Idaho History: Steam tractors gradually replaced horses in farming and industry



The revolution in agriculture that saw most horses replaced by steam traction engines began around 1870. In that year, the Jerome I. Case Co. of Racine, Wis., produced the first of the thousands of machines it would sell before about 1920, when smaller and more efficient gasoline-powered tractors began to take over the market. Before that happened, however, there were more than 50 manufacturers of steam tractors used in agriculture and in logging in the United States and Canada.

A steam tractor could power a threshing machine or a sawmill, and haul the products of each to market. It could pull gang plows that helped bring Idaho's sage brush lands under cultivation. It was even claimed by some that the big machines improved dirt roads by packing them flat with their 10-ton weight and wide, cleated iron wheels.

The Idaho Statesman's first mention of a steam traction engine appeared on May 19, 1874: "Rossi & Lambing's steam wagon had reached Snake River at last accounts, and is expected to arrive in this city next Sunday. Although not quite so extensive an affair as Barnum's Museum, its arrival is looked for with as much interest as the advent of that conglomeration of wonders would create."

On May 30, 1874, Editor Milton Kelly reported that the steam wagon had arrived, been set up, and "made its novel appearance on our street on Thursday with steam up, rolling along at the rate of three miles per hour with tender and two heavy freight wagons attached, on which some fifty men, ourself among the number, all anxious to ride after the steam wagon horse."

The train started from the lumber yard, moved down Main Street as far as the Overland Hotel, turned up Eighth Street, and round "as handsomely as a man can turn a single wagon round with a span of horses, and then went back up Main Street to the lumber yard. For a trial trip this was an admirable success. After taking on a full supply of wood and water, the train started up about 4 o'clock p.m. for the mountains, moving slowly and majestically out of town. Two miles away it gave the appearance of a railroad train in the distance. Mr. I.P. Lambing is chief engineer and manager, and is very sanguine that he will make a success of the enterprise, which we hope he may."

That first "steam wagon" in Idaho was intended to power Rossi & Lambing's sawmill in the mountains between Boise and Idaho City. On March 30, 1875, the paper reported that the great machine was "still lying by the side of the road where it broke down nearly a year ago," and called it "a costly experiment to its owners."

The earliest threshing machines brought to Idaho, before steam tractors were common, were powered by horses. The Statesman reported on July 18, 1872, "Messrs. Hart & Davis have just received one of Wheeler's patented threshing machines, with tread horse power, complete, which they will use in the valley as soon as the threshing season commences."

In these machines from Albany, N.Y., patented in 1851, one or more horses propelled the thresher by walking a treadmill, not unlike those used by people today for the exercise. Those horses did not do it for the exercise, but were encouraged with nose bags filled with oats and by buckets of water to quench their thirst. In hot weather, horses were changed regularly.

In 1874, James Stout was threshing 300 bushels of wheat per day with a small Cincinnati machine, rated four horsepower, using a turbine wheel and water power from his irrigation ditch.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email

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