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Potato Farming in No. Dakota: The 1937 F-20
Brian Wayne Wells
(As published in the July/August 2008 issue of
Belt Pulley Magazine)
It began like so many other purchases of antique farm machinery. The late Wayne A. Wells purchased a Farmall Model F-20 at the 1992 LeSueur County Pioneer Power Swap Meet. Wayne paid for the tractor by means of a check. Wayne had the habit of making virtually all purchase transactions by means of a check—a habit that has been inherited and is carried on to further extremes by his son, the current author. Future events would prove how extremely fortunate it was that the purchase was made by means of a check.
This particular F-20 was missing its serial number tag. However, the serial number imprinted on the frame of the tractor was 71355. The tractor was fitted with two 6.00 X 16 inch car tires mounted on IHC cast iron drop-center, or demountable, rims in the front. One of the first improvements to the tractor was to replace these old car tires with two new 5.50 X 16 inch tri-rib tires. No. 71355 was also fitted with 13 X 36” rubber tires mounted on IHC cast-iron demountable rims in the rear. The rear tires were in extremely bad shape and in April of 1993 they too were replaced with brand new tires.
No. 71355 was only the second tractor to be restored by Wayne Wells, (the first tractor to be restored was the 1945 Farmall B bearing the serial number 130161, which is mentioned in the article called “Farmall B: Second Tractor on the Farm, but First in the Heart” contained in the November/December 1993 issue of Belt Pulley), both Wayne and his two sons, Mark and the current author, were anxious to parade the tractor at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Show to be held on the last weekend in August 1992. Accordingly, No. 71355 was painted prior to any overhaul of the engine being performed. (Indeed, a very “smoky” but painted, No. 71355 can be seen being driven by Mark Wells in the parade at the 1992 LeSueur Show in the second hour portion of Disc/Tape No. 1 of the International Harvester Promotional Movie collection.
The current author can be seen in the same movie driving the same 1945 Farmall B mentioned above, just ahead of No. 71355 in the parade.) The badly needed engine overhaul of No. 71355 was conducted in large part over Christmas of 1992. (Some of this work performed on No. 71355 over that Christmas was filmed and can be seen on the second hour portion of Disc/Tape No. 2 of the International Harvester Promotional Movies.) In April of 1993, No. 71355 was pulled and started for the first time following the engine overhaul. (This procedure of pulling No. 71355 with the 1945 Farmall B in April of 1993 can be seen on the second hour portion of Disc/Tape #5 of the International Harvester Promotional movie collection.)
As the restoration of No. 71355 proceeded, history of the tractor was examined. Nothing of the actual history of No. 71355 was known. Consequently, the history of the tractor was a topic of speculation. Ordinarily a telephone call to the seller of the tractor would have been the starting point for the research into the history of the tractor. However, time had passed since the purchase of No. 71355 in April of 1992 and the canceled check bearing the name of the seller of No. 71355 was placed away in storage with the financial papers of the Wells family. With the check used for payment on the tractor not readily at hand, the seller’s name was not available and not even a beginning could be made as to researching the actual history of the tractor. Only the features of the tractor itself could be used as clues as to the tractor’s past. Luckily, the particular and unique features of No. 71355, reveal a good deal about the tractor.
First and foremost was the “tricycle type” design of No. 71355. The tricycle design positioned the front wheels of the tractor close together. This configuration allowed the tractor to work in crops which were planted in rows as narrow 30 inches apart. As a tricycle “row crop” tractor, both front wheels of the tractor were attached to a single bolster. Thus, both front wheels shared a single pivot point. This type of steering is called “fifth wheel” type of steering and is different than the “automotive type” steering found in “standard” or “four-wheel” designed tractors in which each wheel has its own pivot point located at the “journal” for that particular wheel. The fifth wheel type of steering allowed the tricycle designed tractor to turn much more sharply than the automotive type steering. Thus, the tricycle design and the ability to turn very sharp corners made No. 71355 ideally suited for row crop farm work.
A second feature of No. 71355 that provided a clue as to its history was the optional high-speed road gear that had been installed in the standard transmission of No. 71355. Standard equipment on the Farmall Model F-20 was a four-speed transmission with speeds of 2⅜ miles per hour (mph) in first gear, 2¾ mph in second gear, 3¼ mph in the standard third gear and 3¾ in fourth gear. (See the tractor specifications of the F-20 in the IHC Data Book #1: 1900 to 1940 by Alan C. King at page 24.) However, in the transmission of No. 71355, the standard equipment 3¼ mph third gear had been replaced by the optional 28-tooth gear which resulted in a speed of 7.07 mph. (See the 28-tooth “high speed” sliding gear listed as part No. 20700D on page 124 of the F-20 Parts Catalog—TC-13-A.)
Consequently, this optional “3rd gear” became the “new road gear” and really was the new “4th gear.” This was a factory installed option on No. 71355, as evidenced by the fact that the numbers embossed on the base at the shifter lever of the tractor, which reflected the shifting pattern for the gear shift lever, actually had the “3” and the “4” reversed to accurately portray the new gear shift pattern given the installation of this new optional road gear. (Oscar H. Will and Todd Markle, Collector’s Originality Guide: Farmall Regular and F-Series [Voyaguer Press: St. Paul, Minnesota, 2007] p. 68.)
