Now: Dozens of tractor brands melded into few; Then: The world’s greatest tractor buy!


Breaking prairie sod and seeding crops at the turn of the century required big horses and strong men to work them.

However, those big strong Canadian work horses and the prairie farm boys who drove them were swallowed up by the thousands in the muddy trenches of the First World War.

By necessity, pistons began replacing muscle tissue. One primitive tractor could replace several horses and men. When it wasn’t in use, the tractor required no food, water, shelter or wages.

Before the First World War, Henry Ford was quoted as saying he wanted to “lift the burden of farming from flesh and blood and place it on steel and motors.”

Ford was born and raised on a small farm near Detroit, so he knew whereof he spoke.

“Lift the burden” is exactly what Ford commenced to do in 1917 when he introduced the world’s first affordable, mass-produced tractor. Media at the time said his 20 horsepower Fordson Model F tractors could do the work of four mules.

A U.S. government test concluded that a farmer would spend 95 cents per acre breaking sod with a Fordson Model F. In comparison, feeding eight horses for a year and paying two drivers would cost $1.46 per acre.

Clearly, the future of farming belonged to the tractor, but Ford was only one of many with the same vision.

Hundreds of small factories and machine shops tried their hand at designing and building a farm tractor from before the First World War through the Depression years. Bad engineering, lack of financial backing and Depression era economics put an end to nearly all these ventures.

The story of what happened to the dozens of tractor brands once available on the Canadian Prairies reads much like the begat verses in the Bible. Some tractor brands mated with other brands and prospered while others fell by the wayside and disappeared forever. Still others died and then were born again, but under the same name, primarily for commercial reasons.

Was there ever a truly Canadian tractor? According to the June-July 1985 issue of Gas Engine Magazine, the simple answer is no.

“It is extremely doubtful that any tractor ‘Made in Canada’ was actually a totally Canadian product,” the magazine said.

“In some cases that have been studied, ‘Canadian content’ was little more than the name painted on the sides. Even that is doubtful in cases where the tractor was the spitting image of the recognized American make.”

Geography was the enemy of any Canadian company wanting to build and sell tractors. Prairie grain farmers needed big heavy powerful tractors for plowing and running threshing machines. Eastern farmers needed small, nimble tractors suitable for hills, small fields and dairy operations.

Canada was clearly divided into two distinct tractor markets.

Before the First World War, the Sawyer-Massey company of Hamilton, Ont., built monster tractors that it shipped to the Prairies. It had gradually converted its steam-driven tractors to gasoline-powered tractors with a heavy channel iron frame and a slow-speed kerosene engine coupled to big cast iron gears.

Meanwhile, the Medicine Hat Machinery Co. in Alberta was building small tractors that didn’t have enough power to bust prairie sod, so it shipped them to Eastern Canada.

Some Ontario engine manufacturers such as Gilson and Goold, Shapley & Muir installed their engines into gear driven frames as a way to sell more engines.

Another early engine builder was Sylvester Brothers, which installed an engine into a gear driven frame and then took it the next step by adding a threshing machine. The result was a crude combine.

The Ontario Agricultural Museum has a Chase tractor with serial number 36. Researchers discovered that this small company built tractors for a while just across the tracks from the massive Massey-Harris factory in Toronto.

Many of the pioneer tractor companies disappeared without leaving a trace of their existence. Looking back, they may have been the victim of two separate trends taking place before the First World War.

Steam powered tractors and stationary engines were large and inefficient. Internal combustion petro-fueled engines were more efficient, but the steam people were slow to accept the new technology.

The other factor is that local machine shops had turned out power plants and engine driven machines for some time, many of which were of the highest quality. However, transforming hand-built, one-off machine shops into high volume production lines was beyond the comprehension of many business owners.

Tractor historians explain that hundreds of different tractor brands have been assembled in Canada, but most of them were made with engineering and major components from the United States.

