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Deere and the Dain Tractor

Sam MooreBig, heavy gas tractors began appearing on a few farms early in the 20th century. At the time of the 1910 census, there were 10,000 tractors counted on U.S. farms, along with more than 21 million horses, mules and oxen. Some of the major farm implement companies, such as IH and Case, as well as dozens of smaller companies were eagerly diving into the beckoning but unknown waters of the promising tractor market. The conservative management of Deere & Co., however, was reluctant to dip even a tentative toe into the water, which looked very dark and forbidding to them. Deere president, William Butterworth, was especially opposed to the tractor, although vice-president and chairman of the executive committee, Willard L. Velie, was strongly in favor.

During 1912, a couple of Deere branch houses listed the Gas Traction Big Four tractor in their catalogs, and Deere even made an offer to buy the company, which Gas Traction turned down. In addition, the John Deere Export Co. sold Minneapolis Twin City tractors in South America. At the March 5th, 1912, directors’ meeting, Velie got a resolution passed that read in part: “... a movement to produce a tractor plow (meaning a tractor) should be started at once ...” even though Butterworth was still opposed. In July, C.H. Melvin was told to design and build a tractor. Melvin came up with a prototype that had two large drive wheels and a smaller, single steering wheel. A 3-bottom integral plow was hung beneath the frame of the tractor, which was then run with the drive wheels forward. When pulling other implements from the drawbar, the machine was run with the small wheel forward. One of these so-called “Melvin” tractors was built, tested, found unsatisfactory and discarded and, by 1914, William Butterworth’s resistance to the new-fangled machines seemed to be justified.

However, a few of the Deere directors, including Velie, and new convert to the cause, C.C. Webber, hadn’t given up and commissioned fellow board member, Joseph Dain the hay machinery expert, to explore the possibilities of a tractor. Webber specified that any such machine must be small, 2 to 3 plow, and should be priced at about $700 and, by early 1915, Dain had a prototype ready. The board looked at Dain’s new tractor, but weren’t really enthusiastic. Butterworth said “we have repeatedly told our bankers that we were not in the tractor business and we’re not going into it.” The Moline branch manager, R.B. Lourie, worried that tractors and tractor plows would hurt Deere’s booming wheeled horse plow business. In the end, the board took the easy way out and voted to wait and see, and to have Dain perform further field tests on his tractor.

Dain’s tractor was a 3-wheeled design, with two wheels in front and one behind, and with all three wheels driving through a heavy chain drive. The first half-dozen or so machines had 4-cylinder Waukesha engines, which proved to be under powered and were soon replaced with a McVicker power plant that was found to be entirely satisfactory. The prototype Dain tractors weighed 3,800 pounds, with a transmission that gave two speeds forward and two in reverse, and had a drawbar pull of more than 3,000 pounds. Rated to pull three plow bottoms in stubble, and two in sod, the machine would cost $1,200, which was considerably more than C.C. Webber’s target price of $700.

During the spring and summer of 1916, Dain tractors were tested in Texas, Minnesota and the Dakotas, and were found to be the “best on the market.” Users especially liked the all-wheel, chain drive, along with the transmission which could be shifted “on-the-go.”

By this time, most of the Deere directors, except for William Butterworth, had been convinced that the firm needed a tractor. As a result of the favorable field tests, Deere decided, in 1917, to build 100 Dain tractors. Joe Dain died unexpectedly in late 1917, but W.L. Velie stepped in and pushed the new tractor along. The 100 machines were built during 1917 and 1918 at the Harvester Works in East Moline. Powered by a 4-cylinder engine of 4 1/2 x 6-inch bore and stroke, they were rated at 12 hp on the drawbar and 24 on the belt. Features, such as worm and sector steering and the shift-on-the-go 2-speed transmission were far ahead of most other tractors of the day. According to Don McMillan’s book, John Deere Tractors and Equipment, Volume One 1837-1959, all 100 Dain tractors were sold in the Huron, South Dakota, vicinity, but in March of 1918, Deere bought the Waterloo Gasoline Tractor Company. However good it may have been, that was the end of the Dain designed machine; it cost $1,700, twice as much as a Waterloo Boy.

In later years, Deere and Company virtually denied that the firm had ever built any tractor other than the two-cylinder Waterloo Boy and its successors. However, the Melvin and the Dain, along with a couple of others, are the rightful ancestors to “the long green line,” which is still going strong today.

– Sam Moore

Dain tractor

The Dain tractor that was found derelict in 1948 by the late Frank Hansen of Rolling Stone, Minnesota, and finally bought by him in 1960. Frank had it restored, and exhibited it at many shows such as this one at Tipton, Indiana, in 1991 where I saw it. Photo by Sam Moore.