History: The Stearns tractor, made in Ludington.

August 29, 2019

Stearns tractor owned by Ken Hill of Nunica.

History: The Stearns tractor, made in Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.


There was a short time, in the early 20th century, when tractors were manufactured in Ludington. Eight tractors and two crawlers, actually. They were built by the Gile Tractor and Engine Company, later called the Stearns Motor Company.

Stearns tractor owned by Ken Hill of Nunica.

One of those tractors made its way to the Buckley Old Engine Show held earlier this month. The 1919 Stearns Model Q, built with a Stearns Model MDU 25-56 hp engine, is owned by Ken Hill of Nunica. Ken said his father-in-law purchased the tractor in an auction in 1979.

“It had some issues and would overheat, it just wasn’t running well,” Hill said. “So my dad-in-law pulled the head off the tractor and it sat on his work bench until he passed away five years ago. He never put it back together. So, we moved the tractor down to my son-in-law’s place in Allendale (Nick Schultz) last winter. Nick finally got everything done, we rebuild the radiator and put new rings in it. The lower end of the engine was good. We finished it up just a few days before the Buckley show and brought it there. That thing could do 80 horsepower, though it is only rated for 50 hp.”

Local historian John Holcomb of Summit Township said that the increased horsepower isn’t surprising.

“That’s why Stearns called it ‘extra reserve,’” Holcomb said. “That was part of his branding.”

The birth of the Stearns tractor goes back to the formation of the Gile Tractor and Engine Company (also known as the Gile Boat and Engine Company, in the early 1900s.

Stearns tractor owned by Ken Hill of Nunica.

In 1909, lumber baron Justus Stearns and several other Ludington businessmen started the company with the purpose of manufacturing marine and heavy duty stationary engines. His other partners included M.B. Danaher, F.B. Olney and W.L. Mercereau. The engines were the creation of William Gile, of Muskegon, who was considered a pioneer in design and construction of engines. He served as general manager while Stearns was president and Mercereau was secretary and treasurer. Gile also held several of the patents.

“The marine engine was what really gave the company a lot of its success,” Holcomb said. “The Gile marine engine was known worldwide and was considered one of the top motors built at the time.”

Editor’s Note: The topic of the Gile Boat and Engine Company is worthy of a separate article.

Holcomb is probably the foremost expert on the history Gile and Stearns engines. A member of the Mason County Historical Society’s board of directors, Holcomb started to become interested in the topic when the MCHS began discussing building a sawmill at Historic White Pine Village.

“I thought if we were going to have a sawmill, then we needed to run it with an engine that was made in Ludington,” Holcomb said. “That’s when I started looking into the history of the Gile and Stearns engines.”

Gile Boat and Engine Company factory located on present day site of Ludingotn Municipal Marina.

The sawmill is operated by a belt attached to a tractor.

In 2006, the Mason County Historical Society purchased a 1928 Huber 25-50 tractor powered with a Stearns 50 horsepower 4 cylinder engine. That tractor is on display at Historic White Pine Village. However, it presently does not run.

Holcomb has a three-ring binder that contains several photographs, articles, and catalogs related to the Gile and Stearns engines. He said he believes he has the most extensive collection of historic information on the topic.

Gile tractor manufactured in Ludington

“Not a lot of people were aware that Justus Stearns made engines, particularly tractors,” Holcomb said. “In fact, Stearns’ great-grandson, Robert Gable, who still owns the original Stearns cottage at Epworth, knew about the tractors until I told him.”

Near the turn of the 20th century, Justus S. Stearns was Michigan’s largest producer of manufactured lumber and the owner of a prosperous coal mining operation headquartered in Stearns, Kentucky, a town he founded.

Over the course of his career, Stearns would own at least 30 manufacturing businesses—making everything from finished lumber to kitchen utensils, game boards, and motors—as well as hotels, a railroad, and a power company.  

Over 100 years later, Stearns is still a common name in Ludington. Each year, thousands of people spend time at Stearns Park, one of the best free public beaches in the Great Lakes. The Stearns Motor Inn, once known as the Stearns Hotel, continues to operate on the east side of downtown. Up until the late 1960s, the Paulina Stearns Hospital (named after Justus’ wife), was the area’s primary health care facility.

“Justus Stearns was certainly an entrepreneur who believed in producing a quality product at a fair price,” Holcomb said. “He also was truly a generous man who cared about putting people to work and giving back to his community.” 

Stearns tractor owned by Ken Hill of Nunica.

The Gile Boat and Engine Company factory was located on the present location of the Ludington Municipal Marina south of Loomis Street, west of William Street, and east of Ferry Street. To its south were the Pere Marquette Railway carferry docks.

William Gile was born into a farming family in Allegan County in 1868. The family eventually moved to Montague where he attended school and worked with his father on the family farm. His father died when Gile was 15-years-old. In order to support his family, his educational and agricultural pursuits stopped. He then was employed in a planning mill, as a lumber jack, and then a mechanic for the Muskegon Street Railway Company, which he later became chief engineer. He also worked as an implement manufacturer in Greenville.

“Stearns Extra Reserve Engines were use extensively in marine applications and were the engine of choice for large pleasure yachts with horse powers rate over 200 in some cases,” Holcomb said.

