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COLUMN: Tractors, train changed county farming forever

Not long after tractors like this American made Cletrac tractor were brought here circa 1918, oxen and horses were on the way out in Kings County.
Not long after tractors like this American made Cletrac tractor were brought here circa 1918, oxen and horses were on the way out in Kings County. - Contributed

For many centuries, beginning with the Acadians in the 1600s and the Planters who followed them, horses and oxen did most of the heavy farm work on uplands, orchards and the dykes of Kings County. As recently as two generations ago horses and oxen were indispensable and, without them, farming would’ve been difficult and non-productive.

In fact, it wasn’t until the early 20th century, when gasoline-operated agricultural equipment appeared, that farmers stopped using horses and oxen for heavy farm work.  It was a long phasing out process, however.  In 1918, when Port Williams entrepreneur George A. Chase imported gas-operated tractors into Kings County, farmers at first were slow to accept them and were reluctant to put horses and oxen out to pasture.  But eventually tractors, like the American import Cletrac that Chase brought in, caught on.  Around that time, other tractor dealerships sprung up in Kings County.  Newspaper advertisements from the early 1920s, in The Register and The Advertiser, show that as well as George A. Chase, the Woodworth Bros. of Berwick were offering tractors, possibly the Case, and Kentville’s  F. W. Robinson was selling Fordsons.   

The Fordson, first manufactured by Henry Ford in 1917, was the most economical tractor on the market for a time, selling at a price farmers in Kings County found affordable. The Canadian Tractor Museum says the Fordson likely was one of the first tractors used in any great number in the Annapolis Valley.    

By the 1930s, after tractors had proved their worth, horses and oxen were looked upon for the most part as obsolete.  It’s no coincidence that with the tractor’s arrival, farm productivity increased and at the same time fruit growing boomed.

The tractor is credited as a major factor in making apple orchards here some of the most productive in Canada.  In 1920, Nova Scotia Fruit Growers Association president Manning Ells said that where once the thousand barrel orchard was found on only a few farms, “today crops of three to five thousand are quite common in every community.”  Ells said the tractor was a major factor in apple production increases.  “The advent of the small tractor has made great changes,” he said, “and the largest orchards in Canada are now found in the Annapolis Valley.”  Thanks to the tractor, he added, farmers here had become the top apple producers in Canada.   

Ells didn’t mention another factor that spurred agricultural growth in Kings County – the railway’s arrival.  Historians may argue otherwise but the apple industry appears to be the main reason the railway came to Kings County.  In the official history of the Dominion Atlantic Railway (published in 1937) Marguerite Woodworth  states that the “immense possibility of apple orcharding (sic) was the primary cause of the building of the railway.”  It’s no coincidence that less than a decade after the railway laid tracks through Kings County the acreage of land devoted to orchards had tripled.  Within a few decades, record apple crops were being produced with Kings County accounting for nearly 90 percent of this volume.

Even with the railway’s presence, however, none of this would’ve been possible if gas driven tractors hadn’t replaced horses and oxen.  Early versions of tractors and other farm equipment were steam and kerosene driven and were large, difficult to operate and had very limited use. A photograph of an early steam-operated  farm machine that was published circa 1890 in Berwick’s newspaper, The Register, showed a steam-driven “tractor” towing a threshing machine.  The machine had monster wheels and, if pictures don’t lie, it apparently took two men to operate it, one as the driver, the other as the engineer.

Steam operated farm equipment was around as early as 1849 but these were slow, cumbersome and too costly for most farmers.  It took an American, John Frolich, to invent a streamlined smaller machine, eventually dubbed a tractor, that operated on gasoline and was affordable.  In 1892, Frolich built the first gasoline/petrol powered tractor and introduced it to the farming world.

It was these machines, mainly U.S. made but copied extensively by Canadian manufacturers using American made parts, that replaced oxen and horses.  Here and there in the county, horses and oxen found a niche – remember the horse and ox pulls that once were popular but now are rarely held – but in a way these animals have become a curiosity.

Horses and oxen were a lot more costly to maintain and that’s likely the prime reason tractors were welcomed.  It’s been estimated that before mechanized farm machinery appeared, at least half of the labor time on the farm was spent harvesting winter feed for horses and oxen and maintaining them.  It was a lot less costly to keep a tractor in the barn over winter.  Then there was the work factor.  Tractors simply outperformed horses and oxen at every task and they were time saving.  Once farmers saw the benefit of replacing their hayburners, the writing was on the wall and that was it for horses and oxen.   

Meanwhile, tractors large and small keep today’s farm functioning.  Few people remember how important horses and oxen once were on the farm.  And with the railway long gone, few people remember the vital role the combination of tractors and trains once played. It’s said that tractors are one of the top inventions that changed the face of farming and it rightly deserves this reputation.

Read the entire BACK ON THE FARM SERIES: A collection devoted to a vital industry in the Annapolis Valley:

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