Selling the Bull Tractor

Pastor Hartsough. D.M. Hartsough. Daniel Hartsough. D. Maurice Hartsough. Tracking him down in newspapers, trade journals and archives has been as difficult as finding a photo (which I still have not), or piecing together the tractors he designed and launched. Or the trail of partners left in his wake.

Throughout my research, I keep getting pulled back to Hartsough’s Bull tractor and its emergence from seemingly nowhere, and then its collapse just a few years later. If you want to talk industry disruption, the Bull was it. It was small (5-12 hp) and inexpensive, a simple entry-level tractor for the farmer ready to bring a little more power to the farm.

Advertisement in the Hutchison (KS) News, July 8, 1916. Train cars loaded with tractors began to arrive from Texas as Hutchison prepared to host the next stop of the National Tractor Demonstration later that month.

Henry Ford promised an inexpensive tractor in 1908, but an enigmatic street pastor name Daniel M. Hartsough, eventually with the help of his son Ralph, beat him to it with the Bull. And it took them a long time to get there. The Hartsough story is a microcosm of the tractor industry in the early twentieth century, ripe with great successes, traumatic failures, and contributions lost to history.

At the turn of the century, the Reverend Daniel Hartsough traded his automobile for some North Dakota farmland and went to work. He envisioned a massive prairie tractor, but one with the power others were lacking. Father and son designed a three-cylinder tractor, then a two-cylinder tractor, many of which were “bum, very bum,” Ralph later said. Then they found someone to finance their latest four-cylinder model for a half-interest in the patent. Frank Lyons joined the father-son duo to form the Transit Thresher Company in Minneapolis. A 35-horsepower version of their tractor debuted at the Winnipeg Agricultural Motor Competition in 1908. And although a broken steerage chain sabotaged the chances of a victory, their Big Four “30” tractor, which pulled a seven-bottom John Deere plow, did lure additional investors and a distribution deal with Deere.

Fast-forward several years, and an on-going debate between father and son (which nearly ended their relationship) gave way to Ralph’s vision for a small, economical, gasoline tractor. The Bull debuted in 1913, and took the fledgling tractor industry by storm. Industry sales reached somewhere between 10-16,000 tractors that year, and the Bull Tractor Company could not build them fast enough. They shipped fifty-five tractors to a tractor demonstration in Fremont, Nebraska in 1915 and sold them all. Customers soon found the Bull to be under-powered. The Big Bull 12-24 was an effort to respond, but by 1920 the Bull Tractor Company was all but gone, a cautionary tale to inventors and financiers of the challenges of bringing new technology into the field.

Pastor Hartsough and his son Ralph were not done, though. Daniel designed a new tractor and sold it to the Lion Tractor Company (not to be confused with his partner Frank Lyons). Lyons sued Lion and Hartsough, and the Lion tractor was never built (confused yet?). In the meantime, Hartsough sold a his tractor to the Happy Farmer Tractor Co., which eventually merged into the LaCrosse Tractor Co. Some sources even connect him to the impostor Ford tractor built by the Ford Tractor Company (borrowing the name of Paul Ford to make it legitimate).

How did he keep it all straight? Was he a visionary? Was he in the right place at the right time? Or was he simply a poor businessman unable to find a trusted partner to build on his genius?

The one thing that is certain is that Pastor Daniel Hartsough was a cautionary tale to entrepreneurs trying to bring the technologically advanced steel horses to market. First, manufacturing capacity was critical to success, and he never had it. Instead, he outsourced his operations. Second, capital was critical, and it had to be sustainable. Its hard to design, build, and perpetually raise money, and it appeared he could not stay profitable. And third, service and support were essential if farmers were to come back. The lack of support for the Bull was perhaps the immediate cause of its demise. Hartsough failed at these parts of the business, and as a result, his place in early tractor history is told only by the the memory of the brand he created and the few vintage tractors that survived.

For more, check out this 2011 article on the Bull in Gas Engine Magazine.