From Mule Power to Horsepower

A little history on tractors in South Carolina

Jeff Amberg

Tractors have for decades been a major part of South Carolina’s agrarian culture as Les McCall will be the first to say. He is the director of the Pendleton-based Bart Garrison Agricultural Museum of South Carolina. “We’ve always been an agrarian state,” he says. “We still are. It’s our biggest industry if you include forestry, and tractors and tractor technology are a big piece of that heritage.”

How tractors ended up in South Carolina to assist farmers and, ultimately, to replace mules and other working livestock, requires a history lesson.

When English engineer John Fowler visited Ireland in 1849, he was dumbfounded not only by the suffering of his Irish cousins during the height of the Great Famine (also known as the Irish Potato Famine), but also by the vast stretches of uncultivated land that could potentially save lives if properly drained and brought into production. The problem was too much water, and he knew there had to be a way to “drain the swamp” so to speak on a large scale.

Returning to England, Fowler immediately went to work on developing a drainage-plow engine powered by a team of horses. This engine was improved upon in a second design, and by 1852, his engine was powered by steam. Other agricultural engineers then began to see the value of Fowler’s engine in applications beyond simply digging drainage channels through previously unproductive land. By the 1860s, the first steam-powered plows were brought into use.

It was during this same period across the Atlantic that North American agricultural practices and the development of engines and plows were also experiencing revolutionary changes. As in Europe, steam-powered tractor technology was coming into its own in the United States –– and much of it was based on Fowler’s model. However, it was largely inefficient. There had to be a better way, but that way did not emerge until a few decades after the American Civil War.

All wars bring about new military technologies that find highly beneficial post-war civilian application. The Civil War, 1861-1865, was no exception. Still, the largely agrarian South, having suffered mightily through a post-war crippled economy, widespread bankruptcy, burned-out farms, ruined acreage, and literally millions of unemployed and homeless mouths to feed –– both black and white –– was busy struggling to survive and redefine itself through the beginning of the 20th century. Few new farming inventions and innovations were emerging during this time, and in fact, farms were cultivated much as they had been since the colonial era in South Carolina. Inventive exceptions were old Cyrus McCormick’s reaper and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.

The agricultural innovations that did emerge in the United States were mostly from Northern and Western states. Those new and upgraded inventions included towering farm silos, grain elevators, and steam-powered and horse and mule-pulled combine harvesters used primarily on Midwestern farms.

In 1892, Iowa inventor John Froelich designed and built the first gasoline-powered tractor, which even had forward and reverse gears. Froelich’s machine was revolutionary, but it was unwieldy and lacked sufficient horsepower to drag a plow so it never went into successful production. Charles W. Hart and Charles H. Parr developed a gasoline traction engine that was built at their Hart-Parr factory in 1901, which is considered the birth of the farm tractor industry, according to John E. Janssen in “Hart-Parr Tractor’s Contribution to the Advancement of Agriculture,” published by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1996. Two years and three models later, the Hart-Parr “Model 3” debuted. The Model 3 was the first successful internal-combustion-engine tractor designed for agricultural use.

Newer models and increasingly better designs followed the Hart-Parr tractor, but few South Carolina farmers could afford such luxuries. For several decades after the Civil War, the image of the Southern farmer was the lone man struggling to push a small plow or working behind one drawn by a mule to scratch a living out of the earth. That image persisted throughout much of the first half of the 20th century until America’s involvement in World War II, 1941-1945, when the image of the South Carolina farmer began to shift from the man behind the plow to the man driving a tractor.






“There are two schools of thought as to from whence it all comes, but there is no doubt that the origin of tractors is a British-American cooperative effort in a lot of ways,” says Les. “The British had the market lead on creating engines in the early years of tractor development because their industrial revolution started before ours. But Britain didn’t have the vast land areas that the United States had.”

Les adds, “Great Britain’s agricultural implement development was geared more toward running machinery than plowing up 10,000 acres of prairie soil. Whereas in the modern sense of a slow-crawling machine that pulls implements, the tractor is a uniquely American design that utilizes the agricultural engine pioneered in Britain.”

South Carolina farms were far smaller than those nearer and far beyond the Mississippi River. Moreover, Midwestern farms were new and vast, and the soil was rich, unlike many Southern farms, which in the early 20th century had been stripped of their nutrients from decades of cotton farming.

“In South Carolina, even by the late 1800s and early 1900s, large farms were generally about 1,000 acres,” says Les. “Even so, those 1,000-acre farms were managed by more than one family. Farming was a community effort, so it was still more manageable, and economically viable, to plow by mule than the expense of bringing big agricultural engines on site. The Midwest was the exact opposite.”

The Bart Garrison Agricultural Museum, the state’s legislatively mandated 4.5-acre agricultural museum, is home to six tractors, the oldest of which is a still-serviceable 1939 Farmall H tractor. There are older tractors in the Palmetto State, but few were seen in South Carolina until World War II. Regarding World War II, the campaigns in North Africa, Europe, and the Pacific served as great leaps forward in terms of advancing tractor technology with large roaring amphibious tractors designed to deliver men and equipment ashore; they were used extensively by the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army as well as British and Canadian forces. A huge evolution in engine development, far greater horsepower, and previously unimagined applications for the new technological strides led to a boom in postwar tractor development and popularity.

