The Web Site for Tiger Garden Tractor Enthusiasts


History - The Tiger Story

By Dave Frederick
This is from Dave's book 'The Tiger Story' and is shown here with his permission


The information in this history is to the best of my ability, accurate. Most of the information comes from official Tiger Tractor Corporation papers, local records, newspapers and interviews with past employees and from local residents of the Keyser, West Virginia area.

John F. Somerville, Jr. President of the Tiger Tractor Corporation was born in Cumberland, Maryland. He attended Allegany High School there, then went to St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, receiving his Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1940, His business experience consisted of association in the law firm of Donovan, Leasure, Newton and Lumbard in New York. The firm was headed by William Donovan who was later to become Gen. "Wild Bill" Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II.

In 1941 Somerville went to Honolulu, Hawaii where he was in the law firm of Anderson, Marx, Wrenn and Jenks when he was drafted into the armed forces as a private.

Somerville's tour in the service lasted five years and five days. He spent the entire time in the Army Intelligence Service in Counter Intelligence units. He had command of a special detachment of thirty-two Military Intelligence agents operating in Panama, the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Austria, Italy and Chile.

During World War II he was decorated and commended on six occasions for special counter intelligence work. His decorations include the U.S. Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre and other commendations from the Republic of France. Mr. Somerville was discharged from the Army in 1946 as a major. He knew that after the war people of Eastern Europe would need to begin producing food again and would need to replace their machinery that was destroyed. Hoping to capitalize on this need he began a company called Inexco. It was, as the name implies, an import and export company with offices in New York and was formed in New Jersey under their very liberal incorporation laws. In his travels and at business meetings he became aware of a growing need for a farm tractor that was well within the buying reach of small farmers and gardeners in the U.S. He had his first tractor built in 1947 by the Acme Cultivator Company of Salem, Ohio. This tractor which has an Inexco label on it can be seen in "Vintage Garden Tractors" by Dave Bass. It can also be seen in this book in the background of photo number 1.

Somerville met Mr. John B. Hanley, of Fort Lee, New Jersey, who at the time may have worked for the Beaver Tractor Company. Mr. Hanley was later to become head of sales and a partner in the Tiger Tractor Corporation.

Mr. Somerville knew that not far from his home, in Piedmont, West Virginia there was a foundry and machine shop. The Piedmont Foundry and Machine Works, owned by the Smith brothers, was a very successful manufacturing operation. In the fall of 1947, Mr. Somerville approached the Smiths with the idea of constructing a small tractor and was encouraged by Mr. Doug Smith to build it. In a corner of their shop Mr. Smith, Mr. Strosnider, Mr. Paul Johnson and later Mr. Earl Anderson worked on a proto-type from a sample tractor. The sample was the Acme tractor which they felt could be greatly improved.

The first Tigers built at the foundry were improved by a stronger drive-train, hand-clutch and a steering wheel instead of a tiller-type steering. The first tractor built had a strap iron clutch actuator. They felt a better piece could be made if these were cast out of aluminum. Several were cast but were found to be brittle so they returned to the manufacture of steel parts for the remainder of the production. These tractors were 5hp Briggs and Stratton powered and were called "PTD 5" for Piedmont Tractor Division, 5hp.

Mr. Somerville and Mr. Hanley took these first tractors to the National Garden Supply Trade Show in New York City and began to make contacts for a sales network. Business was good and production outgrew the area they were working in. At this time in early 1949, the factory was relocated to the Klotz Throwing Company building on the corner of East and Mozelle Streets in Keyser, WV. This building had previously been a silk-mill before it's closing and was owned by Mr. Harry Marshall, owner of Marshall Oil Company.

This location was a second choice, with the first being the Footer Dye Works in Cumberland, Maryland. This building became unsuitable after leasing due to a city ordinance which would not allow welding within a wooden structure.

It was according to workers at the foundry, that there was a disagreement between Doug Smith and Mr. Somerville which also may have been a cause for the move. The Tiger Tractor Corporation had at this time no real financial history yet. They were using the Piedmont Foundry's rating with the Dunn and Bradstreet and the Chase Bank of N.Y. as their reference for credit without the Smith's approval. Evidence of this can be seen in the letter included in this book to Mr. Robert N. Schmitt on April 2, 1951. However, this letter was written after the factory moved and ties to the foundry continued until Tiger Tractor closed. During this time some castings were also being produced by the Somerset Foundry, Somerset, Pennsylvania.

