Opinion: Recalling ‘tractors with lugs’


Commentary by Ward Degler

Back in the Dark Ages of my youth, when interstate highways hadn’t even yet been thought of, more than half the nation’s roads were unpaved, and the rest were narrow asphalt lanes. Along these paved roads were signs proclaiming, “Tractors With Lugs Prohibited.”

Unlike today, when farm machinery comes with rubber tires, tractors during the Great Depression years had giant cast-iron wheels armed with spikes for traction. You can imagine what those spikes did to an asphalt surface. Hence, they were prohibited, and farmers who violated the rule were subject to heavy fines.

This created a conundrum for farmers. They needed the roads to reach separated fields, but if they were paved – which everyone except the farmers loved – they couldn’t use them.

The solution was the creation of “farm roads,” dirt trails often along highway easements or across neighboring farm fields. Many of these still exist in farm communities today, and, ironically, some are paved.

When I was 5 years old, we lived in a rented farmhouse outside Medford, Wis. During spring and summer, the farmer who owned the place regularly showed up early mornings with his team of draft horses to work the fields. But when harvest time rolled around, he arrived behind the steering wheel of the largest and loudest machine I had ever seen — a gigantic steam tractor with huge cast-iron wheels with lugs.

Towed behind the tractor was a threshing machine, a complex mechanism the size of a Greyhound bus. Other men followed in a Ford Model T towing two flatbed trailers.

What happened next was nothing short of poetry in motion. The farmer hooked the tractor to the trailers and spent the day crisscrossing the fields gathering the ripened wheat.

The other men jacked up the Model T and fitted a special wheel to the rear end and ran a long drive belt from there to a wheel on the threshing machine. When they put the car in gear, the threshing machine roared to life.

All day the air was filled with explosive noise from the equipment and impenetrable dust from the wheat chaff. The farmer’s son made repeated trips with the horses pulling large box trailers filled with the harvested grain.

At dusk, everything stopped. One by one, the men and equipment left. The Model T and the trailers chugged along the county road while the tractor pulled the threshing machine across the cleared field to a neighboring farm where it connected with an unpaved road.

Farming is different today. It’s still hard work, but the equipment is quieter and more efficient. And I haven’t seen a sign prohibiting tractors with lugs for years.