The pros and cons of farming with mules, horses and tractors – Agweek

The pros and cons of farming with mules, horses and tractors - Agweek

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” tarnished the hardworking animal’s reputation, southern sharecroppers depended on them.

In the Midwest, a good workhorse team was a necessity. Even the best-trained teams have had their wayward moments. Gnats and mosquitoes might scare them away, and thirsty horses might run away if the wind carried the smell of water. A carriage owner – someone who could read his animals like a book – would never overwork horses or refuse them water.

An untimely kick or trample sometimes killed an owner, and less-than-honest horse jockeys hid faults as best they could while peddling horses.

It is safe to say that many farmers doubted that steam engines and steel wheel tractors would become widespread when the machines became available. The first tractors were clumsy iron monsters weighing between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds.

The Hart Paars, Cases and Rumleys practically had the market to themselves until World War I when Henry Ford introduced the Fordson. The tractor weighed less than its competitors, and when the agricultural economy collapsed after the war, Ford dropped the price of its new tractor from $625 to $395. The discounted price was still high, which opened the door for Montgomery Ward and other mail-order companies to offer kits for farmers to build their own tractors.

Mychal Wilmes

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

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

The click-clack of the cutter makes beautiful music, he says, and the birds can be heard over it. The noise of an engine is stressful and its roar destroys hearing. Horses aren’t for everyone, he says, as they need both love and firmness.

“It’s a bit like taking care of your own children,” he said.

It made me think that I, too, might have been better off with horses. Tractors and I never got along very well. It all started badly with an Allis Chalmers spoke-wheel toilet, built in West Allis, Wisconsin, just before World War II.

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

The International M had a better layout but lacked a working battery. For this reason, it was parked on a hill so that it could start while rolling.

“Once you start it, don’t kill it or you’ll walk home.”

It was good advice, but useless. The more you think about not killing a tractor, the more likely it is to die. This was the case when he stopped on promontories far from the hearth.

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

“Everyone knows why it’s still parked on the hill,” I said, in a failed attempt to shame the owner. It didn’t work out as his financial difficulties had already reached legendary status.

“At least find a crank for this.”

I have come home without a tractor more than once. It wasn’t bad – the trip gave me time to think about a lot of things. Indeed, those who cultivated at the turn of the 20e century never worried about the battery of their horse team – although a kick might be unpleasant.

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

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