Installation of this optional road gear was made available only on those F-20s which were fitted with rubber tires. (Ibid. p. 72.) Accordingly, it was determined that No. 71355, rolled off the assembly line at the Farmall Works in Rock Island, Illinois, fitted with factory-installed rubber tires. However, when No. 71355 was manufactured in the second week of December, 1936, the tractor could not have been fitted with the same 36 inch cast-iron wheels with demountable rims that are now mounted on the rear of tractor. Only in March of 1937, (beginning with the particular F-20 with the serial number 79522) did F-20 tractors begin to be fitted with these International Harvester-made cast-iron demountable rear wheels and rims for rubber tires. (See the F-20 Parts Book page 207.) Prior to March of 1937, IHC relied on an outsource contract, they had signed with the French and Hecht Company of Davenport, Iowa, to supply all the rear wheels for all their rubber-tired tractors.
Likewise, the IHC cast-iron demountable drop-center rims, currently, mounted on the front wheels of No. 71355, could not have been mounted on the tractor when the tractor was first built and sold. IHC began using their own demountable drop center rims for rubber tires on the front wheels only in January of 1938 beginning with the particular F-20 tractors bearing the serial number 109127. (See page 175 of the F-20 parts book.)
Prior to that time, IHC again relied on its contract with the French and Hecht Company to supply round-spoke rims for all F-20 tractors fitted with 5.50 X 16” rubber tires in the front. (A French and Hecht round-spoke rim is pictured on page 174 of the F-20 parts book.) Accordingly, when No. 71355 rolled out of the Farmall Works in Rock Island, Illinois, the tractor did so with rubber tires mounted on French and Hecht round-spoke wheel rims on the front as well as the rear.
Some time after No. 71355 was initially purchased, the tractor was fitted with an auxiliary transmission manufactured by the Heisler Manufacturing Company of Hudson, Iowa. This auxiliary transmission was located on the power train of the tractor in the open space between the clutch housing on the engine and the standard transmission. The Heisler auxiliary transmission provided a high range to all the standard speeds of the transmission—in fact doubling the number of speeds available to the tractor.
The Heisler Manufacturing Company made three different models of auxiliary transmissions for the Farmall F-20. Model number HT-2033 auxiliary transmission would increase the speed of the F-20 tractor by a factor of 2.32 to 1 because of the gear ratio of the auxiliary transmission. Heisler model number HT-2034 featured a gear ratio of 2.1 to 1 and Heisler model number HT-2035 featured a gear ratio of 1.99 to 1. The reason for the Heisler Company offering the three different auxiliary transmissions was that the rubber-tired F-20 was offered to the public with different sizes of rubber tires for the rear. The Heisler Company knew that the size of the rear tires would greatly alter the speeds of any tractor. The particular model of Heisler auxiliary transmission added to No. 71355 was model HT-2033 with the 2.32 to 1 gear ratio. The addition of the Heisler Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission to No. 71355, with its optional high speed road gear and with 36” rubber tires in the rear, would have added high range speeds of 5.22 mph in first gear, 6.38 mph in second gear, 7.59 in third gear and 16.4024 mph in fourth gear. These were hardly necessary or even desirable speeds for field work. Indeed, they all seemed to be road speeds. Indeed, the Heisler Company specifically warns against installation of an auxiliary transmission on any F-20 tractor which already has already been fitted with the optional high-speed road gear in the standard transmission.
Thus, there was a real problem with trying to understand why the Heisler model HT-2033 was added to No. 71355. The only logical answer appeared to be that No. 71355 originally had much smaller rear wheels than are currently mounted on No. 71355. Smaller rear wheels would have significantly lowered the speed of the tractor. The optional 24” rear wheels would have reduced the speed of the tractor by almost 1/3 as compared to the same tractor with 36” rear wheels. Thus, if No. 71355 were fitted with 24 inch rubber tires in the rear, the standard transmission would have rendered speeds of 1.575 mph in first gear, 1.925 mph in second gear, 2.275 mph in third gear and 4.666 mph in fourth gear. These speeds are so slow that No. 71355 would have been badly in need of a decent range of faster speeds for customary lighter field work. Addition of the Heisler Model HT-2033 auxiliary transmission to No. 71355 configured with 24 inch wheels in the rear would have resulted in the additional speeds of 3.654 mph, 4.46 mph, 5.25 mph and 11.48168 mph. The first three of these speeds would have nicely supplemented the standard transmission speeds of the tractor for light duty field work and the fourth speed would have provided a comfortable, but not excessive road speed for No. 71355 when fitted with 24 inch wheels in the rear. Accordingly, No. 71355 probably left the IHC Farmall factory works in Rock Island with 24 inch rubber tires mounted on French and Hecht round spoke rims.
The optional factory-installed high-speed road gear and the 24 inch wheels in the rear together with the after-market addition of the Heisler Model HT-2033 auxiliary transmission, suggests that No. 71355 was being tailored for a specific type farming, but what type of farming? There was another feature on No. 71355 that offered a clue to the type of farming for which the tractor was being designed. A 1-inch wide metal strap is still attached to the frame of No. 71355 just behind the front wheels and ahead of the oil pan of the tractor. This metal strap is sometimes nicknamed “the belly strap,” is officially called the “tractor frame guard” (IHC Part No. 28247). The relly strap or tractor frame guard can be seen on page 99 in the “Farmall Cultivator” section of the McCormick-Deering Parts Book on cultivators. (Book No. CU-1A.) Although the tractor frame guard is just barely visible, the part can also be seen on page 97 of the same parts book mounted on an F-20 together with a two-row Model 229 Farmall “Pendulum Shift” cultivator. The Model 229 cultivator is one of the “steerable cultivators” for which the International Harvester Company was famous. The front cultivator gangs of a steerable cultivator were attached to the steering mechanism of the tractor. This allowed the front gangs of the cultivator to swing from side to side as the tractor operator turned the steering wheel while cultivating. Indeed, the International Harvester Company advertised that the “shifting gangs” of a steerable cultivator as allowing the gangs to “swing from side to side faster and farther than the front wheels” of the tractor. (See the 1939 movie called The Farmall B contained on DVD Disc #2 or VHS Tape #2 of the International Harvester Promotional Movie Collection.) The steerable cultivator was ideal for use in “cross cultivation” of corn where the “cross check” pattern was quite crooked. With a “fixed gang” type of cultivator, the tractor operator steers only the tractor front wheels and hoped to avoid hitting the individual corn plants with the cultivator gangs. The steerable cultivator, however, allows the tractor operator to also “steer” the cultivator gangs around the individual corn plants when cross cultivating.
