A little engine can go a long way, with determination


In a 1917 issue of Gas Review magazine is the following story by a proud papa:

“Our boy wanted a gasoline engine, talked about it often, and punished the mails for information. “Even a small engine would do,” he said.

The difficulty was, you see, that gasoline engines do not grow on bushes. Still the boy’s persistency finally convinced me that they may be grown in fields. We determined to grow one.

A three-acre piece of ground was devoted to this purpose, carefully prepared and planted to navy beans. The growing crop was assiduously tended because the engine horsepower depended upon the amount of revenue raised.

The prize

The results came up to our expectations and were ample to purchase a 5 1/two-horsepower engine, known as the “Pacemaker. (Note: I can find no other reference anywhere to a Pacemaker gasoline engine. Anyone out there know of such a thing?)

The kid went with me to the station to get it and haul it home and became conversant with all the mysteries of its smelly interior before I could fairly get it uncrated.

From the smudge of grease on his nose to the three-cornered tear in the seat of his overalls, he was interest personified.

The little coughing monster was at once named Billy and became our man of all work, tackling with tireless energy the tasks of pumping water, shelling corn, cutting fodder, grinding feed, sawing wood, and kindred chores which heretofore had been performed by methods that robbed life in God’s green country of most of its poetry.

For some time Billy was mounted on a skid and moved from place to place by a team, but from the start the boy’s ambition was to convert it into a tractor or, as he put it, “to make her go by herself. This idea at length crystallized into a well-defined plan.

Certain essential parts were acquired, the possibilities of two discarded McCormick grain binders were requisitioned and their bull wheels were used for drivers.

The spare time one winter was devoted to assembling these parts on the barn floor. As it neared completion, the all-important question of whether the little tractor would go or not became paramount, so, although Billy was still minus a steering device and a lever to operate its clutch, the point was settled behind closed doors.

Test run

“I’ll turn her over, Dad, and you push in the clutch. We did. And like Fulton’s steamboat “it moved at its pre-determined gait of four and a half miles per hour. This was alright, but now I wanted to stop and the clutch, which had slipped in easy enough, would not release and Billy was jamming me against the breast beam of the barn.

In the excitement of the moment I gave voice to an impressive “Whoa!” You see, I had been used to driving horses.

Now the above method of stopping a tractor may be open to criticism, and was certainly amusing to the boy. Our tractor did not “whoa. It continued across the floor and fairly bunted the barn doors down before that kid could quit laughing long enough to stop it by throwing the switch.

Finished project

Billy was backed onto the barn floor again, finished with more confidence and eventually started with more caution. That was four years ago and Billy, much improved, is still on the job, having been put to many uses.

One is to pull a large barrel on wheels and filled with water to a distant pasture for the sheep. This work, done about every other day during the summer, must otherwise have been done by a team.

The bolting of an Ireland geared hoist to its front added another to Billy’s line of tricks, enabling it to operate the hay fork when unloading hay.

Man in charge

The operation of the little tractor has been left entirely up to the boy who, for the most part, designed and built it. He guides it deftly from one task to another, lining up and backing into the belt with as much importance as though he were handling an army tank.

Last fall he was heard to remark that “Billy could pull the pulverizer as well as a team.” I was skeptical so he took advantage of my absence to try it out and backed Billy up to the disc harrow, having easily induced his mother, who was apprehensive but long suffering, to aid him by riding on the harrow and regulating the load. They went afield.

The demonstration was completed satisfactorily and justified its promoter in greeting his paternal parent with “What did I tell you?”

When the stunt was repeated for my benefit I was genuinely surprised to see what this crudely built little machine could do, which was work for a good stout team.


This set me to thinking and the kid to talking again. The result is that a second tractor is now being built, a little more pretentious as to design and power, its power plant being a two-cylinder opposed engine of 22 horsepower.

Of course I do not know how this second venture will turn out, but we’re confident all will be well.”


The moral is: If your boy wants an engine, get him one. Then if he wants a tractor badly enough to try to build one himself, he will not lack the determination to someday own a real one, nor the ability to operate it.

A cute story from those long ago days when the tractor was a new concept to America’s farmers, as well as a fascination to their sons, the same men who went on to completely mechanize farming during the 1930s and 40s.

I only wish the writer had given us a clue as to how old the boy was when this adventure all started.


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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.



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