One of the many forgotten pioneers of the fledgling tractor industry was George T. Strite. Born in 1869 on his father, Levi’s Anamosa’s, Iowa farm, the boy attended the rural schools of the day and worked for his father until he turned 21.
At this point, apparently fed up with farm labor, he left home and got a job as an apprentice machinist in an Anamosa shop. While working during the day George attended night school to learn mechanical engineering and took a business course as well.
His studies seem to have paid off, because in 1894 he was hired as general superintendent of a large foundry in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he worked for about three years. Along about this time George married Louise Coffitt and they had two daughters and one son. The family moved to Tama, Iowa, in 1897, where George was manager of the Tama Foundry and Machine Company.
It was while here that he designed a 3-horsepower gasoline engine, a few of which were made and sold. Five years later George moved on again, this time to the Lennox Machine Co. in Marshalltown, Iowa, where he worked in the gas engine department as designer, engineer and salesman. During his time at Lennox, he designed a tractor and tried to get his boss to build it, but was turned down.
About 1906, Strite invented a pulley governor to be used with cream separators and established the Strite Governor Pulley Co. to manufacture these and a line of friction clutches for gas engines.
Meanwhile, D.M. Hartsough had been working on a tractor design for several years and in 1906 he and Patrick Lyons started the Transit Thresher Co. in Minneapolis to build a tractor and thresher that could move from grain shock to grain shock in the field and eliminate the extra labor involved in using bundle wagons to move grain to a stationary thresher.
Well, the idea didn’t catch on and soon the firm reorganized as the Gas Traction Co. to make only tractors. During early 1907 seventeen of the large four-cylinder (an innovation at the time) tractors had been sold with all but one of them returned as defective. In August of that year, Strite took over as general superintendent and before long the Gas Traction Big 4 tractors were improved and gained a solid reputation among farmers until Emerson-Brantingham bought the firm in 1912.
At loose ends after the sale, Strite invented the first automatic power lift for a gang plow and sold it to the Avery Co. He also began designing a new tractor that had a wide front and a single large driving wheel at the rear.
In 1913, the Strite Tractor Co. in Minneapolis began selling the Strite 3-Point tractor, as well as Model B and C four-wheeled tractors. Strite had no factory and contracted with the Imperial Machine Co. to assemble his tractors. This arrangement lasted until 1915, when Imperial, who made tractors of their own, apparently decided they didn’t need to contribute to their own competition and ended the deal.
Albert Lea, Minnesota, 100 miles south of Minneapolis, offered to build a factory for Strite and he moved his company to that city and began to assemble his own tractors using Waukesha and Gray engines and a Foote Gear Company transmission that Strite himself had designed. Apparently, a fair number of Strite tractors were sold, but in 1917 the name was changed to the Sexton tractor, after Strite’s sales manager, George L. Sexton, and within a few months the firm became the Albert Lea Tractor Co. and the machines were badged as Albert Lea.
By 1920, the factory was closed and the Strite/Sexton/Albert Lea tractor was no more. The reasons for all this renaming and for the final demise of the company are unclear but many tractor companies failed as a result of the 1920 agricultural depression that followed World War I. George Strite’s inventive mind didn’t stop, however.
At some point he designed a two-row cultivating tractor for the Toro Motor Co. whose president was J.S. Clapper, a man who had helped Strite start his tractor company.
Toro had originally been started to make engines for the Bull tractors but when Bull failed they began to make engines for other manufacturers and the Toro TO-RO Utility Tractor that was introduced in 1919. The TO-RO could be converted from a light farm tractor of conventional 4-wheeled design to a two-row motorized cultivator, but it’s unclear who designed it. He patented an improved walk-behind garden tractor for Harry W. Bolens, who was president of the Gilson Mfg. Co., an engine manufacturer in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
Gilson seems to have built many of the Strite designed machines for Beeman Garden Tractor Co., one of the earliest garden tractors, although Bolens garden tractors weren’t far behind. H.W. Bolens bought out John Gilson and renamed the firm Bolens Mfg. Co., and they made well regarded garden tractors until 2001 when Bolens ended up under MTD’s wing.
Until his death in December of 1928, George Strite worked as a consulting engineer for various tractor companies and continued to invent, with several more patents for cultivating equipment to his credit during that time.
As far as I can determine no Strite tractors survived, although there may have been one at the Reynolds-Alberta Museum in Wetaskiwin, Alberta back in the 1980s, based on a letter and photos of an unidentified tractor they had found.
This is just a quick look at one of the forgotten men who labored all their lives to lay the foundation for the wondrous tractors of today, even though they would never believe the progress that’s been made in the past 100 years.
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