
One of the largest groups of settlers participating in this boom was the large group of military veterans returning from the war in Europe. The idea of settling on some land and farming it for five years then becoming the sole title owner of the land without putting down any cash at all was too attractive to be missed. Among these retuning veterans from the World War were brothers Floyd Harrison Wells and George Cleveland Wells—great uncle and paternal grandfather, respectfully, of the current author.
Arriving in New York City in late 1918, both George C. and Floyd H. are pictured in a group photo of the entire Company B of the 82nd Infantry Division of the United States Army in which the boys had served. (This picture still exists in the possession of the current author’s mother.) While still in the Army, the Wells brothers had planned to homestead some land in Wyoming. Upon their return to the United States, both Floyd and George C. intended to take a train straight to Roswell, New Mexico to see their parents—George and Ella (McCarthy) Wells. Originally, the elder George Wells (father of Floyd and George C. and great-grandfather of the current author) had been farming in Butler Township in Calhoun County, in western Iowa. However he developed breathing problems and in 1904, George and Ella Wells and their entire family of six chidren (five boys and one girl) had been forced to move to the drier climate of Roswell, New Mexico.
The Wells children enrolled at in high school in Roswell High School. Walter Thomas Wells, the oldest child in the family, graduated from Roswell High School in 1906 and became a telegrapher on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, in Roswell. Sometime prior to 1914 and the start of the war in Europe, however, Walter decided to return to Iowa and start farming. Toward this end he bought a farm from John M. Longeran which was located in Section 32 of Chester Township in Howard County, Iowa. Later, before the start of the war in Europe in 1914, Walter T. rented out his farm and and moved to Musselman, Montana to took a new job as a telegrapher for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul (the Milwaukee Road) Railroad.
The second and third brothers, Floyd and George C. graduated from Roswell High School in 1909 and 1910, respectively. Soon after they each graduated Floyd and George moved to Iowa to help Walter operate the farm in Chester Township. However, when the United States entered the war in Europe in April of 1917, they joined the United States Army.
Meanwhile in Roswell, New Mexico, the fourth child of George and Ella Wells—Byron Emerson Wells—had graduated from Roswell, New Mexico in June of 1914 and had moved to Musselman, Montana to join his oldest brother, Walter T., in working for the Milwaukee Road Railroad. In the same month that George C. and Floyd returned from the war, the fifth child of George and Ella Wells and their only surviving daughter—Mabel Mae Wells—graduated from Roswell High School. (There actually had been another daughter born to George and Ella Wells who was named Myrtle V. Wells. However, she had died in 1901 at the age of three  years of age.) The sixth and last surviving child of George and Ella Wells was named Roswell McCarthy Wells and was only 13 years of age and was attending school and living at home.
Now that they were home from the First World War Floyd and George C. were anxious to get back to Roswell, New Mexico to see their parents and their sister and youngest brother. However, before going to Roswell, New Mexico, Floyd and George C. returned to Chester, Iowa (1910 pop. 266). George C. had an important reason to go to LeRoy before he headed off to New Mexico and then to Wyoming. On June 24, 1919, George C. Wells married Louise Schwark, the daughter of Carl and Ida (Scharnweber) Schwark from Oakdale Township in Iowa about a mile south and east of Le Roy, Minnesota. Floyd served as the best man for his brother at the wedding.
The day after the wedding, the wedding party of George and Louise and brother, Floyd, boarded a train of the other railroad which passed through LeRoy, Minnesota, in a north/south railroad—the Chicago,Great Western Railroad. At the end of the Great Western Railroad line in Kansas City, Missouri the Wells wedding party transferred to a train of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and rode this train all the way to Roswell. They were headed for George and Floyd’s parent’s house in Roswell, New Mexico. The family reunion was a great celebration. Everybody was there. Walter and Byron had come down to Roswell from Musselman, Montana to see their two brothers now returned from the war and to meet their new new sister-in-law, Louise. The family took advantage of the fact that everybody was present at the reunion and scheduled a picture of the whole famly to be taken by a professional photographer.
Following the family reunion at an Roswell, New Mexico, Floyd Wells, George C. and Louise Wells boarded a train of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Roswell to make the journey north to Deaver, Wyoming. Once in Deaver, each brother filed on tracts of land located in “Election District 20” in Big Horn County, near Wyoming’s border with Montana.
Before the war, both Floyd and George had been involved in farming together with their older brother, Walter Thomas Wells, as on Walter’s farm located in Section 33 of Chester Township, Howard County, Iowa. However, farming in Wyoming was not like farming in Iowa.
Without doubt the climate of Wyoming is dry. Wyoming, as a whole, receives an average of only 13.75 inches of rainfall per year. The counties along Wyoming’s eastern border with Nebraska and South Dakota received the most rainfall of the entire state—as much as 16 to 20 inches per year. This was far less than the 34.72 inches of rain that the Wells brothers might expect per year in Chester Township, Howard County, Iowa. However, in Big Horn County, located further west in Wyoming, received only about 10.1 inches of rainfall per year. Thus, the Wells brothers could not use the same farming practices that they had used on the farm in Chester Township in Howard County, Iowa before the war.