When cross-cultivating, the tractor operator would stop the tractor at the side of the corn field, raise the cultivator gangs, back the tractor around and align the cultivator with the next two rows of corn to be cultivated. During the turn, the steerable mechanism of the cultivator gangs was disengaged temporarily while the tractor made the turn. Once the gangs were lowered again over the next two rows, the steerable mechanism would, once again, automatically engage. However, during the turn-around at the end of every crossing of the field, the tractor operator could never be sure just where the gangs on the steerable cultivator behind the front wheels were positioned in relation to the underside of the tractor. They could be directly under the engine oil pan of the tractor at the end of a crossing. Thus, when the gangs were raised they might strike oil pan. Repeated striking of the oil pan could sooner or later possibly cause a leak in the oil pan. The tractor frame guard was attached to the tractor at its location on the tractor frame to prevent the gangs from hitting the oil pan.
Since this particular frame guard was still mounted on No. 71355, the tractor must have been employed together with a Model 229 Pendulum Shift cultivator on a farm where corn was raised. Although, the name of the seller and last owner of No. 71355 remained a mystery, Wayne Wells remembered that the seller had been from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota (1990 pop. 3,694) in Brown County. Brown County, Minnesota, is a dairying and small diversified farming area of the state of Minnesota. There would have been no special reason why an F-20 with 24” rubber tires would have been needed for the type of farming pursued in this area. However, to the north and west of Brown County, Minnesota, flows the Red River of the North. The Red River of the North forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota. (This was the Red River of the North, not to be confused with the Red River of the South which forms part of the border between Oklahoma and Texas.) Potato farming was particularly popular in the Red River Valley of the North. Indeed, the Red River Valley is one of the premier areas of the country for potato farming.
Like corn, potatoes are raised in rows across a field. Thus, potatoes require cultivation like other row crops. Accordingly, mechanical cultivation of potatoes generally requires using a “row crop” tractor like the F-20. However, because potatoes do not grow as tall as corn there is less need for the tall clearance under the rear axle of the tractor to allow the potato plants to pass under the rear axle, even during the last cultivation of the crop for the season, when the potato plants are at their tallest. Perhaps, No. 71355 had been tailored for work in the potato growing area of the River Valley of the North. Some of the slower speeds offered by the standard transmission of No. 71355 when fitted with 24 inch wheels in the rear might have been useful when pulling a mechanical potato planter in the fields in the early spring. Furthermore, there might be other tasks which would create a real need for 24 inch wheels on the rear of No. 71355 if the tractor were employed on a potato farm. Mounting the optional 24 inch wheels on No. 71355 not only would reduce the speed of the tractor in each gear, but would also increase the torque or lugging power of the tractor in each gear. This would have been useful in late 1930s on a potato farm in the fall during the potato harvest.
The mechanical harvesting potatoes had developed in stages. First there was the simple horse-drawn potato plow. The potato plow simply uncovered the hills of potatoes, so that the individual potatoes could be harvested by hand by workers walking the field. Later in the early 1920s mechanical potato diggers were manufactured with scoops that moved along under ground the raised the potatoes out of the ground placed them on moving aprons. The moving aprons would then gently shake dirt loose from the potatoes before depositing the potatoes on top of the ground behind the digger. These diggers were horse-drawn one-row machines. Horses would walk down the paths on either side of the row of potatoes being harvested as they pulled the mechanical potato digger across the field. Power for the moving apron could be provided by either ground drive from the wheels of the potato digger or by a small gasoline engine mounted on the digger itself. Later, tractors were used to pull potato diggers in the field.
However, tricycle designed tractors with their narrow front ends were awkward to use with single-row potato diggers, because the front wheels would run directly over the row of potatoes that was being harvested. To avoid running over the row of potatoes, the single-row potato digger was hitched to the side of the drawbar, thus allowing the front end of the tractor to be driven slightly to the side of the row of potatoes being dug. However, this meant that the center of load (the scoop of the potato digger) was no longer directly behind the center of draft of the tractor. There was no longer a straight line of draft aligned precisely with the direction of travel.
Just as in moldboard plowing this lack of a straight line of draft had consequences. During tough going in the field, the lack of a straight line of draft meant that the front end of the tractor would tend to be pulled over toward the row of potatoes which was being harvested. The tractor operator would have to fight the steering wheel all day to keep the front wheels off the row of potatoes. Two-row potato diggers were answer to this problem. The two-row potato digger could be pulled directly behind the row-crop tractor. The front wheels would be driven down the pathway between the two rows of potatoes being dug. The line of draft would be straight and aligned with the direction of travel. The front wheels of the tractor would no longer tend toward the left or the right and the tractor operator would not have to fight the steering wheel.
