General-Purpose Row-Crop Tractor: The Farmall Debuts
Let's Talk Rusty Iron
An early advertisement for the McCormick-Deering Farmall.
Courtesy of Sam Moore
The proud name “Farmall” stood for smooth, dependable row-crop tractors for more than 50 years.
I know right now my John Deere friends are rolling their eyes, but the International Harvester Co. was the first tractor builder to develop a successful row-crop tractor, aptly named the Farmall.
In time, its design would be copied by virtually every other manufacturer.
Rising need for a general-purpose tractor
When gas tractors were developing during the first 15 years of the 20th century, they were based on the heavy steam traction engines that preceded them. About the time of World War I, lighter machines were demanded and built, but they were still meant for heavy draft work such as plowing, fitting ground and powering belts. They weren’t practical for planting and cultivating row-crops such as corn and cotton.
Cultivation of such crops as corn and cotton was primarily to help control weeds, but the soil thus loosened let water penetrate more easily, while the dirt that was thrown up around the base of the plants helped to strengthen them and prevent dislodging. It was common practice to cultivate corn two or three times before “laying it by,” so a good cultivating machine was an important consideration to row-crop farmers.
Some farm equipment builders recognized that the corn or cotton farmer had little incentive to motorize his farm unless they could give him a row-crop machine that was easier to use, cheaper and faster than working horses.
An early 1920s study revealed that only 6 percent of farmers in the corn belt states had tractors. The balance reported that as long as they had to keep enough horses or mules to do cultivating, they might as well use the animals for all the other work as well.
Clearly, a need existed, but it was one tractor manufacturers proved slow to fill. The delay was partly due to conservatism but mostly to the difficulty of designing a successful general-purpose machine that could do all the work on a row-crop farm.
As early as 1910, IHC tractor engineers had discussed the merits of a universal tractor, and in 1916 had patented a 2-row motor cultivator. This machine was too specialized and expensive for most farmers, but Harvester engineers experimented with many uses for, and configurations of, the machine. IHC archive photos show it pushing or pulling just about every implement then in use, giving the engineers valuable insights that helped them to later create the Farmall.
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