Centennial oddball: 1918 tractor modeled horse-drawn implements

Mikkel Pates
Forum News Service

HOPE, N.D. — That odd-looking contraption featured at the “Pie Day” fundraiser on Sept. 30 at the Steele County Museum in Hope didn’t look like a tractor — but it was.

It’s the Moline Universal D. Built in 1918, it celebrates its centennial this year, says proud owner Jack Vadnie, a grain farmer from Clifford, N.D.

Jack’s late father, Gordon Vadnie, bought the machine in the mid-1950s. Jack doesn’t know the machine’s history before that.

Gordon put it on display at the museum in 1970 and “drove it in parades in the mid-1970s when all of the centennials were going on,” Jack says.

Now Jack does the same.

“It runs good and it’s fun to drive,” he says.

Jack says he doesn’t know how many of the machines are still in the world. A few are smattered around the world in high and low places. One is the Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C.

On Sept. 13, 2019, there will be a Moline Universal reunion at Geneseo, Ill. The organization is putting it together a list of serial numbers on antique machines. Information on the event is at http://molineplowco.com/reunion/.

“I would like to go, looking for sponsors to take the tractor down there,” he says.

Universal uses

Jack quotes C.H. “Chuck” Wendel of Amana, Iowa, a tractor historian and author, about the tractor’s history.

The Universal Tractor was promoted for its articulated steering, high-speed engine, electronic governor, starter and — lights, Jack says. “It had individual brakes, pulling a lever one way or another to assist in turning. It had differential lock, allowing you to get out of sticky situations,” Jack says.

The “universal” tractor concept was invented and patented in 1912 by John I. Hoke of Washington, Ind. The engine and transmission were mounted over and between the two, 60-inch diameter drive wheels.

Jack says the weight is somewhat off to one side, so the manufacturers put concrete in the rims as ballast. The tractor was noted for an inability to back up, and for easily tipping. He says the front axles are on hinges, to lower or raise either side when plowing, to keep the tractor level.

The power-forward concept was initially popular with horse farmers who were used to having power up-front. It was a logical transition because it fitted horse-drawn implements, saving costs in the transition to gas power.

The steering wheel is on a pinion at the end of a steering shaft that extends to the rear where the driver sits on an attached implement. The seat is one- or two-wheeled sulky, making it articulated.

A long iron line

There were several players in developing the “universal” concept, Jack says.

Hoke Tractor Co., eventually based at South Bend, Ind., went out of business before 1920.

In 1914, the Universal Tractor Manufacturing Co. of Columbus, Ohio, built a one-row cultivator with the universal concept. Wendel noted it featured a “high-tension ignition and force-feed lubrication” and was touted for its versatility — able to pull mowers, rakes, harrows and planters. It had a front-mounted belt pulley and could operate a pump, wood saw, feed grinder, corn sheller or washing machine, among other things.

In 1913, Moline Plow Co., of Moline Ill., also got into the “motor plow business,” too. By 1915, Moline Plow bought the Universal Tractor Co.’s design and started making two-cylinder engine tractors — Models B and C. That machine could attach to a two-row cultivator, two-bottom plow, disc/harrows, 10-foot grain drills, corn planter and grain binder, corn binder or sickle mower.

Moline Plow Co. redesigned the tractor in 1918 — the Model D — with a four-cylinder engine.

The “D” was rated at 17.4 drawbar horsepower. The machine cost $1,325 in 1920. It weighed 3,380 pounds, including the concrete ballast that was added at the factory to lower its center of gravity and avoid tipping.

“It still works, and it’s fun to drive,” says Jack Vadnie of Clifford, N.D., whose family since the mid-1950s has owned a 1918 Moline Universal tractor. Photo taken Sept. 30, 2018, at Hope, N.D.