“Manufacturing increased for tractors, prices went down, and all of a sudden tractors were far more appealing than a mule for South Carolina farmers,” says Les. “And for the first time in South Carolina history, owning a tractor was an attainable dream.” That dynamic has evolved over the seven decades since.

Paul Towns grew up on a small dairy farm in Michigan and was 5 years old when he learned to drive his first tractor — a John Deere Model B. “I would pick up hay bales in the field, and a few years later, I learned to plow, disk, and drag the fields, too,” he says. “I loved hearing the ‘put-put’ of the old two-cylinder John Deere while it was working under load.”

After 20 years in the Army, Paul retired to Elgin and soon stumbled upon a John Deere Model B for sale. Thinking it could be a fun project, he bought it and restored it with his children. It was the beginning of a passionate hobby, and Paul began collecting Model Bs of every design and use. Now even three of his grandchildren have vintage tractors and have won prizes in shows.

“My interest in old tractors is the design and engineering of that time,” he says. “Most of these tractors can burn any fuel you put in them, such as gas, diesel, oil, kerosene, vegetable oil, even alcohol. They were designed so any person could fix them with a little knowledge. They just keep going and going.”

One prize in his collection is a 1909 10-horsepower steam traction engine tractor, which looks like a locomotive on wagon wheels. While the earliest tractor models had steam engines that were pulled to the field by a team before being belted to the equipment, this model represents the invention to self-power the rear wheels in order to pull both the engine and the equipment to the field.

“The steam engine boils water with fire so that when I pull the throttle on the steamer, it lets out the pressure in the boiler through a pipe into a cylinder to then push the piston down. Then a valve moves, and the pressure pushes the piston back the other way. This is what gives steam so much power and smooth running,” Paul says. “While this machine required two people to operate — one to drive and another to feed the fire with coal — it also replaced 12 horses or mules, which, of course, need food and maintenance all the time, whereas the tractor needs nothing when it is not operating.”

Because steam engines are so loud, the operator would communicate to his work crew by blowing the steam whistle, which sounds like a train’s. For example, two blows signaled to clear away as the engine was starting. However, this posed a problem when teams of horses were nearby, as a loud whistle would easily spook them.

“To avoid this, all steam engines were required to have a bell,” explains Paul. “If you drove up behind a team, you rang the bell instead since horses and mules had bells on them already, and that would not scare them. The driver of the steam-powered tractor might also call out to the person to hold his horses, hence the phrase we still use today, ‘Hold your horses!’”

Today, tractors are still as important in agriculture as ever, and trends show them expanding into other markets as well. Steve Wilson, vice president of Wilson Tractor in Newberry, says that since his family’s company opened its doors in 1984, he has seen an increased interest in tractors and subsequent new tractor sales that extend beyond the farm.

“The customer base is far more diverse today,” says Steve. “Tractor sales since the 1980s have gone from those buying for an agricultural need to ‘Joe Public’ who buys a house in the country on a couple of acres and now wants a tractor. Then there are all of what we call the ‘deer farmers’ who have hunting land and use tractors for food plots.”    

Aaron Twitty, sales manager with Carolina Power Equipment in Cayce, agrees. “I think one of the reasons we’ve seen tractors trend up in terms of popularity among hobby farmers and hunt-club guys is because either their parents had a tractor or, for whatever reason, they’ve climbed up on a tractor at some point,” he says. “Either way, they’ve begun to recognize the versatility of a tractor.”

Tractors today are highly sophisticated. Like automobiles and trucks, modern tractors have to meet EPA requirements. Most of the larger tractors are equipped with computers or central processing units, and many have GPS and guidance capability wherein they can drive themselves. Additional features on the larger models include heating, air conditioning, radio and CD sound systems, and touch screen consoles. “Inside the cab of one of today’s tractors, even one as small as a 26-horsepower tractor, you can jam out to your tunes while disking a food plot for deer,” says Aaron.

Steve and Aaron both say that tractors in the South Carolina market range in cost from approximately $10,000 for a 15-horsepower tractor to $300,000 for a 300-horsepower tractor.

“I’ve sold a tractor as big as 56 horsepower to a guy who only had five acres,” says Aaron. “That’s way overkill, and here in South Carolina, 56 horsepower is a pretty big tractor. Keep in mind, big is a relative term. If you were to say 56 horsepower in the Midwest, they’d laugh at you. But not here.”

Today’s tractors are appealing not only on the basis of size, power, and cab comfort, but also versatility. “Years ago, front-end loaders and four-wheel-drive were not common tractor features,” says Aaron. “Today, you rarely see a tractor without a front-end loader because people have seen how much it can save your back to lift a pile of bricks with your tractor and bury them in a hole, versus loading the bricks by hand into a wheelbarrow, and taking those bricks to a hole you previously dug with a shovel. Now everything can be done by the tractor.”

Modern tractors operating across South Carolina today not only plow, but scoop, dig, disc, backfill, backhoe, bush hog, level, till gardens, and even pick up huge piles of tree limbs or brush piles with a grapple mounted on the front end. Tractors can also be upfitted with a mower deck, thus replacing the lawnmower.

Aside from hobby farmers, South Carolina is home to approximately 24,500 farms cultivating some 500-million acres statewide. How many tractors are operating on those farms or on smaller parcels, hunt clubs, or vast backyards in the Palmetto State? It is impossible to adequately determine, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture. Yet, Les points to an interesting dynamic — in many of the more rural counties in South Carolina, tractor dealerships outnumber car dealerships.

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