Waukesha Motor Company and Farm Tractors     (added April 2015)

Not many know that the Waukesha Motor Company played an important role in the mechanization of the America farmer.


Events leading up to, and including, WWI hastened the change in farming by horsepower, to farming by "horsepower". Waukesha Motor Company (WMCo.) was one of the independent engine manufacturers that played an important pioneering role that change.


In 1914, the Turkish Navy blockaded the Dardanelle's preventing Russian wheat from reaching the rest of the world. In addition, WWI hampered Europe's food growing capabilities. The world was short of food and the farmers of the great plains of America and Canada were challenged to grow more wheat and other food crops. One of the slogans for WWI was; "Food Will Win the War". However the Army had bought up large numbers of horses, and thousands of farm boys entered the military, many never to return to farm life. Never the less, the American and Canadian farmers welcomed the challenge to grow more wheat and food crops, but they would need mechanized farm equipment if they were to increase the amount of land they could cultivate.


In the late 1880's and early 1900's full-line farm equipment manufacturers had joined forces to form large amalgamations to ease the brutal competition that existed. In 1891 , Hart Massey and John Harris joined forces in Canada to form Massey-Harris. In 1902, McCormick, Deering and three other companies formed International Harvester. JI Case and John Deere acquired other companies in order to stay competitive. All these companies eventually added tractors to their line of farm equipment.


The very first engines used in tractors were powered by steam. These behemoths were called "traction engines" from which the term "tractor" was coined. My father was born and raised on a farm and told many stories about getting up before sunrise at harvesting time to "fire up" the traction engine so it would have enough steam pressure to begin harvesting a day-break.


The price of wheat had doubled and fierce competition among farm implement manufacturers kept the price of farm equipment low. Farmers prospered and purchased more and more land and the equipment to farm it. "Light-weight" tractors, using multi-cylinder internal combustion engines, were being shown their potential in a series of tractor shows beginning in Fremont Nebraska, and then other places, from 1913 to 1919. These tractor shows were part of a technological revolution that encouraged the use of mechanical power to replace horse power that eventually made the United States the bread basket of the world. During the 1913 Fremont Tractor Show, 21 of the lightweight farm tractors had WMCo. engines in them, a full 113 of the tractors in the show!


The lightweight farm tractor boom began in 1915-16, but the full-line farm equipment manufacturers could not keep up with the demand. Independent "light-weight" farm tractor manufacturers began to spring up everywhere to fill the void. Businessmen rushed in to cash in on the bonanza. Little cash was needed to begin a tractor company. A machine shed, a few motors and other parts mounted on a chassis, a catalogue, incorporation and stocks sold to some investors and you were all set. Only a few of these independent tractors manufacturers designed and built their own internal combustion engines --- most used the internal combustion engines being manufacturer by established engine builders of the time. WMCo., founded in 1906, was well established and was well positioned with its new series of long-stroke, high-torque, truck and tractor engines it had introduced in 1912. These new WMCo. engines were popular among many of the early independent tractor manufacturers and from 1912 to 1925 WMCo. built over 51 ,000 of these engines, most of them going into farm tractors.


By 1919, there were 160 farm tractor manufacturers with 230 different models. In 1920, there were 166 farm tractor manufacturers with 323 models. 83% of the tractors were powered by 4-cylinder internal combustion engines.


In 1921, there were 169 farm tractor manufacturers with 232 models. 78% had 4-cylinder internal combustion engines.


The agricultural depression of 1920-21 took its toll and by the middle of the decade most of the independent farm tractor manufacturers had disappeared just as fast as they appeared! The depression, tough competition, price wars, mergers, and the popular Fordson Tractor had weeded them out. By 1929, only 47 tractor manufacturers were left, producing around 100,000 tractors that year.


Waukesha Motor Company, always nimble a-foot and quick to respond to market changes, obtained the rights to the revolutionary "Ricardo combustion chamber". The Ricardo combustion chamber introduced the terms "turbulence and squish" to engine design jargon, providing quicker, more complete, burning of fuel that increased HP, decreased fuel consumption and minimized detonation problems. Selling fewer tractor engines, Waukesha took advantage of this new technology by manufacturing replacement "Ricardo cylinder heads" for the Fordson Tractors and for other engine manufacturers.


The following poem was written about that "new fangled farm contraption" known as a "tractor".

"Boys now take life rather easy

Not so many chores to do

Only half as many horses

To attend to the whole year through

Not a shoulder gall to worry about

Not so many nags to clean

They can sleep a little longer

Since we plow with gasoline


The old Sol may do its darndest

He can't make the tractor sweat

Horse flies stop to look it over

But they do not make it fret

Do not need to waste time resting

Cannot flounder that machine

We can turn the soil right lively

Since we plow with gasoline"

Excerpted from the poem Since We Plow With Gasoline

by Orlo L Dobson, published in Farm Implement News April, 1916

To read the complete poem click: Since We Plow with Gasoline

WMCo. continued to build farm tractor engines until the early 1970's, building over 400,000 of them in all! Oliver Tractor Corp. of Charles City, Iowa was, by far, its largest customer.


Besides tractor engines, WMCo. built engines for every conceivable market, niche and application, including, but not limited too, automobiles, on and off highway trucks of all kinds, busses, yarders, material handling, short haul commuter trains, military vehicles, marine, logging, cotton ginning, cranes, shovels, drag lines, cement mixers, material handling, construction equipment, power units, oil field and mining engines, rock crushers, air & gas compressors, refrigeration engines for trucks and trains, air conditioning chilling units, generator sets, and nearly every other application requiring engine power along with octane measuring & oil testing laboratory grade engines and even machining, assembling and testing aeronautical engines for the Navy during WWII.


Two other engine builders, Climax Engine of Clinton, Iowa and the engine division of the LeRoi Compressor Co. in Milwaukee also supplied engines to tractor manufacturers and the WMCo would eventually acquire both in the late 1950's. I have identified 140 tractor manufacturers that used WMCo engine, 26 that used Climax engines and another 22 that used LeRoi engines. Click on these links to see the lists:

Waukesha stopped manufacturing the Climax and LeRoi engines and most of the other engine manufacturers of the era eventually went out of business, including: Barker - Beaver - Buda - Buffalo - Chief - Clifton - Continental - Doman - Erd - Field - Gile - Gray - Gray/Victory - Hercules - Hinkley - Hershel/Spillman - Kermath - Lycoming - Midwest - New Way - Northway - Stearns - Sterling - Velie - Victory - Weidley - Wisconsin - and others.


Waukesha is no longer in the tractor engine business in part because of the way the market changed and in part because of the robust reliability of Waukesha's engines. With such high reliability it was a natural evolution for Waukesha to move away from small mobile gasoline fueled engines to today's large stationary natural gas fueled engines that run 24 hours a day 7 days a week..


Rocky Schaefer, Historian

5-2011;10-2014; 3-2015


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