John Deere's Oldest Tractor Returns Home

Circa-1918 4-cylinder Dain All-Wheel-Drive tractor put on permanent display at John Deere Collectors Center

The only complete 4-cylinder Dain All-Wheel-Drive tractor, John Deere’s oldest known, pre-dates John Deere’s first 2-cylinder tractor

The only complete 4-cylinder Dain All-Wheel-Drive tractor, John Deere’s oldest known, pre-dates John Deere’s first 2-cylinder tractor (the 1923 Model D).

Courtesy of Deere & Co. archives

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The only complete 4-cylinder Dain All-Wheel-Drive tractor, John Deere’s oldest known, was welcomed back into the Deere & Co. family.

The Dain, which pre-dates John Deere’s first 2-cylinder tractor (the 1923 Model D), was put on permanent display at the John Deere Collectors Center in Moline, Ill., March 13, 2004.

“The response has been wonderful!” says Brian Holst of the Collectors Center. “Collectors who didn’t understand the significance of this tractor have been surprised since this tractor was made locally and has a lot of heritage in common with this area.”

Now that the Dain is parked at the Collectors Center, the tractor’s special place in history can be shared.

One owner to the next

This particular Dain tractor’s history started like any other. Emil Obitz of Stockton, Minn., bought the tractor from a John Deere dealer in Winona, Minn., in 1918. He used it for about a decade until he traded it for a Model D in 1928. The receiving dealership’s owner, in turn, loaned the Dain to his brother, who used it for a year then parked it in the trees because of an engine malfunction.

In 1930, Morris and Erwin Timm, who lived in rural Minnesota, purchased the Dain. The Timms bought it for the tractor’s chains, with which they wanted to repair a feed mill. Evidently, the brothers never got around to using the chains, and the Dain languished outdoors until 1962 when Frank Hansen purchased it for $1,000.

Hansen had known about the tractor’s whereabouts as a boy, and after he returned from military service, he researched and confirmed the special nature of the Dain. Hansen then restored the neglected Dain tractor from pure rust and displayed it at antique tractor shows until he died about a year ago.

Hansen’s family auctioned the Dain tractor on eBay, but it didn’t sell because the reserve was never met. Deere & Co. negotiated with the Hansen family to purchase the tractor for an undisclosed amount in July 2003. Now, the Dain is finally at its new home in the Collectors Center.

During the Gathering of the Green – a John Deere-specific equipment show held every other year in Moline – Al Higley of the Collectors Center led a dedication that thanked the Hansen family and included a 45-minute history session with an explanation of the tractor’s mechanics.

The Dain was well-advanced, sporting features that John Deere tractors didn’t utilize until the 1960s and some not even until the 1980s. Many of those features include a gear-driven water pump, key ignition, on-the-go shifting, shiftless speed changing and positive traction. These features, however, made the Dain too expensive for most farmers to afford its $1,500 price tag (about $18,500 in today’s terms).

Holst says the Dain will be available for special events if and when the Collectors Center deems the function appropriate. Until then, every collector who “bleeds green” should be pleased that such a unique tractor is finally back in Moline at a permanent home in the Collectors Center.

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:

Have followed tractor closely for two weeks. Conditions extremely hard and rough. Absolutely no weakness in construction. Gears, chains, universals, in fact all parts in good condition. Tractor has traveled nearly five hundred miles under extreme load. Change speed gear a wonder. I recommend to the board that we build ten machines at once. 

Dain’s recommendation was successful. Ten tractors were sent to Deere & Co. branch houses and subsequently tested with positive results. C.C. Webber, a company vice president and director, wrote that “dealers could sell the (Dain) as a three-plow outfit for $1,500.”

Then, on Nov. 19, 1917, John Deere’s executive committee – headed by Willard Velie – ordered 100 Dain tractors to be manufactured at the East Moline, Ill., John Deere Harvester Works for sale the following year. The price tag was $1,200 for each of the 100 4-cylinder, 24 belt hp, 4,600-pound tractors. All eventually were transported to a dealership in Huron, S.D.

Unfortunately, Dain died of pneumonia on Halloween 1917 after spending a wet, cold week field-testing the tractor, just before the Dain’s production began. Even as the first 100 Dain tractors were built, Deere & Co. bought the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., which manufactured both stationary engines and tractors. Deere & Co. suddenly had no reason to continue developing the Dain, and quickly fell in love with the Waterloo Boy kerosene-burning tractor, which was more affordable, equally advanced and already successfully in production.

Velie, who was in charge of overseeing the Dain’s tractor experiments, was furious. He accused the board of directors of bypassing his executive committee on important matters and resigned his chairman’s post.

Dain’s tractor legacy was almost forgotten in time, but thanks to Frank Hansen’s efforts to save a tractor almost lost to history, one restored All-Wheel-Drive Dain tractor still remains for all to see to this day. FC 

For more information:
– John Deere Collectors Center, 320 16th St., Moline, IL 61265; (800) 240-5265.
The John Deere Tractor Legacy, edited by Don Macmillan.
– ‘Genius is as Genius does,’ John Deere TRADITION, February and March 2002.
– ‘The Tractor Lost to Time,’ John Deere TRADITION, June 2003., an independent John Deere collectors website.