Because of the dryness of the land in Wyoming, any homesteader in Big Horn County, Wyoming, needed to either irrigate his land or he had to practice “dry land farming.” Dry land farming was based on the theory that the dry soil could be made profitable by cropping the land only once every two years. Pursuant to the theories of various “dry land farming” exponents including Frank Bond, Hardy W. Campbell, Clarence T. Johnson and Dr. V.T. Cooke, dry land farming homesteaders would collect a crop from only one-half their land in any one year. The other half of their land would “lay fallow.” In the next year, the fallow land would be cropped and the present year’s crop land would be allowed to lay fallow for a year. In this way, only half of the arable land on any dry land farming operation would be growing crops in any one year. The other half of the arable land would be laid fallow for a year.
This was the rationale for raising the basic homestead allotment from 160 acres to 320 acres in 1909. The practice of dry land farming was a means by which some extremely “marginal” land could yield a profitable crop. By growing crops on one half of the land of his ranch one year, while allowing the other half of the land to lay fallow, and then alternating the next year, it was thought that a 320-acre dry land farming operation could be as profitable as any 160-acre farming operation of Midwestern states like Illinois and/or Indiana, where land was continuously cropped each and every year.
The theory of dry land farming rested on the premise that the fallow land would store up a reserve of moisture from the fallow year to be used in the cropping year. Not only would the rainfall of the cropping year be used to grow the crop, but also the “reserve” of moisture stored in the soil would be use. Consequently, the rainfall or soil moisture of two consecutive seasons was used to grow one season’s worth of crop. Additionally, the dry land farmer would till the fallow land only to prevent weeds from growing up on the land and robbing the fallow land of the moisture they would need to raise the crop in the second year. Consequently, even though there may be less rainfall in Big Horn County, Wyoming, than in the eastern counties of Wyoming, under the practices of dry land farming a farmer or rancher in Big Horn County could save up soil moisture in the land by farming the land only one season out of two growing seasons and allowing the land to lay fallow for the second year in order to store up soil moisture in the tore rainave up .
During the six months of April through September of 1918, Wyoming had received 10.1 inches of rain. For land laying in fallow, this was a good start for the coming year. However, during the winter of 1918-1919 Wyoming had no significant amount of snowfall and thus, there was no spring snow melt. The whole of the winter’s precipitation (rain and snowfall), for the six months from October, 1918 through March of 1919, when melted down, amounted to only a 3.4 inches of rain fall. This led to a dry spring in 1919 and the dry spell continued into the summer. When Floyd Wells and George and Louise Wells got off the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad train in the town of Deaver in Big Horn County at the end of June of 1919, they found extremely dry conditions. Furthermore, weather conditions did not improve. Wyoming, as a whole, received only 10.1 inches of precipitation during the entire calendar year of 1919. As one of those counties west of the 100°meridian in Wyoming, Big Horn County received less that the average rainfall of the state as a whole during the summer of 1919.
The winter of 1919-1920 brought a great deal of snow. George and Louise even found it difficult to move around their farm yard to complete the chores because of all the snow. Thus, it was a considerable surprise to George and Louise Wells to have a knock on the door of their homestead shanty on January 9, 1920. It was 26 year-old Arthur I. Nelson, a farmer from Murphy’s Gulch over in neighboring Sheridan County. Arthur Nelson was working temporarily for the 1920 United States Census as an “enumerator” or census taker. Arthur Nelson’s report for the 1920 Census found the two Wells brothers living side by side on their respective homestead claims. Floyd H. Wells was living alone in the shanty on his farm and George and Louise were living in another little shanty on their homestead claim. Louise was pregnant the time. On April 22, 1920, she would give birth to their first child, Floyd Charles Wells.
As difficult as it was to get around their farm yard and do the chores in all the snow that winter, the large amount of snow was a blessing. The snow of the winter of 1919-1920 added 6.2 inches of moisture to the soil in the spring. With the coming of the spring of 1920, George and Floyd both set to work planting their crops. Rainfall remained about normal for the summer of 1920. Indeed, the rainfall for the entire year of 1920 approached the right amount for a normal year. Ordinarily, this normal rainfall would have been reflected in a normal yield of wheat at harvest time had there been a normal amount of moisture already in the soil. However, this was not the case. Because of the drought conditions of 1919, there remained an insufficient reserve of moisture in the soil despite the near normal rains of 1920. Accordingly, the Wells brothers obtained a yield of down only around 15 bushels of wheat per acre—below average for a normal year.
Like a jig saw puzzle, success in dry land farming was based on a series of separate parts—these parts—the rains of the particular growing season plus the rains of the previous year when the land was lying fallow, plus the spring snow melt of the spring before the fallow year and the spring snow melt before the growing season. All these pieces needed to be in place in order for the dryland farmer to have a normal yield and make a profit. The crop year, 1920, in Big Horn County is a very good example of the jigsaw concept of dryland farming. Even a light snow in one particular winter two years before the growing season could spell the difference between a good crop and a poor crop when the fallow land was cropped.
To make matters even worse for the Wells brothers, a post-war economic recession spread across the whole country in 1920. When the Wells brothers took the limited amount of wheat they had harvested to the elevator, they found falling prices for their crop. Dropping from a high of $2.94 per bushel in May of 1920, the price fell to $2.49 per bushel in September 1920, then to $2.10 in October and by December the price fell to $1.69 per bushel.
In the following year, 1921, the drought conditions returned as Wyoming received only 11.7 inches for the whole calendar year of 1921 including the snow melt from the winter of 1920-1921. Additionally, the post war recession continued into its second year with the price of wheat declining still further to $1.62 per bushel in February 1921, to $1.20 in August of 1921, to $1.08 in October 1921 and finally to $1.04 per bushel in November.
On September 21, 1921, Louise gave birth to a second son, Donald George Wells. With their family growing and there family income limited by the post-war depression, George knew that he needed to do something to get more regular income.
Despite the return of 13.1 inches of rain to Wyoming in 1922, the wheat harvest that August still reflected a diminished yield of about 19 bushels per acre—only about 64% of the yield of wheat of irrigated land. In spite of the normal amount of rainfall in 1922, the soil remained too dry to support a normal crop of wheat because of the drought conditions in that had existed the year before in 1921. Additionally, the price that the Wells brothers received was only $1.05 per bushel, less than they had received the year before. To save the family’s financial situation George sought work with the local Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad which had tracks passing north and south through Deaver, Wyoming. With their family growing and their income limited, George and Louise felt the need to move off their homestead in order to find something else to do with their lives. Then there appeared a possibility on the horizon. Back in Chester, Iowa, George’s brother, Walter Wells, had been renting out his farm in Section 33 of Chester Township until about 1916.
Where they rented a farm five miles east and a mile south of the village of LeRoy. The farm was actually just across the state line into Iowa. About ½ a mile west of Chester, Iowa.
George and Louise Wells continued to rent this farm until 1936 when they purchased a 160 acre farm about 3 miles to the north and west back across the state line in LeRoy Township, Minnesota. Floyd H. Wells was to remain in Wyoming. However, he married Bernice Palmer and moved to a new farm nearer a source of water that allowed him cease dry land farming and eventually irrigated his entire land with trenches and then was able to raise row crops—great northern beans—on a yearly basis over his whole farm without laying half the farm aside to collect moisture. To make a living at agriculture in the dry land of Wyoming, a homesteader needed financial reserves built up during the “good” years to carry the dry land farming operation through the drought years. A dry land farming operation required a lot of work and sometimes required a good deal of luck to survive.
One particular rancher on a homesteaded ranch in Sheridan County, in 1925, had some reserves—they were not all of his own making. His father had filed a homestead claim on this 320 acre ranch some 15 years before, in 1910. Originally from Utah, his father had herded sheep, bringing his flock of sheep into Wyoming each summer to graze on the open range in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. (The story of his father obtaining his own flock of sheep is contained in the article called “Sheep Raising in Wyoming” in the November/December 2006 Belt Pulley magazine and the article is published on this blog as the article that precedes this article.) Over the years of grazing his sheep in Wyoming, his father had fallen in love with the beautiful land of Wyoming. Consequently, in 1910, he sold his flock and moved to this farm. There had been nothing on the land when his father had moved on the land in 1910. That first summer the family had had to build their own house and barn. Actually they built the barn first and then lived in the barn with the animals before they built the house. His parents had labored hard to “prove up” title within the five years required by the Homestead Law.
As a way of earning extra income from their farming operation, his father had joined together with another neighbor to purchase a used Nichols and Shepard wood frame thresher, with a 24 inch cylinder and 47 inch separating tables, and a Nichols and Shepard traction steam engine. Although designated as an “8 horsepower (hp.) steam engine,” this steam engine actually delivered 25 hp. to the belt pulley. The 8 hp. designation referred to the drawbar horsepower of the traction steam engine. The previous owner of the thresher and the 8 hp. traction steam engine was from this very neighborhood. He was selling the thresher and steam engine, because he was retiring from farming. All the neighbors around the neighborhood were concerned that the only neighborhood thresher was now being sold. However, nobody in the neighborhood had the adequate finances to buy the thresher and steam engine except our Sheridan
county rancher’s father. Consequently, his father and one neighbor had almost been forced into the partnership and into buying the thresher and steam engine in order to rescue the neighborhood. His father spent the money that he had obtained by selling his flock on his share of the thresher and steam engine. Additionally, that same year, his father had also built a shed on his farm to house the thresher and the steam engine during the winter months.
His parents had worked very hard. However, our Sheridan County rancher knew that his parents had also experienced a certain amount of luck in their farming operation. His father had sold his flock just as sheep raising had become un-profitable in 1910 due to the fall of the price of wool. Many shepherds were starting to sell off or reducing the size of their herds in 1910. In 1909, the population of sheep in Wyoming had reached its peak with 6,091,000 sheep grazing in the state. The next year, in 1910 the sheep population in Wyoming was down substantially—to only 5,397,000 sheep grazing in the state. By 1914 there were only 3,827,000 sheep in the state. The wool market was very closely tied to the rise and fall of the tariff on foreign wool imports. The tariff was the most partisan issue in the history of the United States. Ever since the 1840s, the tariff was always raised when the Republicans were in control of Congress and the Presidency and lowered when the Democrats were in control the government. Even prior to the election of 1910, the sheep industry began to fear that the Republican control of the government was nearing an end and with it the high protective tariff on wool. Anticipating this change in the government, the price of wool began to decline in February of 1910. Even before the tariff was reformed, sheep herders had begun selling or reducing the size of the flocks. As expected, the Republican party lost control of the House of Representatives in the election of 1910 and lost the Presidency in 1912. The Gorman Tariff of 1913 virtually removed the tariff on wool in its entirety. After that, the wool market was never the same. The profits obtained in wool had disappeared with the removal of the tariff on foreign wool.
Our Sheridan County rancher also knew that his father had also been fortunate in filing for his homestead in 1910. Wheat was the main crop of Sheridan County. Even as early as 1907, three years before his father had filed a homestead on this farm, the price of wheat had risen above its usual range from 60 cents a bushel to 75 cents a bushel. Starting in 1907 the new range for wheat prices was from 90 cents to a $1.00 per bushel. The wheat market was expressing anxiety over the war in Europe that appeared to be coming. War seemed imminent with each newspaper report of some new Balkan crisis. Once the war actually broke out in August of 1914, our Sheridan County farmer’s father found the price of the spring wheat he was raising each year was fetching prices that ranged from $1.00 to $1.25 per bushel. Upon United States involvment in the war in April of 1917, the price shot up to $2.38 per bushel for the month. All through the war and in the period immediately following the war, wheat had ranged from $2.20 to $2.50 per bushel. Additionally, in the years between 1904 through 1918, Wyoming was blessed by an abundance of rain—an average of 14.74 inches per year—12.5% more rain each year than usual.
As noted above, the end of the war saw a severe drought attacked Wyoming. Additionally there was a nationwide economic recession that set in end of the recent world war in November of 1918 had brought a contraction of business activity. Across the nation government contracts for military goods were cancelled and businesses struggled to get back on a peacetime footing. The economic hard times eventually caught up the farmers too, with a huge decline in farm prices
Our Sheridan County rancher’s parents had suffered through these years just as the Wells brothers had. But with the income from threshing in the summer and with the prudent management and saving in the good years, his parents had built up reserves to survive the dry year of 1919 and the recession years of 1920-1923. Without such reserves many of the recent homesteaders had been force into bankruptcy. His father had remarked, “Their operations folded up and died just like spring flowers under the summer sun.”
In 1923, our Sheridan County rancher had officially taken over operation of the ranch from his parents. In actual fact, however, he had been gradually assuming more of the decision making on the ranch in the years since the war. Indeed, the relationship between his father and him had not changed much in its basics since over the last two years since 1923. He and his father still talked often about the ranch and many of the decisions made about the ranch operations were actually consensus decisions.
As noted above the practice of dry land farming depended on land being cropped every other year and laying fallow during the year between cropping years. While laying fallow, the land would store up moisture in order to grow a normal crop during the cropping year. Of course, to prevent the moisture from being leeched away during the fallow year, the fallow land had to be tilled to prevent weeds or other plant life from using up all the moisture that was being stored for the cropping year ahead. Like his neighbors, our Sheridan County rancher knew that the best practice for preparing fallow land was use a moldboard plow to turn the wheat stubble over entirely. In this way, all the weeds and other green plant life that had started growing up through the stubble would not only be killed but they would be buried underground to become a source of nitrogen for the crops the following year.
Usually, every spring, after he finished planting all the spring wheat in the tilled land, he would begin the process of plowing last year’s wheat stubble with the single bottom silky plow. However, working with the horses on the sulky one-bottom plow was a slow tedious process under the scorching sun. Furthermore, the health of the horses was endangered by doing this heavy field work with the horses during the hottest part of the year. Most of the time our Sheridan County farmer had to content himself with completing only part of the fallow ground plowed with a moldboard plow. The rest of the field would have to be worked up with a field cultivator which cover the ground quicker than the sulky plow. The field cultivator killed the weeds, all right, but it left the weeds on top of the ground where then merely dried up and withered away. There was very little incorporation of the “green manure”—the weeds—into the soil. There never seemed to be enough time to complete all the work that needed to be done on the farm during the busy summer season.
This was a problem that continued to bother our Sheridan County farmer as he looked out the window of his frame house over the fields covered with snow in the winter of 1924-1925. Rather than using horses to moldboard plow the fallow ground, he had thought of using mechanical power. Just last summer, our Sheridan County rancher had really been introduced to the improvements that could be wrought by mechanical power, when he had an opportunity to operate a 1920 Model E which was owned by a neighbor. He had used the tractor and a three (3) bottom plow, to till some fallow land on his farm. Being one of the pre-1922 Model E tractors, this particular tractor was fitted with three fuel tanks. A 7½ gallon tank for gasoline was located just ahead of the operator’s platform. The tractor was started on gasoline. Then, when the temperature of the engine coolant reached about 170º F, the operator could reach ahead with his left hand and pull the fuel control lever to close the gasoline fuel line and open the kerosene fuel line leading to the Kingston Model L carburetor on right side of the tractor engine. Kerosene for the normal operation of the tractor would then come from the 25 gallon tank located just ahead of the gasoline tank. The third 7½ gallon tank which was located ahead of the kerosene tank just behind the engine was designed to hold water. This water tank was also connected to the fuel line. A small valve, located on the pipe leading from the water tank to the main fuel line, had a control that extended back from the water tank, under all three tanks and protruded into the operator’s control area. A slight twist of the water valve control would allow a slight amount of water to seep into the kerosene flowing toward the carburetor.
Engineers at Allis Chalmers had discovered that when an engine was operating on kerosene or diesel fuel, a slight injection of water would provide a temporary boost in power for the tractor. The early Model E tractors made from 1918-1922 incorporated this water injection system into the tractor’s fuel system. The boost provided by water was only a temporary boost. The valve was to be turned on only slightly by the operator when the tractor began to bog down in heavy going.
Our Sheridan County rancher had even used this water injection system while plowing the fallow ground with his neighbor’s Model E. He would occasionally hit a spot of hard plowing which started to make the tractor lug harder than usual. At this point, our Sheridan County rancher reach forward to turn the water value on ever so slightly. The temporary boost in power provided by the water injection system would carry the tractor and plow through the hard spot. He learned from that experience, however, that each Model E had its own peculiarities as to how it would react to the water injection feature. Only a very little water leaked into the fuel line was sufficient. He needed to quickly turn the valve off again as soon as the tractor emerged from the hard spot. Too much water all at once or allowing too much water to seep into the fuel line by leaving the valve on too long, would cause the tractor to cease running altogether.
This experience of working with his neighbor’s old Model E and the three bottom plow had been an epiphany for our Sheridan County rancher. Plowing of the fallow ground was always conducted during the busiest time of the year summer. Just when the hay was ready to be cut and gathered and saved for the winter, plowing of the stubble ground on the fallow ground surely seemed like a was was a time consuming task which took weeks of steady grinding work to accomplish in May and June each year. Progress in the field was measured in terms of 14 inches with each crossing of the field when using the single moldboard sulky plow behind horses. Most times, the hay crop was usually ready to harvest long before the fallow ground had been altogether plowed. However, using the Model E with the three-bottom plow took days off the time required to plow the fallow land. It was simply a matter of measuring your progress 42 inches at a time plowing with three bottoms as opposed to a single bottom with the silky plow. It was also the added difference in using mechanical power rather than horses. Using the tractor, meant that he did not have to pause at the end of the field after each journey across the field to allow the horses to rest before starting out again.
Using his neighbors’ Model E, had made a believer of our Sheridan Township rancher. It certainly was fun to look back at the field at the end of a round and see all the progress that had been made. Not only could a tractor save time in plowing the stubble ground each year, but our Sheridan County rancher also anticipated that the Model E could be employed on the belt to power the Nichols and Shepard thresher when he and his neighbor threshed the wheat in their neighborhood.
Besides the farming operation itself, our Sheridan County farmer also had taken his father’s place in the neighborhood threshing partnership. During the war, his father and the neighbor had upgraded their threshing operation by retiring their old thresher and investing in the purchase of a new Nichols and Shepard “Red River Special” thresher from their local farm machinery outlet—Diefender and Dunwiddie Hardware, located at 45 through 51 North Main Street in Sheridan. The new thresher had been an improvement over the old thresher. With its 28 inch cylinder and 40 inch separating tables, the new Red River Special was larger than its predecessor. Furthermore it was fitted with the modern “Farmer’s Friend Wind Stacker” blower-style straw stacker made by the Indiana Manufacturing Company. Since about 1914, Nichols and Shepard had been under contract with Indiana Manufacturing to buy enough Wind Stackers to fit nearly all of the Red River Special threshers made by Nichols and Shepard.
The new thresher was a good improvement for the partnership, but they were still using the old steam engine for powering and transporting the thresher across the prairie to the various neighbors’ homesteads. However, the old steam engine was beginning to show its age and shortcomings when compared to tractors powered by internal combustion engines. First, the horsepower output of the old steam engine was less that what was needed to efficiently operate the new thresher. The new thresher required 35 horsepower on the belt to operate efficiently, the old steam engine delivered only 25 hp. to the belt. Thus, the entire time they had been working with the new thresher it had not been able to operate at full capacity. The persons feeding the thresher had to take care not to over-load the threshers by placing too many bundles on the self-feeder at any one time.
Secondly, steam engines had always presented a fire hazard especially while operating the thresher. Every partially burned ash that came spewing out of the smoke stack contained the potential for a disastrous fire. If ever a burning piece of ash were to start the straw stack on fire, the thresher would soon be engulfed. Thirdly, steam engines were costly to maintain. The tubes and fire box hood needed to be inspected each year in the off-season. This particular old steam engine seemed always in need of repair.
