The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Hart, Charles Walter
(July 6, 1872–March 14, 1937)

–inventor and manufacturer—was born near Charles City, Iowa, attended local schools, and worked for his father's lumbering and farming operations in and around Charles City. As a teenager, he recognized the potential of gasoline engines as a labor saver for American farmers. He then attended Elliott Business College in Burlington, Iowa, and Iowa Agricultural College before transferring to the University of Wisconsin in 1893. There he met fellow student Charles H. Parr. By 1896 the two had completed five working internal combustion engines as part of their senior honors thesis in mechanical engineering. Before graduating, the two men borrowed $3,000 and formed the Hart-Parr Company in Madison, Wisconsin. The firm produced small gasoline engines, pumps, and power saws that employed a system of cooling with oil rather than water, and thus were well suited for year-round use on mid-western farms. In 1898 Hart married Jessie M. Case of Milwaukee; they had two children before she died in 1905. One year later he married his widow's sister, Agnes; they had five children.

    By 1900 the Hart-Parr Company had outgrown its space in Madison, so Hart and Parr moved it to Charles City. In 1902 the company built a machine that is generally considered the first commercially successful American tractor powered by an internal combustion engine. (John Froelich's earlier machine was never a commercial success.) Hart-Parr tractors were large and powerful, especially well suited for threshing and plowing operations on the large wheat fields of the Dakotas, Montana, and western Canada. As the tractor industry's pioneer, the company dominated the market until about 1911. Hart-Parr tractors had an international reputation and were sold in Argentina, Russia, Australia, and elsewhere. In 1907 about one third of all the tractors in the world were manufactured in Charles City.

    Hart gained national attention for his management and marketing strategies. He designed and patented several machine tools and developed a clever system to ensure that they operated at optimal efficiency. To support the company's promise that each tractor was tested before it left the factory, each was belted for several hours to an electric generator that provided the plant's needed power. Hart founded the Charles City Western Railway—the roadbed was graded with Hart-Parr tractors—an interurban line that provided transportation for company employees and allowed the company to gain favorable shipping rates from competition among three larger railways. Hart also implemented various corporate welfare strategies, as the company developed its own accident insurance programs, home-building programs, and recreational facilities. Under Hart's leadership, Charles City developed a vast complex of factory buildings, foundries, railroad lines, tenement housing, and businesses that catered to Hart-Parr's nearly 2,000 employees.

    Hart-Parr ran into trouble during World War I. Other companies were more adept at producing smaller tractors better suited for the family farms of the Midwest, and Hart-Parr's efforts to produce artillery shells and other war matériel for the British government were not profitable. In 1917 a group of stockholders seized control of the company and announced that Charles Hart had retired. Hart-Parr rebounded somewhat in the 1920s, although it never again dominated the tractor industry. Its successor companies—Oliver, White, and others—continued to produce tractors in Charles City until the company closed completely in 1993.

    Meanwhile, Charles Hart moved to a ranch near Hedgesville, Montana, where he developed experimental tractors designed for large-scale "power farming" operations. After some success raising wheat, a fire destroyed his tractors and ended this effort in 1922. Hart then turned to oil refining, and through the Hart Refineries Company, he developed technologies that could effectively "crack" Montana and Wyoming crude oil into gasoline, kerosene, and other distillates. Hart developed refineries in Missoula, Montana; Cody, Wyoming; and elsewhere in the region before he died at the age of 64.
Sources Few published secondary works focus on Hart's biography. Helpful sources on Hart's management strategies include Edward Mott Wooley, "Secrets of Business Success, III: C. W. Hart," World's Work (January 1914), 346–52; and Mark R. Finlay "System and Sales in the Heartland: A Manufacturing History of the Hart-Parr Company, 1900–1930," Annals of Iowa 57 (1998), 337–73. More complete biographical information may be found in manuscripts and clip pings at the Floyd County Historical Society, Charles City; and in Jack Gilluly, "He Realized a Dream: The Story of C. W. Hart" (1981), unpublished manuscript, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. No personal papers are available.
Contributor: Mark R. Finlay