The notable exception of course is Versatile, which came on the scene in 1966 and has become an internationally known brand.

Tractor aficionados will say the first authentic Canadian tractor was the Oliver-Cockshutt. Cockshutt began as a plow manufacturer in Brantford, Ont., in 1877. It’s not a deep history factor because it didn’t branch out into the tractor business until 1946, when it built 441 units.

However, the company busted out of its plow shear mould in 1948 when it sold 10,665 tractors across Canada, establishing itself as a true Canadian company.

Alternative fuel sources are nothing new. Cockshutt engine options in the late 1940s included gasoline, diesel, distillate or liquefied petroleum gas.

Ford didn’t always have better ideas

Henry Ford and his Fords on Model F did for tractors what the Model T did for automobiles.

The Model T replaced horses on the roads while the Model F replaced horses in the field. And that’s a good thing.

However, mass production in its most primitive form can be a bad thing.

By 1925, more than 500,000 Fordson tractors were working on farms in Canada, the United States and Britain. Engineering expertise wasn’t what it is today, and safety standards were unheard of.

Consumer concern over safety isn’t a new movement. The earliest Fordson tractors had the worm gear located above the rear axle plane, just under the driver’s seat. The heat was unbearable. Drivers could not cope.

To answer the concern, Fordson engineers relocated the worm gear below the rear axle plane. This solved driver discomfort to a certain degree, but it created an all-new hazard.

In the new configuration, the reaction through the transmission would flip the tractor backward in a split second when a towed implement struck a buried stump or boulder.

One weekly publication printed that it knew of 136 farmers who had been killed by the improved Fordson tractor up to August 1922.

Fordson continued to be a major force in the global tractor market for decades. Then research on the Fordson F had come to a halt. Ford himself was caught up with new car designs and V8 engines for a number of years. This interlude gave International Harvester and General Motors the opportunity to leap frog ahead, forcing Ford to drop Model F prices from $750 to $395. By this time, the Model F was produced only in Ireland, with units shipped back to North America.

By 1938, Ford had become interested in tractors again. He decided to co-operate with Harry Ferguson in the development of an all new Ford-Ferguson N9. This tractor was designed specifically to regain top position in the world market with standard features such as a three-point hitch, rubber tires, power take-off, Ferguson hydraulics, battery, generator and electric start.

Thinking he had trounced the other builders, Ford publicly stated upon introduction of the N9 in 1939: “Our competition is the horse.”

The “old” Fordson tractor that most farmers will be familiar with is probably the 2N, of which 500,000 were sold in North America between 1947 and 1952. The Fordson name disappeared in 1964.

The modern history of Ford tractors include the purchases of Sperry-New Holland and Versatile and the 1991 agreement with Fiat.

THEN: Here it is! the world’s greatest tractor buy

Regina – $1595 Cash, Calgary & Edmonton – $1630 Cash. Terms Can Be Arranged

Never Before Such Power at These Prices!

Now you can buy the 1928 Model ALLIS-CHALMERS 20-35 H.P. at the sensational low prices here shown. Never before has such power been offered in a fully equipped farm tractor at such low cost. Increased volume has made possible this substantial saving and given you new refinements and new features that make for longer life and lower operating costs.

For 100 hours the ALLIS-CHALMERS 20-35 will run safely without oil change. The Pur-O-Lator completely cleans the oil and lengthens its life. Here is just one feature that, in itself, saves a sizeable sum during the year.

Download a PDF of the original WP page here: 1927_dec08_p15

About the author


  • Casey

    Steam did quite a bit of work on the prairies from the late 1800s all the way into the 30s. its often an over looked era. some pretty Efficient Steam tractors were being made by 1910 though the mid 20s. The JI Case co was a popular choise. Reeves, Rumely and Avery were also used. and for Canadian made- Sawyer Massey, Waterloo and George White were also popular out west. When Gas started to take over. also switched over to the Rumely oil pulls and Case tractors.


Stories from our other publications