Furthermore, the supposed “benefits” of the steam engine using natural products such as wood, was greatly offset by the fact that on the prairie land of Sheridan County, wood was not an abundant item. To be sure the steam engine could burn straw, during the threshing season. A natural by product of the threshing process, straw was cheap. However, this did not eliminate the need to have sufficient supply of either wood or coal on hand when the straw was unavailable; for example, while the steam engine was transporting the thresher from homestead to homestead. Thus their was a need to either find wood on the prairie or purchase coal to fire the steam engine during these times. Thus, in actual fact, there was little difference between steam power and internal combustion engine power in regard to fuel expense. Additionally, there was the problem of the having to carrying water to the steam engine while it was operating. In operation, the steam engine used a great deal of water which, in dry land Wyoming, was not all that easy to obtain. Thus, the purchase of a tractor appealed to our Sheridan County
rancher as a sourced of belt power for the thresher as well as a source of power in the fields.
Nichols and Shepard was the brand name to which he related to most closely, because of their good experiences with the old thresher and now the new “Red River Special” thresher. Consequently, when the idea of obtaining a new internal combustion engine tractor first occurred to him, our Sheridan County rancher thought first of Nichols and Shepard internal combustion tractors. The Nichols and Shepard Company had been manufacturing internal combustion engine tractors since 1911. There were three models of tractor available, the huge Model 35-70 (meaning the tractors delivered 35 horsepower [hp.] to the drawbar and 70 hp. to the belt pulley); the Model 25-50 and the Model 20-42. These tractors were powered by huge two-cylinder engines. Indeed everything about these tractors was huge. Each cylinder on the Model 35-70 had a 10½ inch bore and a 14 inch stroke. All three models weighed considerably in excess of 10,000 pounds. They were really just steam traction engines with an internal-combustion engine replacing the boiler for power. Like steam traction engines, these huge behemoths were designed for the task of standing in one place and delivering belt power rather than performing any kind of field work. For this single task, however, the farmer paid a high initial price—almost $3,000.00 dollars for “intermediate” sized Model 35-50 Nichols and Shepard internal combustion tractor.
The current Nichols and Sheppard thresher had been purchased from at Diefender and Dinwiddie Hardware in the city of Sheridan, the county seat of Sheridan County. Thus, it was natural for our Sheridan County rancher to talk with Alfred Diefender about tractors when he was in Sheridan. On one of these trips to Sheridan in the winter of 1924-1925, Alfred informed him that Nichols and Shepard had entered into an agreement with the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company that, starting in 1925, all local Nichols and Shepard dealers would now be offering Allis-Chalmers tractors for sale in addition to all the regular Nichols and Shepard line of equipment. This meant that the famous Allis-Chalmers Model E (18-30) would now be available from his local dealer.
When the Model 18-30 had, originally, been tested at the University of Nebraska tractor test site in Lincoln, Nebraska from August 23 through September 6, 1920, the tractor was found to actually deliver 20.19 hp. to the drawbar and 30.58 hp. to the belt. However, when the Model E (18-30) was tested again a year later from September 15 through September 24, 1921, a few minor improvements had been made in the tractor. First and most importantly, the tractor was tested on gasoline rather than kerosene. The speed of the engine was also increased from 830 revolutions per minute [rpm] to 930 rpm. The result was that the tractor now yielded 23.62 hp. at the drawbar and 38.62 hp. at the belt. Indeed, with some further adjustments at the test site, the tractor’s maximum horsepower was boosted to 43.73 hp.! Following this test the tractor was re-named the Model E (20-35) and throughout 1922 and 1923, the Allis-Chalmers Company advertised the Model E aggressively. Despite the advertising, however, the post-war depression caused a decline in sales of the Model E. After selling 853 Model E tractors in 1920, the Company sold only 145 Model E’s in 1921 and production of the Model E was suspended all together in 1922. In 1923, production of the Model E was resumed and 235 Model E’s were sold that year. Last year, in 1924, the Company had sold 357 Model E’s.
Thus, when our Sheridan County rancher actually went in town, in early 1925, to see Alfred Diefender at Diefender and Dinwiddie Hardware, he was already favorably disposed to the large dark green Allis-Chalmers tractor. Alfred told him that, just last fall, in August of 1924, Allis-Chalmers reintroduced the Model E for the coming year as the Model E (20-35) “Special.” This new 7,095 pound Model E retained the same two-speed transmission with 2½ miles per hour (m.p.h.) first gear and a 3¼ m.p.h. second gear. The new Model E also retained the same four cylinder tractor engine with a 4¾ inch bore and a 6 ½ inch stroke, with an Eisemann Model G-4 magneto. However, Alfred told him, the compression in the cylinders had been increased by some 10-15 pounds per square inch (psi.) to 74-78 psi. This small improvement boosted the belt pulley horsepower output of the Model E to more than 45 hp. The water injection system had been done away with on this new version of the Model E, however. The tractor was now just a straight kerosene burning tractor which used gasoline to get the engine started. There was only a single large fuel tank mounted ahead of the operator. This tank held the kerosene. The small gasoline tank was mounted on the right fender.
The suggested retail price for the Model E was $1,885.00. However, Alfred Diefender offered a contract price for the Model E that was much better that the suggested retail price. So it was that our Sheridan County rancher signed a sales contract with Alfred Diefender for the purchase of a new Model E (20-35) Allis-Chalmers tractor. Because the Allis-Chalmers Company did not manufacture their own plows, the company made arrangements with the La Crosse Plow Company to market LaCrosse plows together Allis Chalmers tractors. Thus, the sales contract signed by our Sheridan County rancher and Diefender and Dinwiddie Hardware also included the purchase of a three-bottom La Crosse tractor plow.