At the new Mozelle St. facility they were known as Piedmont Tractor Division of Inexco, although the name Tiger was used as the name of the tractor in commerce as early as November 1, 1948. This was according to the U.S. Patent Office. They also had a sales office called "Inexco Farm Machinery Company, a Division of Piedmont Tractor" in Fort Lee, New Jersey. This was the home of Mr. Hanley.

On July 9, 1951 the name was changed to the Tiger Tractor Corporation. On December 25, 1951, Mr. Somerville gave each of his employees twenty-five shares of the new corporation, most likely as their Christmas bonus. Six hundred thousand shares of stock were issued at a value often cents each. At this time, Mr. John Somerville was President, Frederick Pittra was Chairman of the Board and Mr. John B. Hanley was Secretary-Treasurer.

On November 9, 1953 the Tiger Tractor Corporation filed for trademark registration and received this registration November 1, 1955. By November 1953 plans for a new factory were in the works. The Keyser/Mineral County Chamber of Commerce began a plan to finance the new factory. The $50,000 building, sixty by one hundred and twenty feet in size was to be built between F & G Streets. Tiger Tractor Corporation pledged $10,000 and the Chamber's bond sale brought $40,300. The total was just over the needed amount. The bonds were for one hundred dollars and earned 5 percent interest and were to be retired in nine to ten years.

In 1951, with three employees, Tiger Tractor Corporation's gross sales were $75,000, however, by 1953, with thirty-four employees sales amounted to more than $300,000.

At approximately 8pm, on April 14, 1954 an electrical fire in the building leased by the Tiger Tractor Corporation did an estimated $35,000 in damages. Mr. Somerville had his factory back in operation by Sunday, April 18th. The machinery was only damaged by water and was back in order very shortly. However, thousands of dollars in materials and supplies, such as motors, transmissions and other parts were destroyed by the fire and water.

Somerville said the fire came at the peak season for the manufacture of tractors. With the coming of Spring, the demand for the small garden tractor is higher then at any time of the year. This was the foremost reason for getting back in operation as soon as possible. Fortunately the opening of the new factory which was already planned, would now be only 30-45 days off. The dealers were already stocked at 60 percent over the previous year.

Dealers were given a 25 percent discount if they sold one tractor per month, April through September and one every other month, October through March. If they did not meet these sales then they received only 15 percent discount. The tractors were also sold through advertisements in farming magazines and Popular Mechanic's type magazines. There were extensive international sales in Europe, Central and South America and at least one deal with Castro, President of Cuba.

In August, 1954 the new factory was completed and production began in earnest. In the years to follow Tigers would be built at the rate of up to five thousand per year with matching agricultural attachments. As the years progressed, the models of tractors changed, with some models overlapping in years of production. There were at least seventeen different models with many variations of each. The tractor attachment list seems never-ending, from plows to fork-lifts and many, many others.

This was a time of prestige for the Tiger Corporation, having the newest factory in town and a rapidly growing corporation was good for Mr. Somerville and his employees. The Tiger Corporation was very involved in community and service organizations and even sponsored bowling and little league teams.

In April 1955, production began on the C-100 model, a vastly improved tractor, that was, in part designed by Mr. J.B. Kuhn of Keyser. This tractor was designed to capture a different market than the smaller models and complete directly with the International Harvester Cub. Production on the smaller tractors continued during this time because of their popularity. They were extremely rugged and powerful, but were crude by our standards today. Even though better technology was available at this time, they appeared to have been built this way to make them cheap enough for the small farmers to buy and also easy for the average farmer to repair.

By 1956 an assortment of small riding tractors, called the Cubs were being produced for the home-owner to mow their lawns. They also bought riding mowers made by other companies, painted them and added decals and then sold them as Tiger Tractors. About this time, with the company going strong, a line of generators were being sold. These were probably not produced at the Tiger factory, but were another case of purchase/sale to fill a market need.

In 1957, Tiger Tractor Corporation filed papers for incorporation and also started their Tiger Electronics Division which among other things made parts and panels for traffic light control.

