Vintage tractors highlight the spirit of innovation in early Alberta farm industry

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer

Farm innovation is by no stretch of the imagination a new concept on Alberta farms. From the first settlers right on into the present day there have been amazing leaps in technology which have led to greater productivity and efficiency in the prairie farm economy.

Someone with a unique perspective on the effect of some of these leaps and bounds is Pieter van Ewijk, general manager of Coyote Flats Pioneer Village in Picture Butte, Alberta.  Coyote Flats was founded and continues to be overseen by the Prairie Tractor & Engine Museum Society. The 32 acre compound is home to over 160 vintage tractors and other farm machines spanning a century of Alberta farm history.

van Ewijk says there are many wonderful machines to behold at the Coyote Flats Pioneer Village, but he does have his favourites.

“I think my favourite one is a 1920 Waterloo Boy tractor,” says van Ewijk. “It’s a gasoline tractor. When you look at it, it’s definitely an interesting antique.”

The Waterloo Boy, explains van Ewijk, is a fascinating hybrid which gives a strong sense of some of the mystique surrounding engines from an even earlier era.

“When you look at the Waterloo Boy it still looks like one of those early monsters because it was modeled on a steam engine even though it used gasoline. It took a few years before tractors changed to become more like we envision them nowadays.”

For all the nostalgic ideas surrounding the late 19th century steam era engines, van Ewijk says it is easy to understand why Alberta farmers were quick to adopt gasoline powered tractors as soon as they became readily available.

“The prairies here, and I am talking southern Alberta, were a little bit late in being settled and being cultivated. Obviously down in the States it was happening long before; so there are tractors from the 1890s. In 1900 the steam tractors first came to Alberta and then quickly they became gasoline driven. Because with steam it was high pressure; and boilers were dangerous. You either had to have someone who already has a boiler ticket and could run it or you took your chances and hoped you didn’t blow up.”

The early gasoline tractors like the 1920 Waterloo Boy, van Ewijk admits, would probably not impress most modern farmers used to operating massively powerful farm machines. You can only understand its innovative brilliance in context.

“I strongly believe we look at history the wrong way. We look back and say: ‘Oh my goodness, a 20 horsepower tractor, how can you work with that?’ But thinking the other way, the Waterloo Boy came from doing everything by horses or by hand. When you got to work with a 20 horsepower engine like this your job was made so much easier.”

The desire for greater efficiency drove the next big innovation, says van Ewijk.

“The next biggest innovation is steel wheels to rubber. That came about between 1920-1925, or so. The biggest benefit was comfort in ride. It was one thing if you are in your fairly soft field with steel wheels and cleats on them for traction. But if you had to drive on any road, that got to be a fairly bumpy ride,” says van Ewijk with a chuckle.

Not to mention an expensive bill if for any reason one of the steel wheels cracked or snapped off a cleat.

Comfort was not generally a big factor for early pioneering farmers who were used to physical hardship and effort in a way we can never understand today, says van Ewijk. But when the possibility of comfort coincided with being able to work longer hours Alberta farmers jumped on board.

“The next innovation was probably more horsepower and more creature comforts. Things like cabs, and with that powered lights and things like that. You could also pull much larger implements. Can you imagine having a five footer and then suddenly being able to run a self-propelled ten footer? That was huge. You just cut your workload by 50 per cent. These things were big jumps at the time.”

The widespread use of PTO systems, and then later hydraulics, accelerated this trend.

“Pre-PTO, I think the early days of the tractor is when you pulled things and used ground powered equipment,” says van Ewijk. “The widespread use of the PTO system first came about in the 1930s or so. That’s when you could start turning things and moving things and processing things like through hay-wagons and so on. As far as hydraulics go, you could do so much more in terms of having tighter control. As these systems (PTO and hydraulics) became available the equipment they were able to pull became more sophisticated. The implement dealers were improving and the tractors had to keep up with that and vice versa. It became sort of a vicious cycle in that respect.”

(Note: First PTO was used on a tractor in 1918 but it took a couple decades to evolve to become standard).

We start to see the emergence of a more modern style tractor in the mid-1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1970s the future of tractors became clear. van Ewijk points to another favourite of his from the Coyote Flats Pioneer Village collection to illustrate this point: A 1973 Versatile 145.

“That was one of the first articulated four wheel drive tractors. And so that probably was the next step forward. I am not sure the articulated aspect made much of a difference at the time, but that tractor is probably the start of the big tractors we have now.”

According to van Ewijk the motivation behind Alberta farm technology innovation from the early 20th century until today has been consistent.

“Productivity and efficiency has always been the biggest driver, the biggest factor behind change. Farmers have always looked for more capable machines. Some of it was necessity, because necessity is the mother of invention. But, for the most part, productivity and efficiency has been the push behind for all these innovations. How can we do better? How can we do more per acre? It’s not just tractors that made the difference, but certainly they were a big part of it.”