Consequently, the big dark green tractor was brought into Sheridan by one of the Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad trains that passed through Sheridan early in the spring of 1925. The tractor was off-loaded at the large warehouse owned and operated by Diefender and Dinwidindie Hardware. This warehouse had been built in 1904 by Diefender and Dinwiddie Hardware specifically for the farm machinery side of their business. Inside the warehouse, the Model E tractor was “prepped” for delivery and finally delivered to the farm of our Sheridan County farmer. Delivery of the La Crosse three-bottom plow was taken by Diefender and Dinwiddie Hardware a few weeks later.
Spring in Wyoming in 1925 arrived in April with fairly normal rainfall—1.5 inches for the entire month. Because of the heavy rain in October of 1924 (2.05 inches), the average snowfall in November (amounting to 0.75 of an inch of rain fall when melted down) and the above-average snowfall of December of 1924 ( amounting to 0.85 of rainfall), the total soil moisture was above average and prospects for the coming growing season of 1925 looked promising. Our Sheridan County rancher was able to use the Model E to work the ground of the plowed ground of the fields that had laid fallow all last year with two field cultivators. Both of these field cultivators were small horse-drawn cultivators. However, he was able to use an “evener” hitch arrangement which allowed him to pull both cultivators at the same time. Once the fallow ground had been turned into seed bed, it was time to sow the ground to wheat and oats. For this light duty job of pulling the grain drill our Sheridan County rancher, used the horses.
By early May the wheat and oat sprouts were starting to peak up above ground, aided by the 1.8 inches that fell on Wyoming during the month of May. This was a normal amount of rainfall for May. In order to save the moisture in the soil for the next year, our Sheridan County rancher knew that he needed to get the wheat and oat stubble ground turned into fallow ground. Green plants and grass were becoming visible in the stubble ground. These plants were stealing away the moisture in the soil every day they were allowed to grow. He needed to work the stubble ground to kill the green plant life. He was looking forward to using his own new tractor and plow to turn the entire stubble ground in short order. He would be able to assure that all the green plant life would be incorporated into the soil this year. With his new three bottom plow he knew this process would not take nearly as long to accomplish as it had in the past with horses and the single bottom sculky plow.
Thus, one morning in late May, our Sheridan County rancher walked out to the shed where the Model E was parked. He hoped to get an early morning start on the plowing of the last year’s wheat and oat ground. He checked both the main kerosene tank and the small gasoline tank on the fender to make sure he had fuel enough for the day’s work ahead. Then he turned off the fuel line leading to the carburetor from the kerosene tank and turned on the line leading from the small gasoline tank on the fender. When he was sure that all the kerosene was drained from the carburetor and nothing but gasoline filled the bowl of the carburetor, our Sheridan County rancher applied the choke to the carburetor and moved to the front of the tractor to engage the starting crank at the bottom of its range of its arc of motion. He then grabbed the crank handle and made sure that his thumb was located on the same side of the crank handle as the rest of his fingers. Although it was summer and the tractor was less likely to back fire, he did not want to take any chances on injuring his thumb if the engine did accidentally back fire. Out of the same fear of a back fire, our Sheridan County rancher only pulled up on the crank one-half a turn at a time while trying to start the tractor. He did not push down or try to make the complete 360º turn of the crank while starting the tractor. He knew that a broken wrist could result from such a practice if the engine backfired.
Today, our Sheridan County Rancher needed only to “pull up” once on the crank, completing 180º of the arc of the crank before the engine fired. The engine fired but did not start. At this point, he opened or disengaged the choke, and situated the crank at the bottom of the arc again and pushed in on the crank to again fit the claw of the crank into the receptacle on the pulley at the front of the crankshaft. Then he pulled up on the crank again to give the engine crankshaft another 180º clockwise turn. With this second attempt the engine sputtered to life. This was the “two ups and a start” that every tractor owner wanted to brag about.
He then hitched the tractor to the three-bottom plow and headed to the field. Pulling the tractor up to the end of the field where he wanted to start his first plowing land” he reached around pulled the trip rope and tripped the plow bottoms. Simultaneously the bottoms plunged into the ground and began to roll the ground over. He had begun making his first trip across the field about one-third of the way across the width of the field. While the back two bottoms of the plow rolled the soil into a furrow created by the plow bottom immediate ahead, the front bottom had no ready made furrow to roll soil into. Thus, the first bottom rolled soil up onto the top of the ground next to the furrow that bottom was creating. Upon reaching the other end of the field, our Sheridan County rancher reached around and pulled the trip rope again and the clutch on the right side wheel of the plow engaged to pull all three bottoms up out of the ground. He then turned the big Model E around to line the first bottom up with the soil that had been rolled up on top of the ground in the first crossing of the field. He would now pull the plow back across the field such that the first bottom would roll the soil over onto the overturned soil that already was lying on top of the ground from the previous trip across the field. As he did so, the plow tended to create a mound of dirtthat stretched across the length of the field. This mound of dirt is called a “dead furrow.” This dead furrow designated the center of the plow land as our Sheridan County farmer kept moving out from the dead furrow with each complete round he made with the plow—up along one side of the dead furrow and back only the other side of the dead furrow. Each time he crossed the field he rolled over 42 inches more of stubble ground. Each complete round added 84 more inches of the width of the field plowed.
