The Happy Farmer tractor was anything but happy

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I’ve seen a Happy Farmer tractor at the show in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, and I’ve heard from more than one source that the only two times the owner of a Happy Farmer tractor was really happy was on the day he bought it and on the day he sold it.

D. Maurice Hartsough, who began experimenting with gas tractors as early as 1899, built several one-cylinder tractors, all of which were failures, before coming up with a four-cylinder version that was good enough to interest financier Patrick J. Lyon.

About 1906, Lyon and Hartsough started the Transit Thresher Company in Minneapolis to make the tractor, which was called the Big 4 and lived up to its name — it was big. A couple of years later the company name was changed to Gas Traction Company and was sold to Emerson-Brantingham in 1912.

Change of direction

By the second decade of the twentieth century it had become obvious to some people that farmers wanted smaller, lighter, and more agile tractors than the heavy steam and gas models then available.

One of these enlightened men was Hartsough, who designed a lightweight three-wheeled machine with a high rear driving wheel on the furrow side and a small balancing wheel on the land side. A single front wheel ran in front in the furrow and steered the thing.

Lyon and Hartsough organized the Bull Tractor Co. in Minneapolis in 1914 and brought out the Little Bull, a 5-12 hp machine with a two-cylinder opposed engine sitting amidships.

The Little Bull sold for just $335 and farmers snapped them up as fast as they could be built, with close to 4,000 sold in the first eight months or so.

Unfortunately, the Little Bull was underpowered and had a tendency to tip over to the right.

A larger version, called the Big Bull, was introduced in 1915 as a 7-20 hp and Hartsough patented a propping arm attachment for the right side that would swing out if the tractor leaned too far and keep it from tipping over.

No location

Bull never had a factory of their own and contracted the building of their tractors to other companies. This caused problems, and the Big Bull never quite overcame the bad reputation of its predecessor, so the Bull firm was bankrupt about 1920.

Hartsough had problems with Lyon over a two-wheeled tractor that Lyon thought was designed for Bull but that Hartsough had sold to the Lion Tractor Company, also of Minneapolis.

This rig looked like a twin of the non-Henry Ford tractor that was pretty much just a scam to sell company stock.

Anyway, Lyon sued Lion Tractor and Hartsough, so they parted ways in about 1915.

Ever busy at his drafting table, Hartsough then designed another three-wheeled tractor with two equally sized drive wheels at the rear and in late 1915 he started the Happy Farmer Tractor Co. The first 500 Happy Farmers were built by Wilcox Motor Co. and the next 1,500 by Sta-Rite Engine Co. in LaCrosse, Wisconsin.

A year later, Sta-Rite and Happy Farmer merged and a new firm, the LaCross Tractor Co., was incorporated in LaCrosse, although they retained the Happy Farmer name for their products.

Between 1916 and 1918, Happy Farmer offered the 8-16 Model A and the 12-24 Model B, each with a LaCrosse horizontal two-cylinder engine.

Similar tractors

The 1919 models were the similar 12-24 Model F along with the Model G, that differed only in having a wide front axle and two front wheels. The agricultural depression that hit the country after WWI hurt the company and it was announced in 1921 that Oshkosh Tractor Co. would buy LaCrosse.

The deal fell through, however, and by 1922 the Happy Farmer was no more.

Elmer J. Baker, Jr., who penned a column called Reflections in Implement & Tractor magazine for many years, printed a letter in a 1962 issue that he’d just received from an IHC employee:

“About 1916 when I was a boy of 6 living on a farm near Ohio, Illinois, my father demonstrated and sold a line of tricycle type tractors called the Happy Farmer.

“I remember vividly how he used to lock one wheel and spin the tractor around in its length to sell farmers on its maneuverability. Believe me, that tractor was a marvel indeed.”

The writer then revealed the reason a 6-year-old would remember this so clearly after all these years.

“After the sale Dad took us all to town for a gallon of ice cream.”

More stories

Baker then described the Lacrosse Co. and its history before making the following comments about a Happy Farmer he recalled: “The Reflector has a vivid memory of one bedraggled, wobble-wheeled, aged Happy Farmer.

“Down at Valparaiso, Indiana, a power farming dealer ahead of his time sold and stocked threshing machines when 95 per cent were sold direct out of branch houses, with implement dealers cutting in only as bird dogs.

This dealer operated the Maxwell Implement Co., I think his name was Leonard. He had the brains and ability to run a two-million dollar branch house.

“In the Maxwell shop I saw this creaky Happy Farmer. Maxwell grinned when I wondered what he was doing with it.

“‘It’s going to sell another new tractor,’ he replied to my unvoiced query, ‘It’s already sold me six tractors,’ he went on. “‘I turn it over at a nominal price and unlimited terms to fine young farmers starting out with a new wife, a slim 80 (acre farm), lots of ambition, but no cash. After they have raised a couple of crops with this Happy Farmer, they can finance a better machine, and I take back the Happy Farmer.

“As soon as we tighten it up some more, it’s going out on a new missionary endeavor.’ And he wound up, ‘it’s the most profitable machine I ever handled and sold.’”

Good stories

It’s amazing how the histories of those early tractor companies were so intertwined. For example, here’s D.M. Hartsough involved with Big 4, Bull, Happy Farmer, Lion, possibly the Minneapolis Ford, and LaCrosse, all within twenty years.

 

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Sam Moore grew up on a family farm in Western Pennsylvania during the late 1930s and the 1940s. Although he left the farm in 1953, it never left him. He now lives near Salem, where he tinkers with a few old tractors, collects old farm literature, and writes about old machinery, farming practices and personal experiences for Farm and Dairy, as well as Farm Collector and Rural Heritage magazines. He has published one book about farm machinery, titled Implements for Farming with Horses and Mules.

1 COMMENT

  1. My great grandfather, Joseph Holmes, sold Happy Farmer tractors at his general store in Clear Lake,WI.
    Thanks
    Tim White

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