The Big Four
By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
The Big Four was a big tractor. Named for its massive
four-cylinder engine, the Big Four traces its family history to
the first years of the twentieth century when D.M. Hartsough,
one of the fledging tractor industry's pioneer innovators,
experimented with a multi-cylinder engine. The new design
sparked the interest of Patrick Lyons who, along with Hartsough,
organized the Transit Thresher Company to build an improved
version of the tractor.
The new company's name reflected the organizers' idea of moving the tractor and threshing machine around a stooked field instead of hauling stooks to the thresher.1 "The machine travels over the field, picks up the bundles from the shocks and does the threshing as it proceeds across the field. Those who have witnessed the working of the machine claim that it will revolutionize threshing in this country..."2 However, this idea did not fly so in 1908 the name was changed to Gas Traction Company.
For the first couple of years the factory was located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. By 1910, the company made arrangements for Canadian production as well. According to Gas Power Age, ..."this tractor is now being built by the O'Grady Anderson Company of Winnipeg who have just completed the erection of a fine new factory building...The first Gas Traction [engine] built in Canada was recently completed and loaded at Winnipeg."3 The company had big plans with the factory reported to have a production capacity of 600 tractors per year, beginning with an estimated 250 in 1910.
The Gas Traction Company advertised throughout western Canada. Apparently, sales were good to farmers looking to break large tracts of land. A gold medal and sweepstakes win at the 1910 Winnipeg Agricultural Motor Competition was "a triumph which brought the Big Four 30 into still greater prominence throughout the United States and Canada..."4
One of the features of the Big Four was its "...steering device which automatically guides the engine, keeping its course absolutely parallel with the last furrow turned over."5 This was an asset to farmers plowing mile-long furrows. "With this device, it is only necessary for the operator to start the engine in the furrow at one end of the field and to turn it when it reaches the other end; the automatic steering device does all the rest."6 Today, nearly 100 years later, similar claims are made, albeit with different technology, for GPS systems which guide modern tractors and combines in the fields. The Big Four's "steering device consists of a small pilot wheel which runs along in the furrow ahead of the engine and is connected with the front axle."7 Klaas Peters, a farmer from Waldeck, SK wrote, "The steering attachment is worth $5.00 every day I plow. Saves the wages of one man and steers the engine better than any man could do."8
The Gas Traction Company also promoted the Hansmann binder hitch which made it possible for one tractor to pull several binders. To owners with big farms, this was important. Photographs showing one Big Four pulling up to six binders were used in company advertising. The Big Four could also pull multiple plows or harrows. William D. Mansell of Hanley, SK reported, "We first seeded 1,000 acres with it, pulling four seeders and harrows behind. We can plow as high as 25 acres stubble in 14 hours."9
A few big operators bought more than one Big Four. Fred Engen, who had large land holdings a few miles east of Saskatoon and another large spread in the Rosetown-Herschel area, reportedly had six of them. A farm in the Young, SK area had five. The Weitzen farm south of Rosetown also had several.10
The Big Four, like other huge tractors in its time, flourished for a relatively brief period. As millions of acres of prairie were broken, demand for this kind of tractor diminished. Smaller, more maneuverable, more affordable models began to take their place. The company was bought out by Emerson-Brantingham of Rockford, Illinois in 1912. Production continued until about 1920.
The Western Development Museum has two Big Fours in its collection. One is in the machinery line-up at the Saskatoon WDM. It was acquired by the WDM in 1948 from George Klassen of Gronlid, SK. According to museum records, it began its working life on the Keating farm in the Rosetown area about 1911. Keating sold it about eight years later. A subsequent owner moved it to the St. Louis area where it plowed brush land and powered a threshing machine. It ended up at Gronlid providing power for a sawmill.11
The WDM's second Big Four is at the North Battleford WDM. Little is known of its history other than it was used in the southwest part of the province near Shaunavon.
2. The Threshermen=s Review, December, 1906
3. Gas Power Age, March, 1910, p. 14
4. The Canadian Thresherman and Farmer, June, 1911, p. 82
8. The Canadian Thresherman and Farmer, April, 1911, p. 25
9. The Grain Growers= Guide, December 7, 1910, p. 49
10. Transit Thresher, Gas Traction Co., and Emerson-Brantingham file, E.R. Potter Collection, WDM library
11. Museum file WDM-1973-S-322
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