Easing transition from steam to gasoline

The demand for mechanics was well known and essential as tractors emerged during the late 19th century in Western Canada.

The Manitoba Agricultural College was established in 1905 and opened in 1906 as the shift from steam tractors to gasoline tractors was gaining momentum.

Some of the students who trained at the college are believed to have posed in front of a large Big Four 30 tractor for a photograph that is now in the possession of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. The museum is looking for help from the public in identifying the men in the photo.

The agricultural college, which was funded by the provincial government, was built to support agricultural education and research as modern farming was developing.

Built in the Tuxedo area of Winnipeg, it was the first in Western Canada and one of three agricultural colleges in Canada at the time.

Classes were offered for men and women ranging from agricultural engineering to home economics and botany to buttermaking.

The agricultural engineering class was a big draw for the school, said Alex Campbell, director of the museum.

Professor L. J. Smith was head of the college’s agricultural engineering department from 1909-16, and Robert “Bob” Milne was a lecturer from 1913-16.

An archivist at the University of Manitoba confirms that they are both pictured in the photo, but they can’t be directly identified.

“These engineers were in big demand because of the large expansion of farming at the time (and) the supply of horses was basically being outstripped,” Campbell said.

The Farm and Ranch Review of Jan. 20, 1912, said 180 horses would be required for the same work that four Big Four 30 tractors would accomplish over the same area.

The Big Four 30 gasoline tractors were well known as a force to be reckoned with in the field.

They were a monster size piece of equipment, as can be seen in the photo, with a four-cylinder motor with eight feet diameter drive wheels.

Campbell said the tractors were brought onto the MAC grounds to train engineers and as a sales tool.

“Of course, engineers trained on a specific tractor might be more inclined to buy that tractor; they knew how to operate it and knew its idiosyncrasies.”

Campbell said there were about 1,000 gasoline tractors worldwide in 1908, and a large percentage were in Canada.

The Big Four tractors were first produced in the United States in 1906 and then in Canada by 1910.

Demand outweighed supply at most points in its production until 1920, when production ceased and smaller designs became commonplace.

“By the standard of the day, these (tractors) were really advanced pieces of machinery,” he said.

The farm population wasn’t used to such advanced mechanics at the time, and the MAC offered an opportunity for farmers to get acquainted with the new machinery.

“They were largely farm boys and probably a number might have been more mechanically inclined members of the population,” said Campbell.

Admission to the college required students to be 16 years or older, of a sound moral character and free from contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, according to a MAC Calendar issued for 1913-14.

In addition, they were to have two years of work experience on a farm and hold a sufficient English education.

Tuition fees for Manitoba residents were $10 a year for a three year diploma, $20 for a five year degree, $30 for a two year diploma and $40 for a five year degree for non-residents, according to the Manitoba Historical Society website.

Most farmers would also require board because they came from rural farm areas. A room would cost roughly $1 a week and board was an additional $2.25.

Meals were served in the large dining room area, but students who wanted to eat in their rooms paid a 10 cent surcharge per meal.

The college relocated to the University of Manitoba in 1913 because it outgrew the available infrastructure.

The old site was re-developed in 1997 and now houses the Asper Jewish Community Campus.

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