As the plowed land became wider and wider, the “turn-arounds” by the tractor and plow became longer and longer. To keep from wasting too much time on these turn arounds, our Sheridan County rancher had purposely started making his dead furrow about one fourth of the way across the width of the field. When the plowed land reached all the way to the edge of the field on that side, then he would begin another dead furrow on the other side of the field about a quarter of the width of the field from the other edge. As he completed the field the two plowed areas of the field should meet about in the center the field. Where the two plowed areas of the field met, there would be another “dead furrow.” However, instead of being a composed of a mound of soil rolled together from both sides, this dead furrow was the opposite. This dead furrow was a small trench with the soil rolled away in both directions. All dead furrows are undesireable. However, they were an unavoidable imperfection which result from the mold board plowing process. These dead furrows would have to be worked out when the field was tilled the following year when our Sheridan County rancher returned to the field to prepare the ground for seed.
The Model E moved along in first gear at 2½ mph., our Sheridan County rancher was again amazed at the speed with which he was able to dispatch the fallow ground plowing. Plowing that might have taken weeks to complete with the horses and the sulky plow could now be completed in a matter of days. This year, he was able to complete the fallow ground plowing well before the wheat started to ripen. Once he did get the plow put away at the end of the plowing. He was able to get the grain binder out and greased up and ready to enter the fields. This was another lighter duty job for which he used the horses.
He had, of course been watching the price of wheat. The price of wheat had finally risen to $1.23 per bushel as a monthly average in July of last year (1924). Over the winter the price had risen to a high of $1.85 as a monthly average for January of 1925. Wheat growers had not seen prices this high since October of 1920. Although prices had cycled downwards in a predictable way during the spring and summer, the price for the month of June, 1925 was $1.57 per bushel. It did look as though the post-war recession was finally over.
The annual threshing of the small grains in the neighborhood began in late July. Our Sheridan County rancher used his new Model E, to pull the large thresher from place to place around the neighborhood. With the Model E on the belt, the large 28” x 40” was finally powered up to the recommended 35 hp. and then some. With 45 hp. delivered to the belt, the Model E had power to spare to run the thresher. Most times the thresher was fed from two wagons of bundles parked on either side of the self feeder. In years past years, he used to watch carefully to make sure that the men working on top the two bundle wagons did not pitch to many bundles onto the self-feeder at any one time. The thresher would become over-loaded, the speed of the thresher would slow down because the steam engine had no reserve of power. Then the straw would clog up on the separating tables located behind the cylinder in the thresher rather than passing all the way through the thresher to the straw blower in the rear. Then the whole threshing operation would have to be stopped while the clogged straw was pulled from the thresher by hand. Clogging of the thresher usually happened when the workers up on top of the two wagons happened to be boys who were relatively inexperienced in working on a threshing crew. With the Model E on the belt, however, the big four cylinder engine would lug under a heavy load, but would keep the belt turning at a high enough speed to keep the straw moving toward the blower at the rear of the thresher.
While operating the thresher on the various ranches of the neighborhood, our Sheridan County rancher found that the Model E was easier to operate that the steam engine and did not need the constant care and attention that the steam engine needed while operating on the belt. At the end of the season, despite having to purchase kerosene and a small amount of gasoline to fill the small starting tank located on the fender, our Sheridan County rancher found that the Model E had actually cost less in operating expense when one figured in things like employing a boy or young man with a team of horses merely for the task of hauling water all day from a nearby stream or cow watering tank, just to keep the steam engine from running out of water.
With all the wheat coming onto the market in July the price of wheat sagged somewhat to $1.51 a bushel as a monthly average. However, nationwide the demand for wheat was still robust and in August the price rose to $1.63 as a monthly average. Thus, by the time that our Sheridan County rancher got around to threshing his own wheat in August, he was able to sell the wheat and receive a decent price immediately without having to store the wheat and wait for the price to rise. He used the cash received from the wheat to pay off some of his machinery debt at Diefender and Dinwiddie Hardware. It had been a successful year. Like many dry land farmers of the Great Plains of North America, our Sheridan County rancher found that by getting the whole of his fallow land plowed in a timely manner, the Model E tractor had placed him in advantageous position for the following year. Not only was the moisture captured in the oil for the next year, but the plant life that had started to grow on the land was now decomposing under the soil and releasing nitrogen that would help the wheat crop that was to be planted on the fallow ground in the coming year.
Dry land farming on the Great Plains of North America was just one of the applications for which the big horsepower of the Allis-Chalmers Model E tractor was used. The Model E is just one of the many different models Allis Chalmers farm tractors and farm equipment that will be celebrated when the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association will host the Allis-Chalmers Collectors Club at its annual show held on August 24-26, 2007 in rural LeCenter, Minnesota. We hope to see you there