In 1936, the International Harvester Company introduced its new tractor-powered Model No. 12 two-row potato digger. Being a two-row machine, the Model No. 12 had two scoops which would dig into the ground lifting the potatoes up onto two aprons which shook the potatoes and dropped them on the ground behind the digger. Like most potato diggers both aprons on the Model 12 had a slight downward slope toward the rear. A new feature of the Model 12 was that the degree of this downward slope on each apron was independently adjustable. In slightly wetter soil conditions, the aprons could be adjusted to less downward slope. The potatoes would then spend slightly more time on the apron and more of the dirt would be shaken from the potatoes as they were harvested. In drier conditions the dirt fell easily from the potatoes and both aprons of the potato digger could be adjusted with a higher downward slope. The potatoes would spend slightly less time on the apron before being deposited on the ground. Power to both aprons of the Model No. 12 was provided by the power take-off (p.t.o.) shaft of the tractor.
Because of the two-row capacity of the Model No. 12 and because of the additional power demands needed by the power take-off shaft to power both aprons on the Model No. 12, the International Harvester Company advertised the Model No. 12 as requiring a three-plow tractor for adequate operation. Consequently, the Model No. 12 was not specifically designed for the two-plow capability of the F-20 tractor. The three-plow Model F-30 tractor was the more appropriate tractor for the Model No. 12 potato digger. However, by fitting with F-20 tractors with the optional smaller 24 inch wheels in the rear, the popular F-20 tractor could be provided sufficient torque or “lugability” to operate the Model No. 12 potato digger. Thus, many F-20 tractors fitted with 24-inch wheels in the rear were shipped to dealerships in “potato country.”
Thus, by observation of the various parts of No. 71355, a picture of the prior history of the tractor was beginning to form. Any further elaboration on the history of this tractor, which became a part of the permanent collection at the LeSueur County Pioneer Power Association in rural LeSueur, Minnesota, would have to await discovery of who the seller of 71355 actually was at that Swap Meet held in April of 1992. Key to this was the name of the payee on the cancelled check which Wayne Wells had used to pay for No. 71355 in April of 1992. Like all cancelled checks returned from the bank in 1992, this particular check was placed in a grocery sack containing all the tax records from 1992 and stored in the attic of the Wayne Wells home at 260 Elmwood Street in LeSueur, Minnesota. Time passed and Wayne Wells died in April of 2001. It was only when Marilyn Wells began to move out of the house at 260 Elmwood and into another house at 228 So. Second Street, in LeSueur, that the 1992 tax records were found and the particular cancelled check from April of 1992 was found. It bore the name of Dave Haala of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota. This was the last owner of No. 71355 before Wayne Wells. However, when contacted, Dave Haala was unable to provide any history about No. 71355 except that it was rumored that the tractor had originally come from the Red River Valley area. Thus, this rumored information seemingly confirmed the “history” of the tractor that had already been deduced from close examination of the tractor. Accordingly, the history of No. 71355 begins with the Red River of the North.
Most of the great rivers of North America flow southward—the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio etc. Standing in direct contradiction to this pattern is the Red River of the North. Despite the fact that Lake Itasca, the source of the Mississippi River, is actually located on a latitude further north than Lake Traverse, the source of the Red River of the North, and despite the fact that these two river sources are only a little more than a hundred miles distant from each other, these two great rivers actually flow in directly opposite directions.
A a great deal of the geology of the land on both sides of the Red River Valley was shaped by the fact that the land was originally the floor of a huge ancient glacial lake called Lake Agassis. Lake Agassis drained away completely over the centuries of pre-history leaving the floor of the ancient lake exposed. The soils of the exposed floor of the ancient lake are some of the richest soils in the world. Besides being rich in nitrogen the soil was rather light in consistency. Thus, the first settlers in Red River Valley of the North found that the area was ideal for growing potatoes.
Politically, the Red River of the North forms a boundary between the states of Minnesota and North Dakota. Thus, the fine rich soils of the valley of the Red River made both Minnesota and North Dakota major producers of potatoes. From 1925 until 1934, Minnesota was second among the 48 states in the production of certified seed potatoes, following only the state of Maine. North Dakota was fourth in the production of potatoes with New York State in third place among all 48 states.
Within North Dakota, Walsh County traditionally leads all the other 53 counties of North Dakota in the production of potatoes. Indeed in a typical year, Walsh County produced about 40% of North Dakota’s annual crop of potatoes. Walsh County is one of the counties that borders Minnesota along the Red River. Ironically, within Walsh County, it is not St. Andrew Township and the other townships in the eastern-most range of townships immediately adjacent to the Red River that contain the light fertile soils that are so conducive to potato farming. The soils of these townships tend to be a gumbo-type soil and, although, this soil is rich in nitrogen the soil is not the light type of soil that potato farmers desire. The light soils of the Lake Aggisis floor can actually be found about five miles west, away from the Red River. Thus, it is the second range of townships back from the river, rather than St. Andrews Township and the other townships of the first range, that are covered with the light soils good for growing potatoes. Thus, the leading townships in potato production, among all 35 townships within Walsh County, are Martin Township located in that second range of townships back from the Red River and Farmington Township located in the third range of townships back from the Red River.
In the mid-1930s, one particular farmer owned a 160 acre farm in Martin Township. With his wife and two children, a son and a younger daughter, he raised potatoes in rotation with spring wheat, oats, hay and corn. They also had a small herd of Holstein dairy cattle, a chicken house full of laying hens and a few hogs in an attempt to diversify the sources of farm income as much as possible. His farm was located on the flat treeless prairie of Walsh County. As he looked out in every direction from his farm, all our Martin Township farmer could see is flat ground. His mother used to say that only the curvature of the earth kept a person from seeing forever. There was nothing on the flat landscape, except the building sites of his neighbors. Originally there had been no trees, whatsoever, on this flat prairie. Currently, the only trees that could be seen were those trees that had been planted in an “L shaped wind break around the north and west sides of the farmsteads of the neighborhood. Nearly every building site was wrapped in this form of protection from the winter wind.
