100 year old tractors tell the story of innovation and invention

John Oncken

The hot temperatures, high humidity and muddy paths didn’t seem to deter the crowd on the second day of the 62nd annual Rock River Tresheree held at Thresherman’s Park between Edgerton and Janesville, over the Labor Day weekend.

That’s the day my grandson Joe—who had made the trip down from Michigan Tech up in Houghton for a visit—and I chose to attend the event.

The Thresheree is one of the bigger (maybe the biggest) such gatherings held across the state each year. I like the old tractors and farm equipment although there are many other displays to see. Among them: a sawmill, blacksmith shop, the pile-driver from the St. Lawrence Seaway, steam train rides, a museum of Ag & Industry along with a big construction equipment display.

Dave Willie of Necedah tightens a bolt on a shield on his rare yellow Massey industrial tractor.

Massey Harris in spotlight

This year the featured tractor was the Massey Harris and a long line of that breed of tractors of most every age and model, were on display. The company dates back to 1847 when it was founded by Daniel Massey as Massey Manufacturing in Newcastle, Ontario, where it made some of the world's first mechanical threshers.

In 1891, the company merged with A. Harris, Son & Co. Ltd. to form Massey-Harris Limited and became the largest agricultural equipment maker in the British Empire. The Massey-Harris Company started to manufacture tractors in 1917 and in 1953 merged with the Ferguson Company to become Massey-Harris-Ferguson, before finally taking on its current name of Massey Ferguson in 1958.

In the mid-90’s it became one of AgCo’s multiple brands and is still made today.

Dave Willie of Necedah, and his son, Scott were working on a yellow-colored tractor amidst the long line of red Masseys.

“This is a Model I-244 Industrial G, one of only 25 such that was built for the Corps of  Engineers in 1956,” Willie says. “I bought it originally to build a driveway for my cottage, then I parked it for 15 years. Eventually we dragged it out of the undergrowth and began restoring it. The tractor now resides at my son’s place in Janesville and is a ‘work in progress'. Fully restored it may be worth a lot.”

Long gone Wallis

Also in the line of Red Masseys was a gray tractor that was obviously rather old.

“This is a 1932 Wallis tractor,” a man standing nearby said. “It was made in Racine and I bought it at auction in Broken Bow, Nebraska.” 

The speaker turned out to be Fred Heidt of Cambria who explained how the Wallis fit into tractor history.

Fred Heidt of Cambria shares information about his 1932 Wallis tractor.

“The Wallis tractors were built from 1902 until 1932 in Racine by the J.I. Case Plow Works (a different company than Case Threshing Machine, which would build the Case brand of tractors). Wallis Tractor was founded by Henry Wallis, the son-in-law of Jerome Case. Henry Wallis was also the president of the Case Plow Works, which had been founded by J.I. Case,” he says.  

In 1928, Case Plow Works was sold to Massey-Harris and Massey took over production  (also at this time, full rights to the Case name were sold to Case Threshing Machine). Massey-Harris continued to use the Wallis brand until 1932, when the Massey-Harris name replaced it.

While Wallis was not an actual forebearer of Massey Harris, it  was sort of a cousin, thus lives on in the tractor collectors world.

Heidt, who spent his life a a farmer, bought his first antique tractor in 2011 and now owns four tractors and an assortment of 1930’s and 40’s farm equipment.

“I display them at 8 to 10 shows a year,” he says. “I’m not an engineer or mechanic, but I’m learning.”

Twin City

Another tractor Joe and I noted and found interesting was the “Twin City,” a tractor built by Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company that made steel sections for bridges and other structures. The company began producing stationary steam engines and Twin City brand tractors. Dealers often claimed their tractors were  “Built to do the work – not to meet a price”.

Note the logo of the old Twin Cities tractor which appears very comparable to the “Twins” uniforms.

The company never offered a line of equipment to use with the tractor which hurt sales.   In 1929, Minneapolis Steel merged with Moline Plow and Minneapolis Threshing Machine to form the Minneapolis-Moline Company. A reminder of the Twin Cities tractor remains today as the TC logo on the Minnesota Twins baseball uniforms which is the same as was used on the tractor.

The big steamers

A visit to the Thresheree would not be complete without  a stop at the display of steam engines—those huge, black coal-fueled, steam powered machines with loud whistles that were used to pull plows before the advent of the internal combustion engine. There were a dozen or more that fired up and thrilled the crowds at the Thresheree,

Meeting again

I noted a young man working at the controls of a huge Case Steam Engine and took a photo and as he got down from above we both realized we’d met before at the Wisconsin FFA Convention last June. 

Union Grove President Connor Esch and other officers of the FFA team and their instructor Carrie Jacobs were preparing for the resumption of agricultural classes and FFA at their high school after decades of absence. Connor said the new facilities being built at the school were ready and on Sept. 4 school would open and FFA would be back on the schedule.  “I think there are enough (students) enrolled for two teachers,” he says.

Rory Esch (left) and his son, Connor, work together on the Case steam engine.

A 1947 Massey

Connor’s dad, Rory, has been a long time antique tractor enthusiast which includes owning the steam engine and that interest has been passed on to Connor.

“My brother Clayton and I own two tractors,” he says. “One, a Massey Harris is on display here.”

Of course, we went and took a look at the beautifully restored 1947 Massey Harris 44 Six. "This is a six-cylinder that I bought from a neighbor, Connor explained. “Notice that it even has original stickers which are still made today."

Connor’s plans are to attend Iowa State University and major in Ag Systems Technology after graduation.

“My brother goes to ISU and I’ve visited there several times and like it,” he says. 

All is not new

It’s sometimes easy to get the impression that the really important things in life were invented yesterday, or maybe just a few years ago. In fact, prior to the Depression there were over 200 tractor companies in the U.S., many of which were on display at Edgerton.

Most of us never give much thought to how life existed before TV’s, computers, cell phones, copy machines, baseball batting helmets and digital cameras. All, however, are rather recent inventions. None existed when I was in high school.

Joe Oncken, the writer’s grandson, stands next to a 1942 John Deere. (His dad, John, is a John Deere dealer in North Dakota. )

Yes, indeed, there was life and smart people long before computers, cable TV and satellite global positioning. And smart people have always innovated and invented and as one old timer suggested at a past show, “most such things are tied to saving labor and time.” 

How true! Seeing is believing. A look at 100 year old tractors tells the story.

John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-572-0747, or email him at