Samson Tractor Company

1919-1921

Samson paved the way for GM
Eighty-seven vehicles an hour run off the assembly lines at the General Motors Corp.
Buick- Oldsmobile-Cadillac Group plant here.
The trucks and cars built here today have electronic devices that contribute to traffic
safety, energy efficiency and driver comfort.
But they can trace their roots back to one of the simplest tools ever manufactured:
the plow.
The local plant's father was GM's Samson Tractor Division, which was born of the
marriage of Samson Tractor Co. of Stockton, Calif., and the Janesville Machine Co., which made plows, planters and cultivators. Janesville Machine was formed in 1881 to take over the business of HARRIS Manufacturing Co., whose history dates to a partnership formed in 1859 to make farm implements here. The original partners were James HARRIS, Zebediah GUILD, D. R. ANGELL and Leonard TYLER.
Janesville Machine operated in factories along South Franklin and River streets.
J. A. CRAIG rose through ranks at Janesville Machine: salesman, general manager,
company president. In 1918, he convinced W. C. DURANT, president of the fledgling General Motors Corp., that Janesville Machine would be a good acquisition. How much convincing Durant needed is open to debate because he was buying companies left and right, and his impulses eventually led to his fall from grace at GM.
This corporation bought Samson Tractor soon after and formed the tractor division.
CRAIG was named to head the company in 1919, and his nephew, Hugh CRAIG, later was named general sales manager.
J. P. CULLEN & Sons Construction Co. erected the first GM building here in
1919, and the city experienced another of its periodic booms. Population, which had been rising gradually, jumped. In 1910 [1919?], it was 13,894, up only 711 from 1910[?], but by 1920, the population was 18,293.
The city paved South Jackson Street, put up street lights there and opened up
Industrial Avenue for a few blocks.
A GM subsidiary erected whole streets of new houses for workers relocating to
Janesville. The plant drew workers from other areas because the available labor force was growing scarce.
On May 1, 1919, the plant started making 10 Model M Samson tractors a day. A
year later, the plant was turning out 150 tractors a day and [a] smaller model known as the "Iron Horse."
The Iron Horse proved to be a nag. Although it was fashioned like a tractor and had
no driving horses, it was steered by reins. It sold for $450 but was such a failure in the market that Samson had to repurchase nearly all of the units and salvage them for scrap and parts.
The GM plant today boasts some of the automotive industry's newest technological
innovations, and so did the tractor plant in its time: first use of an air-powered wrench and water bath air filter on the assembly line.
The company also produced two sizes of truck: three-quarter- and 1 1/4-ton. The
trucks' marketing was geared toward farmers and other users of horse-drawn wagons. Advertising cited the claims: "Samson trucks will not eat up all the profits in their first cost and upkeep" and "It costs twice as much to haul by wagon as it does by motor truck."
The trucks could be equipped with wheel base extensions that enabled them to be
used in soft or plowed fields.
The three-quarter ton sold for $655; the bigger model for $1,095.
But while the tractor business was a fallow field, American farmers weren't ready to
turn whole hog to mechanization. And Henry Ford's "Fordson" was reaping a good share of the limited market.
By September 1921, truck and tractor production had stopped here, and the plant
was used to make parts for tractors already in the field.
A year later, however, CRAIG had put his persuasive powers to work again, and
GM decided to build Chevrolets here.
 
[Source: The Janesville Gazette, August 14, 1985, p. 1G, 8G; Courtesy of Lori]

For further information, I recommend the Rock County Historical Society's page on Samson Tractors (found under Online Exhibits).

©2005 ALHN-Rock Co., WI

Site Coordinator: Lori Niemuth