His step-father had originally settled on this farm. His step-father immigrated to the United States from Norway in 1903. It was quite a story. After living the first part of his life in the area just south of Lake Mjosa to the north of the city of Oslo in Norway, his step-father had seen his opportunities for a future in Norway become very bleak. The area south of Lake Mjosa contains sandy soil which was good for raising potatoes. However, all farms were about 10 acres in size and could hardly support a family. Furthermore, there was very little likelihood of his being able to buy his own 10 acre farm within his own lifetime. Thus, our Martin Township farmer’s step-father had undertaken this journey to the United States, as a single young man all on his own. Coming to the United States, he dreamed of obtaining a farm of his own. However, with no resources to obtain farm land in the strange new land, he settled first in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and then moved further west to Minnesota and then to North Dakota. He worked as a lumber jack in Minnesota and on a “bonanza farm” in the Red River Valley of the North before he was able to obtain the land on which our Martin Township farmer now stood
The particular bonanza farm on which his step-father had worked was located about 100 miles south of Martin Township, down in Traill County, North Dakota. Bonanza farms were huge farms, ranging from 3,000 acres up to 82,000 acres. (The history of bonanza farms is outlined in the book by Hiram Drache called The Day of the Bonanza [Lund Press: Minneapolis, Minn., 1964].) The bonanza farm was usually owned by a corporation or a group of absentee investors living in the eastern United States. For handling the day-to-day business of the bonaza farm, the investors hired a farm manager who lived in the big house on the farm with his family all year long. Along with the manager, a few other workers were hired to live on the farm, all year around, to take care of the scores of horses that were needed for the huge farm. However, during the summer growing season, the average bonanza farm would hire on a great deal more workers to harvest and replant the winter wheat crop each summer. The work was seasonal, stretching only from March 1 to the middle of October.
His father, like many of the bonanza farm workers, were logging camp workers in the wintertime. Logging was winter-time seasonal work. Thus, to remain employed all year, many logging camp workers alternated back and forth between the logging camp and the bonanza farm as the seasons changed. It was hard work. However, his father hoped by this method to save enough money to purchase his own piece of land.
Like nearly all bonanza farms, the huge farm on which our Martin Township farmer’s step-father had worked had been entirely dedicated to raising winter wheat. The short amount of time that our Martin Township farmer’s step-father spent on the bonanza farm imprinted two impressions on him. First he came to love the wide open spaces of the North Dakota landscape.
Secondly, like many of the workers on bonanza farms our Martin Township farmer’s father developed a love of modern mechanical farming methods. His work on the bonanza farm had involved work with all the latest farm equipment. The managers of the bonanza farms had spared no expense in obtaining large numbers of grain drills, grain binders and threshers to adequately plant and harvest the entire acreage of the huge farm. Once the wheat harvest was over in August and/or September of each year, the entire ground of the farm needed to be plowed before winter set in. To accomplish this task before the ground froze, the bonanza farm managers used the latest in gasoline-powered tractors—using these large tractors to pull huge gang plows. These huge gang plows could plow up to three acres an hour and replace up to fifteen horse-drawn plowing units doing the same job. (Hiram M. Drache, The Day of the Bonanza [Lund Press Co.: Minneapolis, Minn., 1964] p. 120.) These large gasoline tractors, which were used on the bonanza farms weighed 15,000 pounds or more. They were much too big for economical use on small family-sized farms.
However, in the years following the First World War, a revolution occurred in the the size of gasoline farm tractors. Starting with the introduction of the Fordson Model F tractor in 1917, the size of farm tractors dramatically decreased in size. The Fordson weighed only 2,920 lbs. (pounds) and it’s 251 cubic-inch four-cylinder engine delivered 20 hp. (horsepower) to the belt pulley and 10 hp. to the drawbar. However, the real revolution of these small tractors was the greatly reduced price of the individual. Prices of the tractors fell to the point where tractors became economically within the reach of nearly all small farm owners. Starting at the price of $785.00, Henry Ford acting in response to the economic recession of 1921, lowered the price of the Fordson to $620.00. Soon Fordson had garnered 3/4 of the market in farm tractor sales in the United States. However, mechanized farming was still in its infancy in 1920, as only about 203,000 tractors were in use on all the farms of the United States.
In response to this price war by Henry Ford, the large International Harvester Company based in Chicago, Illinois, introduced its entry in the small tractor market–the 3,700 lbs. International Model 10-20 tractor. The International 10-20 was originally priced to meet the price of the Fordson at $785.00. Despite the 1921 reduction in the price of the Fordson, 7,140 model 10-20 tractors were sold in 1923–the first year of production. However, this compared with the 101,768 Fordsons sold that same year. In 1924, sales of the International 10-20 climbed to 11,228, while Fordson sales tapered off to 85,009 and in 1925, 18,858 International 10-20 tractors were sold as compared with 102,248 Fordsons. In 1926, and in 1927 International 10-20 tractors were sold as opposed to 720222 Fordsons sold.
When other tractor manufacturers tried to lower their prices to keep up with the Ford Company, Henry Ford acted again to reduce the price of Fordson to $395.00. This “price war” had a devastating effect on the great number of the independent tractor manufacturers that had sprung up in the period of time since the end of the First World War. Many of these tractor manufacturers were unable to keep up with Ford’s price war and they went out of business.
