In praise of old tractors and horses

Hart Attacks: It’s been a long journey from horses to tractors to aerial drone technology

I was just catching up on my reading, going through the January 1938 issue of Country Guide magazine and I’m sorry I missed out on a contest to win a brand new Massey Harris tractor in a contest sponsored by Gillett’s Lye.

All you had to do is to get every family member, friend, neighbour or cohort you knew to save their Gillett’s Lye tin labels. The person who mailed in the most labels won the tractor.

And it was a beaut too. It was a Twin Power Massey Harris Pacemaker tractor complete with lights and oversized tires with a staggering retail value of $1,500. And if you really didn’t need the tractor you could take a $1,250 cash prize.

Even the second prize was pretty good — a “superb” pair of Clydesdale horses. I saw an opportunity there — if the grand prize winner’s tractor didn’t start one day, I could always rent him my horses.

It would be good to know who won that contest and how many labels it took to win a tractor. I know Gillett-brand shaving products are still around, although I’m not sure if you can still buy a tin of lye. My grandmother use to make lye soap and I remember there being a tin of Gillett’s lye in the dairy barn when I was a kid.

It says in the Gillett ad it was an excellent product to keep milking equipment sanitary; helped protect valuable livestock when used to wash barn floors and stanchions; helped keep outhouses clean and sanitary; and also saved “hours of household drudgery.” Who wouldn’t want to use Gillett’s Lye?

I remember the tin with the lion on the label being in the barn, but when I became a valuable dairy barn worker lye had been replaced by another powerful, multi-purpose cleaner — Javex. A diluted solution of water and Javex was used for just about everything from washing milking equipment to even cleaning cow’s udders and teats before Chore Boy milking equipment was slipped on.

And as a bonus when the white gallon plastic Javex jugs were empty they could be rinsed and cut down to make dishes for feeding milk to barn cats, fashioned into scoops for feeding dairy ration, or just opened up to be a perfect holder for still pretty-straight nails.

No wonder Gillett’s Lye disappeared from the shelves… it was all about the container. It couldn’t compete.

I know I am getting old, but it’s interesting to look back at this stuff. This contest ran about 80 years ago when labels off a can of a household sanitation product could win you a new tractor. I’m sure in January 1938, $1,500 for a tractor was still a pretty staggering amount.

But I can’t guess how many labels you would need off of any product today to win a new $250,000 to $350,000 tractor.

In that same issue of Country Guide, Case advertised it’s latest power-house Model L tractor with a photo of the machine pulling a three-bottom mouldboard plow. There was no mention of the horsepower capacity of the tractor in the full-page ad, but it did emphasize how economical it was to run.

J.T. Simonson who farmed in Manitoba reported he had put 2,160 hours on the tractor with a total upkeep cost of $6 for the year — yes, $6.

Over in Saskatchewan, Roy F. Cole had put about 1,000 hours per year on his Model L for seven years. His annual repair costs averaged $5.36.

And in Alberta, F.W. Fuller was paying 5.5 cents for fuel. After 4,000 hours of work “equal to 160,000 miles on a motor car” his maintenance costs were about 1/2 cent per hour. “Counting fuel, oil and grease, depreciation and upkeep his total power cost figures out at 25.4 cents an hour… big tractor capacity for the hourly cost of a two-horse team,” the ad reported. The days of the horse were numbered.

My dad still had a team of horses, Babe and Queenie, I recall him still using for some farming operations when I was about six or seven. But it was about that time that a hot orange Allis Chalmers 45 tractor appeared on the farm. Dad opened the front of an old log building that once was a buggy shed, which became “the tractor shed” and that Allis Chalmers tractor had a home in that shed for the next 55 years. The horses disappeared shortly after the tractor arrived, but the tractor endured.

It performed most of the field operations while my dad was farming. And after he retired and most other equipment was sold, the old Allis remained in the shed. And even into his early 80s, my dad would fire up the tractor every two or three months and drive it around the yard a couple times just to keep it loosened up.

Also in that 1938 issue of Guide there were smaller advertisements for McCormick-Deering, International Harvester diesel track tractors. And Caterpillar was promoting its farm workhorse — a diesel D4 tractor. H.B. Grant of Deer Lodge Farms at Standard, Alberta reported it only cost him $179.60 worth of fuel for the year to seed about 950 acres, harvest 1,500 acres and haul 11,000 bushels of wheat eight miles in four tanks. Now that is good economy.

But tractors didn’t hog all the economy news. G.S. Webb of Elfros, Sask. gave a testimonial to the Winnipeg-based Horse Shoe Brand Harness he’d bought in 1904 for his horses. He used the harness on a team in the city for a while, and 34 years later he was still using it on horses as he farmed 960 acres “and I’m not afraid to put it to the hardest jobs yet.”

Like many things in life, I’m guessing they don’t make a horse harness like that today. I’ll have to see if Horse Shoe Brand Harness has a website, maybe I can buy on-line and they can send a drone to deliver my order.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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