While Gile and Stearns only manufactured eight tractors and two crawlers, the company sold its engines to several other companies, including Whitney, the Happy Farmer, Allis Chalmers, Linn, Baker, Minneapolis, and Huber.

But, it was the sale of engines to a company that manufactured a model known as the Ford tractor, that caused the name to be changed from Gile to Stearns.

1928 Huber at White Pine Village

The Ford tractor was manufactured by a small tractor company in Minneapolis. It was named after Paul Ford, an electrician at the company. This was the time that the Ford Motor Company, owned by Henry Ford, was becoming very successful in the automobile industry. The small company that made the Ford tractor was one of many tractor companies that sprung up around the country at the time.

“This was the early days of tractors,” Holcomb said. “John Deere didn’t start manufacturing its own tractors until 1918, so these were the early days.”

After World War I, there were 1,200 different tractor models manufactured.

The 1909 Ford tractor was so poorly built that it prompted Nebraska state legislator W.C. Crozier, who purchased one, to introduce legislation that required tractors to meet a certain standard. To this day, the Nebraska Tractor Tests, created in 1919, still exist. The Ford tractor was manufactured until 1918 when the company went bankrupt.

“The Ford tractor had such a bad reputation and, unfortunately, it was powered by the Gile engine. I believe that this is why the Gile company changed its name to Stearns,” Holcomb said.

In 1917, Henry Ford entered the tractor market with the Fordson — a name that had to be used because of the failed Ford tractor made by the Minneapolis company.

Holcomb said he believes Gile and Stearns did not pursue further manufacturing of tractors after the Fordson came out.

1924 Huber at White Pine Village

“Henry Ford sold inexpensive tractors and it would have been difficult for many other companies to compete,” Holcomb said. “Plus, Justus Stearns was a very diverse businessman. He owned thousands of acres of timber throughout the Great Lakes. Henry Ford actually bought land from Stearns near Kingsford, in the Upper Peninsula, and it’s likely that that business deal prompted Stearns to stop competing against Ford.”

The lumber from Kingsford was used to build the Model T automobiles, Holcomb said.

While the Ford tractor was a bust, one of the more successful tractors built, which contained a Stearns engine, was the Huber tractor.

Based in Marion, Ohio, Huber tractors were produced from 1898 to 1942, when the U.S. War Department decreed that Huber cease making farm equipment and concentrate on road construction equipment in support of the war effort. After the war, the company did not return to the farm equipment business.

Manufacturer Edward Huber started Huber Manufacturing Company in 1898 after he purchased the Van Duzen Gas & Gasoline Engine Co. of Cincinnati. In 1892, John Froelich of northwest Iowa produced the first recorded successful gasoline tractor that could be driven backwards and frontwards (the term “tractor” wasn’t used in those days) using a Van Duzen vertical cylinder engine on a Robinson running gear. Froelich incorporated a traction drive of his own design. At that time, steam-powered engines were used to thresh wheat and Froelich was frustrated with the problems associated with steam engines, they were heavy and bulky, hard to maneuver. They were always threatening to set fire to the grain and stubble in the fields – and on a flat prairie, with a wind blowing, that was serious.

With the help of investors, Froelich started the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. Unfortunately, efforts to sell the gasoline-powered tractor failed. Two were sold and both were shortly returned. In 1895, the company was renamed the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and concentrated on stationary engines until 1914 when it manufactured the Waterloo Boy Model R and then later the Model N. In 1918, Deere & Co. purchased the company. (Neither of the Froelich tractors exist, however a replica can be found at the Froelich Foundation museum, located in McGregor, Iowa.

In 1894, Van Duzen built a tractor very similar to the Froelich tractor using its own one-cylinder vertical engine.

The first Huber tractors were specifically designed for belt power for the Huber threshing machines. Huber built 30 units to sell, making it one of the earliest manufacturers to mass produce a gas farm tractor for commercial use. Because the tractor did not have a true ignition or carburetor system, it was unsuccessful and Huber stopped making tractors for 10 years, until 1910.

The 1928 Huber featured at White Pine Village was part of a uniframe tractor designed in 1926. These Super Four models came in three sizes: 18-36, 20-40 and 25-50. After testing at Nebraska, the tractors’ horsepower ratings were increased to 21-39, 32-45 and 40-62. The 18-36 (21-39) used a Stearns AU engine with a 4-3/4-by-6-1/2-inch bore and stroke. The 20-40 (32-45) used a Stearns DU engine with a 5-1/8-by-6-1/2-inch bore and stroke. The 25-50 (40-62) tractor used a Stearns EU or EU Reserve engine with a 5-1/2-by-6-1/2-inch bore and stroke.

1928 Huber at White Pine Village

Huber also manufactured road building equipment, which was part of its success.

As with many corporations, the Stearns Motor Company shut down in 1930, after many of its customers couldn’t pay their bills. In addition, Justus Stearns had shifted his business focus from lumber to coal and concentrated on his venture of operating his coal mine in Stearns, Kentucky (a town that he named after himself, which still exists).

Most of the factory’s equipment was auctioned off. Many of the agricultural patents were sold to Allis Chalmers in West Allis, Wis., located near Milwaukee.

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

Stearns tractor owned by Ken Hill of Nunica.

Stearns tractor owned by Ken Hill of Nunica.

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