After years of working on the bonanza farm and in the logging camp, our Martin Township farmer’s step-father had saved enough money to make a down payment on the piece of land that eventually became their present farm in Martin Township in Walsh County. He was able to take possession of the land on March 1, 1914. During the first summer on the farm he built a barn for his horses and a cow. Indeed he lived in the barn with the animals until he was able to complete a house. He raised spring wheat on the land and co-operated with his neighbors to get the crop harvested and threshed. He eventually gathered together a small dairy herd. He built a silo next to the barn and began to raise corn to fill the silo with green corn for winter feed for the cows. Any other corn he was able to raise on the farm was used to feed his pigs.
The start of the war in Europe in September of 1914, caused the price of wheat to rise to $1.12 per bushel for the whole month of September. During the barn raising and the threshing the wheat with his neighbors, our Martin Township farmer’s step-father met a young widow who was living with her parents. She had a ten year-old son by her deceased husband (our future Martin Township farmer) also living with the extended family in her parent’s large house. Gradually, he began to fall in love with this woman. Her parents were second generation Norwegians also and so he got along well with them too. The couple was married in 1915. Indeed for this reason, he finished the house faster than might otherwise have been the case. To finish the house he had the help of his bride’s brothers and other family members. Nobody seemed to like the idea of the young widow having to “set up house” in a barn. Although our Martin Township farmer was already ten (10) years old, he adjusted well to his new step-father. His step-father was the only “father” he had really ever known. Their relationship was more a partnership than a father-son relationship.
Flooding of the Red River of the North on March 28-30, 1916 and the poor growing season of 1916 had combined to reduce overall production of wheat in the United States. Together with the war in Europe, this production shortage caused the price of wheat to rise to $1.83 per bushel for the month of November, 1916. With the money he received for his 1916 wheat crop, our Martin Township farmer’s step-father became one of 9,040 purchasers of a McCormick-Deering Titan 10-20 tractor in 1916. It was the first step of his long-term dream of mechanizing his farming operation.
The United States entered the European War on April 17, 1917. The war effort caused the price of wheat to spike sharply upwards to an all-time record high of $3.01 per bushel as an average for the month of May 1917. Wheat prices remained high throughout the war. With his farming operation mechanized by means of his first gasoline (really kerosene) powered tractor—a two-cylinder McCormick-Deering 10-20 Titan tractor, our Martin Township farmer’s step-father was correctly positioned to take full advantage of the high wartime prices for farm commodities. At only 5,708 pounds, this tractor was considerably more efficient in delivering power to the rear wheels than were the huge tractors he had known when he worked on the bonanza farm.
The end of the war in 1918, brought a decrease in demand for farm commodities and lower prices of wheat. Encouraged by the all-time record high prices for potatoes in 1920 (reaching the high of $7.38 per hundred weight), our Martin Township farmer’s step-father greatly expanded his acreage devoted to potatoes. He was joined by many of his neighbors as the number of acres of potatoes harvested in Walsh County grew from 6,000 acres in 1920 to 9,900 acres in 1921—a 65% increase. The next year (1922), the number of acres of potatoes harvested in Walsh County doubled—rising to 19,800 acres.
In 1923, the International Harvester Company introduced its new four-cylinder 10-20 tractor. By the mid-1920s, our Martin Township farmer was helping his father make decisions about the farm operation. Together they traded the old Titan into the Torgerson and Honsvald dealership located in Grafton, North Dakota, the county seat of Walsh County. They purchased one of the new four cylinder International 10-20 tractors. This new tractor weighed only 4,070 pounds and supplied smooth four-cylinder power for their farming operation. Our Martin township farmer put in a lot of hours on the little International 10-20 as he aided his father in the farming operation.
Although it had been their intent to the replace the horses only in the plowing and other heavy tasks on the farm, the 10-20 was so easy to start and operate that it was used for a great deal of other lighter tasks around the farm. It saved the time required to harness the horses.
Handy as it was, the 10-20 was a standard style tractor with a non-adjustable wide front end. Thus the tractor could not be used in the cultivation of the corn or potatoes on their farm. Thus, our Martin Township farmer and his step-father had watched with interest the development of the Farmall tractor by the International Harvester Company. The tricycle design of this tractor made it an excellent tractor for cultivation of row crops. Our Martin township farmer knew that such a tractor, if successful, could eliminate the need for any horses on their farm. They had planned to obtain one of the new Farmalls. However, since 1929, both the weather and the recent economic depression had been absolutely against all farmers.
It all began in June of 1929. That month was one of the driest Junes on record. The next year, 1930, was another dry year. In 1930, searing hot winds had cut down the crops. Spring rains in 1931 were very light and by July, the continuing drought and parching heat had again withered the vegetation. While 1932 was a normal year, 1933 turned out to be the fourth driest year on record with only 13.5 inches of rainfall for the whole year in North Dakota. This compared with 21.5 inches in a normal year in North Dakota. With only 9.5 inches of rain, 1934 set a new record as the driest year in North Dakota history. While 1935 was a normal growing season, with even a little above normal precipitation, the dry, hot conditions had returned with a vengeance last year, in 1936. The drought set another new record in 1936 for the driest growing season, with only 8.8 inches of- rain for the whole year. (Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota [University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, Neb., 1966] pp. 9 and 398.)
The impact of the dry years on the industry of potato farming in North Dakota had been catastrophic. State-wide only 3,726,000 hundred weights of potatoes had been produced in North Dakota in 1936. This was a full 50% drop in the amount of normal potato crop for the state. (From the “National Agricultural Statistics Service” page of the United States Department of Agriculture website.)
