John Deere's Oldest Tractor Returns Home
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Deere & Co. enters the market
A great industrial revolution swept the country in the first few decades of the 20th century, affecting everything from the way Americans washed their laundry to the way they farmed their land.
In fact, the small tractor was already destined to replace the horse, and as Deere & Co. Vice President Burton F. Peek’s foreshadowing words explicitly made clear, Deere & Co. needed a way to stay competitive with companies that had developed a successful tractor.
“I feel that we are making a great mistake if we do not take up the manufacture of the small tractor,” Peek wrote in a 1916 letter to William Butterworth, Deere & Co. president. “It has come to stay beyond any question, with so many of our leading competitors, plow manufacturers and others, making a tractor.”
The dichotomy of Deere & Co.’s corporate vision was it had been a conservative plow and implement company that cultivated success by reluctantly investing in new and undeveloped technology – yet it needed to keep pace with those very same market developments. Butterworth had seen the demise of many tractor companies that manufactured large, clumsy machines, and he repeatedly noted he was opposed to financing production of the still-developing tractor. His strategy was to take it slow, let other firms further the technology, and stay true to the company’s proven product lines and to the bankers back east who funded Deere & Co.
By 1914, however, board members such as Burton F. Peek, Willard Velie and George Mixter had convinced Butterworth the tractor was here to stay, and Deere & Co. would ultimately regret not gaining a share of such a promising market.
“If it be possible to build a small tractor that will really stand up for five or more years’ work on the farm,” Mixter wrote Butterworth in 1915, “I believe they will be a permanent requirement of the American farmer and especially in view of the plow trade they carry with them, this possibility cannot be overlooked by Deere & Company.”
Joseph Dain – a company vice president, board member and head of the patent and experimental department – began work on an “efficient, small-plow tractor” in 1914. Building on the failed attempt by C.H. Melvin, and later Max Slovsky, to develop a 3-bottom motor plow a few years before, Dain set to work on his own model.
By 1916, Dain completed three all-wheel-drive tractors to be field-tested: two with friction transmissions and one with gear transmission. In field tests, the first tractor built pulled three 14-inch bottoms in 5-year-old clay sod at 2-1/2 mph. Later in the year, it pulled two binders in heavy oats at 3 mph. The second tractor was sent to Winnebago, Minn., where it pulled three 14-inch bottoms 6 inches deep at 2-1/2 mph. The third tractor – with the gear transmission – was completed too late to be tested with the others. However, on March 14, 1916, Dain sent the following telegram to Mixter from San Antonio, Texas: