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The pluses and minuses of farming with mules, horses and tractors

"Indeed, those who farmed at the turn of the 20th century never worried about the battery on their horse team — although a kick could be nasty."

A rusted horse-drawn hay mower sits in a field surrounded by trees.
Before tractors, farmers used mules or horses to pull implements, like this hay mower sitting in a field in Maine.
<a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/pavdw/">Paul VanDerWerf / Creative Commons</a>
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The federal government estimated that farmers owned 24 million horses and mules in 1910, with most having three or four in their barns. Although the saying “as stubborn as a Missouri mule" sullied the reputation of the hard-working animal, southern tenant farmers depended on them.

In the Midwest, a good work horse team was a necessity. Even the best-trained teams had temperamental moments. Gnats and mosquitoes could spook them, and thirsty horses could bolt if the wind carried the smell of water. A team owner — one who could read their animals like a book — would never overwork the horses or deny them water.

An ill-timed kick or stomp occasionally killed an owner, and less-than-honest horse jockeys hid flaws as best they could while peddling horses.

It’s safe to say many farmers doubted that steam engines and steel-wheel tractors would catch on when the machines became available. The first tractors were clumsy iron monsters weighing anywhere from 20,000 pounds to 30,000 pounds.

The Hart Paars, Cases and Rumleys had the market pretty much to themselves until World War I, when Henry Ford introduced the Fordson. The tractor weighed less than competitors, and when the farm economy tanked after the war, Ford dropped his new tractor price from $625 to $395. The reduced price was still steep, which opened the door for Montgomery Ward and other mail-order companies to offer kits so farmers could build their own tractors.

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mychal wilmes.jpg
Mychal Wilmes

All that was needed to build your own tractor was an engine from a Model A or from another car make.

In the late 1970s, I interviewed a man who farmed approximately 100 acres with horses. He was cutting alfalfa when he stopped to talk. I asked him why he never took a liking to the internal combustion engine.

The cutter’s clickity-clack makes fine music, he said, and the birds can be heard over it. An engine’s noise is stress-inducing, and its roar ruins hearing. Horses are not for everyone, he said, because they need both love and firmness.

“It’s kind of like dealing with your own children," he said.

It got me to thinking that I, too, might have been better off with horses. Tractors and I never got along too well. It started off badly with a spoke-wheeled Allis Chalmers WC, built in West Allis, Wisconsin, just before World War II.

It was constructed with good steel but came with a mean attitude. When it was crank started, it often kicked. A careless operator could easily suffer a broken arm. If I had not been well-trained not to swear for fear of eternal damnation, my words might have made a sailor plush.

The International M had a better disposition but lacked a working battery. For that reason, it was parked on a hill so that it could be roll started.

“Once you get it started, don’t kill it or you’ll be walking home."

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It was good advice, but useless. The more one thinks about not killing a tractor, the more likely it is to die. Such was the case when it stopped on the headlands a long way from the homeplace.

The obvious question was why the tractor’s owner didn’t just run to town to get a new battery. A battery (at least back then) wasn’t worth its weight in pure gold.

“Everybody knows why it is always parked on the hill," I said, in a failed bid to shame the owner into action. It didn’t work because his financial tightness had already reached legendary status.

“At least find a crank for it."

I returned home without the tractor more than once. It wasn’t so bad — the journey gave me time to think about many things. Indeed, those who farmed at the turn of the 20th century never worried about the battery on their horse team — although a kick could be nasty.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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