Being located in the “wetter” eastern part of the state of North Dakota, Walsh County potato crops tended to be protected from the worst effects of the drought years. Even under normal conditions yields of potatoes in Walsh County were better than state wide averages. In normal years, where average yield for potatoes for the state as a whole was about 55 hundred weights per acre, the normal average yield in Walsh County was about 100 hundred weights per acre. (Ibid.) As noted above, in a typical year, Walsh County would produce about 40 % of North Dakota total crop of potatoes. However, in 1934, conditions were so severe in the other parts of North Dakota that the farmers in Walsh County produced 47% of the total of North Dakota potato crop. Following the disasterous harvests in last fall, 1936, North Dakota had experienced a loss of 50% of its normal potato crop, while loss of potato production in Walsh County was limited to about 33.3% of its normal crop of potatoes. Thus, during these dry years, Walsh County had been relatively sheltered from the worst effects of the drought that hit the other parts of the State. However, Walsh County was not sheltered from was the effects of the economic depression. Concurrent with the drought years were the record low market prices for farm commodities. In 1932, wheat had sold for $.36 a bushel as opposed to a normal price of about a $1.10 per bushel. (Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota, p. 398.) Potatoes got down to a price of $.23 per hundred weight as opposed to a normal price of $1.66 per hundred weight. (Ibid.) It was bad enough for farmers to have to worry about the threat that weather presented to their livelihood, but the economic crisis together with the bad weather made life unbearable on many of the families in Martin township. Many families left the farm. During this time North Dakota lost 5.7% of its total population. (Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota p. 401.)
Now just after Thanksgiving time in 1936, our Martin Township farmer was seeing signs that might indicate that the worst was over. Ordinarily, when a scarcity appeared in any market, one would expect that the price of goods in that market would rise. However, following the bad growing season of 1933, there had been no increase in the market price of wheat, potatoes or other farm commodities. The economic depression had caused prices to remain low no matter how scarce the goods were.
However, starting in 1934, analysts on KXPO radio from Grafton, were reporting that the economy was, again, starting to act as one might expect—prices rising and falling with the changes in supply and demand. Following the bad harvest of 1934, the price of wheat had started rising, the way one would expect. In 1935, following a normal growing season, the price of wheat declined because of the abundant wheat on the market. Following the nationally disastrous harvest of 1936, both wheat and potato prices rose in response to the scanty harvests of those two cash crops. Indeed wheat now stood $1.20 per bushel. Wheat had not been this high since January of 1930. (From the Macrohistory Databases on the National Bureau of Economic Research website.) What really attracted the attention of our Martin Township farmer was the price of potatoes. Potato prices also had been rising since the summer. Currently, potatoes were selling for $2.14 per hundred weight. The price was finally getting above $2.00 per hundred weight for the first time in many years. (Ibid.) Although his potato crop had been diminished by the unfavorable growing conditions, our Martin Township farmer was able to mitigate the losses sustained by the reduced harvest by receiving more for those potatoes that he brought to market.
The past year, 1936, had seen record low temperatures in January and record high temperatures in July. Now already in early December, 1936, the coming winter was proving to be another “closed” winter with a great deal snow that kept the family close to the farm most of the winter months. All through the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays our Martin Township farmer had been thinking about improving his farming operation. Perhaps this was, finally, the year to trade in the IHC International 10-20 on a true row cropping tractor. It may have seemed terribly risky to be planning a major purchase like a new tractor, given the weather and the recent economic uncertainties. However, with a row crop tractor, like the Farmall F-20, he would be able to cultivate his corn and potatoes mechanically, totally replacing the need for horses on his farm. Use of a tractor would speed up cultivation on his farm by cultivating two rows at a time rather than the single row he cultivated while using horses. Additionally, he would eliminate the need of having to pause at the end of each trip across the field to allow the horses to catch their breath before heading back across the field. A row crop tractor would be a major improvement for his farming operation.
Our Martin Township farmer knew that part of the money he received for the wheat would have to be used for Christmas and to pay the bills. However, he wanted to use the rest of the money to place a down payment on the new F-20 and a two–row mounted cultivator. Furthermore, he wanted to explore the possibility of trading in his horse-drawn potato digger on a new tractor-powered model potato digger. In January, 1937, with the price of wheat still high, at $1.37 per bushel, our Martin Township farm decided to sell the rest of his wheat. He loaded the remaining sacks of wheat into the back of his 1927 Graham 2-ton truck. After visiting the elevator and selling the bagged wheat, he stopped in at the Honsvald Oil Company in Grafton, the local International Harvester (IHC) dealer, located on the southwest corner of Hill Avenue and Fourth Street.
Originally, founded as the Torgerson and Honsvald dealership, the partnership had been serving the Grafton area since 1917—first as the local Maxwell car dealership. However, in 1925, when the Maxwell Motor Company was absorbed into the new Chrysler Corporation and production of Maxwells ceased, Torgerson and Honsvald switched to become the local Buick car dealership. However, also in 1925, Thomas Torgerson suddenly died, leaving Albert “Anton” Honsvald to carry on alone. The dealership was re-organized as the Honsvald Oil Company.
Now as he walked into the dealership, our Martin Township farmer discovered that, Anton Honsvald would soon no longer be operating the dealership. He had already agreed to sell the dealership to Carl Hvidsten as of March 1, 1937. Anton assured our Martin Township farmer that the new dealership would, nonetheless, continue operating at the same location. Carl Hvidsten was new to town having arrived in Grafton only a few months before. Indeed our Martin County farmer had already met Carl Hvidsten at church. They both attended the Grafton Lutheran Church as did a great portion of the Norwegian community in and around Grafton. Our Martin Township farmer had found Carl Hvidsten was a nice enough person, yet the passing of the Honsvald Oil Company was like the death of an institution in the town.
