Nebraska is a diverse agricultural state, with a broad and interesting farming and ranching history, from east to west. Some of the state’s finest ag history museums and educational sites help to tell the story of Nebraska agriculture through time.
In this installment in our series of Nebraska Farmer virtual tours, we encourage teachers, ag students, 4-H and FFA members, farmers and ranchers, and ag history enthusiasts to virtually visit the Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum at the University of Nebraska East Campus in Lincoln, which is celebrating the heritage of the Nebraska Tractor Test Law, as well as the centennial year of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory in 2020.
Lester F. Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum
Wilmot Crozier of Osceola, Neb., was looking for something different for his farm. He wanted a field machine that could offer more power than a team of mules and more flexibility and maneuverability than the gigantic steam tractors of his day.
The first tractor was invented a few years earlier in 1892 by John Froelich, a northeast Iowa farmer who designed one of the first gas-powered engines that could drive backward and forward. That fall, Froelich threshed 72,000 bushels of grain using his new design.
Froelich’s invention eventually inspired the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co., which later was purchased by John Deere. By 1916, Crozier was set on purchasing one of those newfangled tractors. He bought a Ford Tractor Co. model, built in Minneapolis and not affiliated with Henry Ford.
The Ford was advertised as durable and able to accomplish any operation that animals were being used for on the farm. But Crozier found his new tractor to be a disappointment. Crozier demanded a replacement tractor from the company, but the new 1917 model they sent him broke down as well.
Finally, Crozier bought a used Rumely Oil Pull that met with his satisfaction. In light of Crozier’s experiences and because of an outcry from farmers around the country about field machines not living up to their advertisements, when Crozier was elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 1919, he introduced the Nebraska Tractor Test Bill that would later become law.
The first public evaluation of tractors in the U.S. took place at a demonstration near Omaha in 1911, and it was an annual event for the next five years. At the time, there was fierce competition between steam tractors, newfangled gasoline tractors and horses in agriculture.
Crozier’s new law stated that no company, dealer or individual could offer for sale in Nebraska a tractor model that hadn’t been issued a state sales permit, which was only issued for models tested and exceeding the claims made by the manufacturer. This law led to the establishment of the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory in Lincoln.
The first tractor to be tested at the new NTTL at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was a Waterloo Boy model N, tested on March 31, 1920. That model advertised 12-15 hp, and in the Nebraska test, it produced belt horsepower and 15 drawbar horsepower. Since that time, more than 2,000 models have been tested at NTTL. The lab in Lincoln today remains the only official tractor-testing station sanctioned by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in the country.
At the Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum, located adjacent to the NTTL on East Campus at UNL, you can learn about gasoline-powered tractor history; the story of the Nebraska Tractor Test Law and the tractors involved; as well as the types of tests conducted at the lab and instruments used in testing.
You also can view early hand farm tools, draft animal implements predating tractor development and other early farming equipment. On display are early tractors and engines that have been crucial in development of agriculture technology.
Established in 1998, the museum is named for Lester F. Larsen, who served as the engineer-in-charge of NTTL from 1946 until 1975. Larsen was instrumental in collecting the historical equipment and tractors that are interpreted in the museum bearing his name.
Learn more online at tractormuseum.unl.edu.