The Gray Tractor:
An Unconventional Design
By Collections Curator Ruth Bitner
and former Conservator Ron Ford
Gray Tractor Company advertisement
Canadian Power Farmer, September, 1921
“Wherever tractors have been demonstrated, the Gray has been
recognized as the best built machine. Its Wide Drive Drum and
exclusive features enable it to do a wider range of farm work
and do it better.”1
The Gray Tractor Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota was one of dozens of companies trying to make it big in the tractor business in the teens and 1920s. What set the Gray apart from its competitors was the large drum which took the place of rear wheels. According to company advertising, the drum offered ten advantages: “Simplicity of construction; does away with all bevel gears and differential; distributes weight over a larger surface; avoids packing of the soil and injury to seed bed; ideal for soft and wet land; gives double traction surface; supplies more power to the drawbar; produces a never-slip grip; affords easy steering and turning; and rolls everything flat before plows.”2
One Gray owner agreed with at least some of these claims. Roy Mitchell and two partners bought an 18-36 HP Gray tractor in Winnipeg during the summer of 1918 and drove it out to the farm two miles south of Headingly, Manitoba. Mitchell said he hauled four-wheel tractors out with his Gray “when they got down so bad in the mud in the gumbo soil in the Red River Valley.”3 He went on to say that the Gray was good for travelling through snow. Mitchell took his Gray tractor with him when he moved to Star City, Saskatchewan in 1927.
The Gray Tractor Company of Canada Limited was headquartered in Winnipeg with distributors in Lethbridge, Calgary, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon. The parent company built a model especially for the Canadian market. Its 22-40 HP Canadian Special had two non-driving wheels in front and one 54-inch drum at the back. A Waukesha four-cylinder motor provided enough power to pull a four-bottom plow. The Canadian Special sold for about $2600.
There were two practical problems with the Gray drum drive tractor. One was that, given the wide bearing surface of the drum and consequent low soil pressure, the tractor bumped over every stone it encountered, and in many applications, it would hit just about every stone in the field.
The second problem was that the operator was at the very back of the machine, making it hard for him to see. This was partially alleviated by swinging the seat out from the side of the tractor so the operator sat sideways to the steering wheel and looked over his shoulder to see where he was going.
Production dates for the Gray are difficult to pin down. Company beginnings have been traced to the work of W. Chandler Knapp of Rochester, New York about 1908. After a move to Minneapolis and a reorganization of the company, the first Gray tractor was introduced in 1914.4 The Canadian Special came out in 1925. There is some uncertainty about when production ended. Some say 1933; others say 1935. One writer said that production was short-lived because of patent disputes with Caterpillar. Indeed, the drum drive may have been an attempt to by-pass Caterpillar patents.
The Western Development Museum has five Gray tractors in its collection: one at the Yorkton Museum; one at North Battleford; and two at the Saskatoon WDM. Roy Mitchell’s Gray is in storage at the WDM Curatorial Centre also in Saskatoon. It made its last hometown appearance in Star City’s Saskatchewan Golden Jubilee parade in 1955. Later that year, it was acquired by the Western Development Museum.
You are invited to the Western Development Museum to see these and many other fascinating artifacts. There is much to see at all four WDM branches in Saskatchewan.
1. Advertisement, Gas Power, March, 1917
2 Advertisement, Canadian Power Farmer, April, 1920, p. 59
3 Letter from Roy Mitchell to WDM, file 1973-NB-369
4 Wendel, C.H.; An Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors; Crestline Publishing, Sarasota, FL. 1979, p. 129
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