By DAVID COLBERT
The Hoosier State is the source of much good. We make stuff. Pretty good stuff, too. I was surprised to learn tractors is – or was — on that list.
If you visited the Indiana State Fair this year, you may have seen a colorful display of antique tractors. I was drawn to it. I like old things. I want to become one someday. So I wandered over and gandered. The variety of ages and styles of tractors impressed me. Then I saw the sign.
“1945 CO-OP – This tractor was the first of 200 off the assembly line in Shelbyville, Indiana.”
I was struck.
When I was growing up quite a few companies made tractors. They came in several colors, like M&Ms®. And like M&Ms, they were shipped to Indiana from elsewhere. The green ones and the red ones came from Illinois and other parts of the Midwest. The blue ones and the tan ones came from Wisconsin. And the other green ones (are you watching my metaphor crumble?) made its tractors in Iowa. But briefly, CO-OP tractors were made in Indiana.
A US Department of Agriculture report published by Agricultural Cooperative Service provides some background.
“In 1934, several regional cooperatives … concluded they would have to work together to attain any success in the machinery field. Lacking sufficient capital for manufacturing, they contracted with Duplex Machinery Co., Battle Creek, MI, to have a CO-OP tractor built to specifications. Among their requirements were high-compression engines and rubber tires.
“Unfortunately, the tractor was ahead of its time. After 2 years of disappointing experience, a principal member withdrew. The remaining cooperatives then formed American Cooperatives, Inc., and signed an agreement in 1938 to have a CO-OP tractor assembled in a plant provided by Farm Security Administration at Arthurdale, WI. After encountering financial difficulties, this cooperative was liquidated in 1940.
“The Indiana regional then decided to build its own tractor assembly plant at Shelbyville. To acquire sufficient volume, it helped organize National Farm Machinery Cooperative, Inc., which produced several hundred tractors in 194 1. During the next 2 years, however, it was forced to switch to producing military hardware for war use.”
In an article published by Farm Collector in 2005, Sam Moore picks up the thread.
“In 1938, trouble developed with Duplex [Machinery Co.] and another change was made, resulting in the formation of the National Farm Machinery Cooperative. NFMC seems to have built some of the No. 2 and No. 3 CO-OP tractors in Shelbyville, Ind., as well as a few in Minneapolis, and some in Arthurdale …”
“About 1940, a new CO-OP B-2 tractor started rolling off the Shelbyville assembly line. Considered a replacement for the old No. 2, the B-2 had a Chrysler 201 cubic inch displacement (cid), 6-cylinder engine, 38-inch tires, a streamlined and tapered hood, and clamshell fenders. Soon, the CO-OP B-3 followed with a bigger, 242 cid Chrysler engine, followed by the smaller CO-OP B-2 Jr. The B-2 Jr. had a 4-cylinder Continental, 162 cid engine, and used a transmission and rear end supplied by the Silver King factory at Plymouth, Ohio.
“In 1942, the Shelbyville plant was converted to war work, and Model B tractor production stopped in 1942. Engineers had been busy designing the Model C, which was to be a light, modern, 2-plow tractor, weighing less than 3,000 pounds and powered by a 124 cid, 4-cylinder, Continental Red Seal engine. The Model C tractors were built during the last years of the war, although no one knows how many, with production probably ceasing early in 1945.
“Although records are pretty sketchy, it appears a couple other CO-OP tractors were built by NFMC right after the war, as examples have been found and restored. In 1945, the Shelbyville plant turned out 200 Model D-3 tractors. A somewhat updated version of the old CO-OP No. 3, the D-3 was built to power threshing machines in the wheat belt and production was tied to special permits from the War Emergency Farm Machinery Board.”
As for CO-OP tractors, USDA and tractordata.com offer this postscript.
“In 1943, National acquired Corn Belt Manufacturing Co., Waterloo, IA, which produced corn pickers, pump jacks, and tank liners. Later that year, it bought Ohio Cultivator Co., Bellevue, a manufacturer of corn and cotton planters, grain drills, manure spreaders, lime spreaders, disk harrows, and garden tractors with a full line of attachments. It moved its headquarters to Bellevue and soon contracted with Cockshutt Implements, Brantford, Ont., to manufacture CO-OP tractors.”
“After World War II, an arrangement with Cockshutt led to the new “E” series of CO-OP tractors which were simply re-branded Cockshutt models. Poor sales led to the CO-OP facilities being sold to Cockshutt in 1952, and the CO-OP brand was discontinued.”
Now, I read this on the Internet. So it must be true. In the AgTalk forum “Machinery Talk” in 2006, a member who chose the identity “clueless” tells us about Custom tractors and their many aliases:
“Around 45/6 the farm [cooperatives] quit prod[uction] and the design was continued (into the mid-50s) by Custom Tractor Mgf/Harry A Lowther Co, selling as Custom, Lehr, some Wards, Jumbo, Simpsons Jumbo, with a few being built by “specialty” builders: Jacob Love, Dave Friday, Closson and Wilson, OMC (and sold in Canada as Norseman, Rockol and Regal).”
Here is a 1958 Oliver Super 44, made in South Bend, Indiana. I’m still looking for information to support this. My reading says Oliver Farm Equipment Company made implements in its South Bend plant, but perhaps not tractors. I am ready to stand corrected if it is so.
Let’s take a moment to admire the composition of the CO-OP. Its curved top and rounded nose. Its clamshell fenders. Its wide-eyed gaze. Its stern demeanor. And its stable stance, like a lineman in a red jersey down on all fours and ready to get to work.
We can say the same of the Custom Model C and the Lehr Big Boy, except the Big Boy has a more pointed stance.
Take another look at that Oliver above. Call me pampered, but that seat cushion looks like a wise investment. And so much more posh than three folded gunny sacks.
Under the canopy where the Hoosier hardware was on display sat a gentleman in a straw hat. He had a wealth of experience. In fact, his family had sold CO-OP and Cockshutt tractors in Huntington, Indiana.
One of the nicest parts of my return to the fair was making the acquaintance of Mr. Charlie Homsher. He was politely idling under the big top, available for inquiry. We chatted about the blip on Indiana’s timeline that was CO-OP tractor production. We talked about his family dealership. He personally knows Bill Cockshutt. We talked about him closing the Huntington dealership and buying a John Deere dealership in Crawfordsville, where he lives today. And he showed me his parade tractor, a 1966 diesel John Deere 2510.
We may not make tractors here today, but we still take pride in them. And we sure know how to use them.
 Cooperative Supply and Equipment Operations: Farmer Cooperatives in the United States, Cooperative Information Report 1, Section 20. USDA Agricultural Cooperative Service. March 1989. (www.rd.usda.gov/files/cir1-20.pdf)