By 1959 the garden tractor line began decreasing as competition from other similar companies increased along with a decline in the number of people with small farms. Tiger Tractor Corporation felt the need to switch from a small farm tractor to one more useful in lawn and garden care. Now with a differential and tilted steering wheel being offered in their more popular lines, like the 883 model, many of the complaints about this tractor were then solved. The "Turbo Trac" differential was available as an option as early as 1956 and the C-100 used a Clark differential in 1955. The 450, 575 and 700 models were based on a Wheel Horse transaxle and even used this company's steering, fenders and seat with Tiger providing Briggs & Stratton engine, hood, tires and wheels, mower deck and paint and decals in Tiger colors.

Local truckers and Tiger employees report trips made to the Wheel Horse factory to bring back loads of parts while other loads were shipped in by rail.

It was not uncommon for parts from other companies to be used to assemble the "Tigers". With some of the work being done at other shops, like Eugene Woodworth's Welding and Fabrication Shop in Burlington, WV, Buck Seiver's Fabrication Shop, Keyser, WV as well as the Bonham Corporation who also built the "Tote Goat". The hoods for some them were designed by Smith and Scherr Co. of Akron Ohio and many cutter bar parts came from International Harvester. Shipping crates came from the Cumberland Box Shop, Cumberland MD. Clark, Borg Warner & Snow Nabstead transmissions among others were used for years as were Twin Disc and Rockford clutches. Engines were by Clinton, Kohler, Wisconsin, but most often Briggs & Stratton.

Although most of the tractors used the same paint scheme throughout the entire life of the company, some tractors were painted different when they ran out of the standard paint. Wheels, hoods and some snow plows were yellow on most, with some Cubs and 883 models painted with red hoods, but the wheels remained yellow as they were painted at a different time.

Most engines were left painted black as they came from the factory. The model 680's Wisconsin was factory blue. The 920's Clinton was red as was it's clutch housing. On the 360 and Super Cub, the engines were painted to match the tractor.

The main color for Tiger Tractors was forest green as were the majority of the implements. The models 450, 575, 700 and the larger 920 were painted in a tan and off-white color with red seats. On these models hoods and wheels are white while the rest, including attachments is tan. Several 575 and 700 models had green hoods, probably also due to paint supply problems. The later snow blower and fork lift attachments were also white.

Decals for the tractors remained the same from the earliest ones until the factory closed, with the only change being at the bottom of the circle. Lettering went from reading "Piedmont Tractor Division, Keyser, WV" to "Tiger Tractor Corporation, Keyser, WV", on July 1951. A banner-type decal was used on 883's, 552's and some Cubs. Other Cubs had a special Tiger Cub decal. There was also a rectangular one of unknown usage that was found in remaining old stock.

Model and serial designation was another story. Tags were made in rectangles and ovals, with the ovals for the model C100 tractors. However, due to the limited number of C1OO's made, these tags were put on 883's, Cubs and maybe even others, the rectangular tags were used on other models as needed regardless of which model they were making. Parts were not ordered by tag numbers, but by a brief description of the tractor.

In early 1959 Mr. Somerville contracted William Smith, Jr., the son of Piedmont Foundry's owner, to begin a new tractor to replace the C100 which was too expensive to manufacture. He agreed and in the evenings after his work at the foundry, he developed a tractor that was strong and cheaper to build. This became the model 920, Tiger's last great hope. This model was still in production in 1965 when the doors were finally closed.

By 1962, Tiger Tractor Corporation, now a successful company with an extensive dealer network, began to loose it's share of the market. Mr. Sommerville with his import-export experience and contacts in the Commerce Department began to look to the international market. This was done in Central and South America and Eastern Europe by a franchising attempt of the Tiger Company. It is unknown if any were sold but a copy of the proposal to establish the Tiger franchises does exist. This too apparently could not help the company regain it's sales as better and more sophisticated tractors were being produced by other companies.

The last Tigers on the assembly line and all remaining stock were purchased by Bauchman's Surplus Center, LaVale, MD and have now been all sold. The front axles on these last tractors and possibly others were cast "Bond Tractor" instead of "Tiger Tractor". It is not known why, possibly they were left-over stock from another company or something the foundry sold them at a discount. These tractors were still marked as Tigers on other parts of the tractor and with Tiger decals.

Tiger Tractor Corporation filed for bankruptcy to the Small Business Administration in 1963. It was reorganized and funds for tractors were held and released through the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Keyser. This continued until 1965 when bankruptcy was filed in U.S. District Court.

It is unfortunate that this little garden tractor, once named, "America's Finest Small Tractor", had a life span of only seventeen years. It is the author's opinion, that, had there been better management, this garden tractor could have developed into one of the major brands commonly used in America today.