Anton apologized that he did not have more tractors to show our Martin Township farmer. Because he had been selling the dealership, had not restocked his inventory as he might otherwise have done. Anton anticipated that the new owners of the dealership would once again have more tractors and farm machinery on display at the dealership in a few weeks. Currently, Anton had only a single F-20 tractor on display at the dealership. This particular Model F-20 bore the serial number 71355. No. 71355 left the assembly line at the International Harvester Company’s “Farmall Works” factory in Rock Island, Illinois, running under its own power at about noon on Friday, December 11, 1936. No. 71355 was configured a narrow front-end with tricycle-style steering. The tractor was fitted with optional 5.50 x 16 inch rubber tires in the front and 11.25 x 24 inch rubber tires in the rear. Both the front and rear tires were installed on French and Hecht round-spoke rims. Because the tractor was fitted with rubber tires, No. 71355 was also fitted with the IHC factory-installed optional foot brakes. Furthermore, the embossed gear shift pattern on base of the gear shift lever mounting reflected the “3” and the “4” had been reversed from the pattern found on most F-20 tractors. As noted above, this indicated that the optional 28-tooth high-speed 7.07 mph road gear had been installed in the transmission of No. 71355 at the factory in Rock Island, Illinois.
However, a more visible feature of No. 71355 was creating a substantial amount of interest among the walk-in traffic at the dealership. Ever since the Model F-20 bearing the serial number 68749 had rolled off the assembly line at the Farmall Works in Rock Island, Illinois on November 1, 1936, the International Harvester Company had begun painting all of its tractors bright red rather than the usual battleship gray color that had been used up to November 1, 1936. No. 71355 was one of these new “red” F-20s. Indeed, it was the first “red” Farmall that the citizens of Grafton had ever seen.
Anton Honsvald told our Martin Township farmer that fitting No. 71355 with the smaller optional 24-inch tires in the rear would provide more torque power, or lugging power, to the tractor. This increased lugability would make No. 71355 seem as though it had more horsepower than other F-20 tractors fitted with larger rear wheels. This increased lugability would be put to use immediately pulling a new Model No. 12 two-row potato digger. International Harvester had just introduced the No. 12 in 1936. Because it was a two-row implement, it was tailor-made for row-crop tractor operation. The No. 12 could be pulled directly behind any row crop tractor. Single-row potato diggers needed to be hitched to the side of the drawbar of a narrow front-end row crop tractor to avoid having the front wheels run directly over the row of potatoes that were to be dug up by the potato digger. In operation, the No. 12 would scoop up two rows of potatoes and elevate the potatoes up onto an apron which would shake the dirt loose from the potatoes. The No. 12 had two aprons, one for each row of potatoes. Anton showed our Martin Township farmer the new features of the No. 12. Both aprons on the No. 12 were independently adjustable. In this way, the No. 12 was fitted to various harvesting conditions. Anton Honsvald assured our Martin Township farmer that by fitting any F-20 tractor with 24 inch tires provided sufficient additional torque to allow the Model F-20, ordinarily considered a two-plow tractor, to operate the No. 12 two-row potato digger. Indeed, advertising photographs of the Model 12, produced by IHC, often showed the popular F-20 tractors, properly fitted with 24 inch wheels in the rear, pulling the Model 12 potato digger. Furthermore, the 1934 IHC promotional movie called “Farming the Farmall Way” shows an F-20 fitted with smaller steel wheels pulling a two-row potato digger. (This movie is available on Disc/Tape #1 of the International Harvester Promotional Movie Collection.)
Reducing the size of the rear wheels increased the torque of the tractor. However, the trade-off for this increased torque was a slower speed for the tractor in every gear—1.575 mph in first gear, 1.925 mph in second gear, 2.625 mph in third gear and 4.666 mph in the optional fourth gear. Most of these speeds were slower than the 3 mph walking speed of a horse and were painfully slow for cultivation of row crops and other light duty field work tasks. Accordingly, Anton Honsvald suggested that our Martin Township farmer take advantage of any of the supplemental transmissions that were currently being offered to owners of F-20 tractors by a variety of third-party vendors. Such a supplemental transmission could restore the variety of faster working speeds back to the tractor that had been taken away by the reduced size of the optional rear tires. Indeed, Anton offered to install a supplemental transmission on No. 71355, at the dealership, as part of a sales package for the tractor. Anton noted that the dealership already had an informal arrangement with a Heisler Company to supply the dealership’s requirements for these supplemental transmissions.
Accordingly, our Martin Township farmer used some of the money that he had received for his 1936 wheat and potato crops to make a down payment on No. 71355 and a Model 229 mounted cultivator and a Model 12 tractor-powered two-row potato digger. Before taking delivery of No. 71355, our Martin Township farmer had the dealership install a Heisler Model HT-2033 supplemental transmission on No. 71355 as part of the sales package. Our Martin Township farmer took immediate delivery of the tractor as soon as the tractor was prepped and the supplemental transmission had been installed. Delivery of the cultivator and the potato digger would be postponed until later in the year. He did not need to be storing this new machinery on his farm until closer to the time that it was actually needed in the field.
Due to the heavy snow accumulations in February and early March of 1937, No. 71355 could not be delivered to the farm of our Martin Township farmer, until mid-March of 1937. The new owner of No. 71355 had great hopes for the coming year. Unseasonably warm temperatures in March melted all the snow accumulations. Rains in April were steady and gentle, holding the promise that drought of the previous year was over.
(In the next article, the story continues as our Martin Township farmer heads to the field with No. 71355 to begin planting his potato crop.)