Prior to 1914, a good team of horses or mules provided all the power the typical Midwestern farmer needed. If his tillable land exceeded 100 acres, he may have had more than one team. At harvest, when belt power was needed to drive a threshing machine, the farmer hired a steam engine. Horses pulled wagons loaded with bundles to the threshing site and hauled the separated wheat, barley or oats to the storage bins. After 1915, though, two unrelated events contributed to a rapid change from horses and mules to tractors: the introduction of the automobile, and the scarcity of food in Europe resulting from the upheaval caused by World War I.
In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his famous Model T. Within a few years, thousands of Model Ts were bouncing over unpaved rural roads, replacing the horse and buggy. More importantly, the Model T demonstrated to farmers that the gasoline-burning internal combustion engine was both dependable and safe. Even a year before Henry Ford introduced his Model T, he took parts from a prototype auto and a grain binder and built an experimental tractor. He realized, however, that the market for a low-priced automobile was more lucrative than that for a new small farm tractor. The tractor would come later.
The word "tractor" was virtually unknown prior to 1906. That was the year W.H. Williams, sales manager of the Hart-Parr tractor company, first used the word "tractor" in sales literature as an abbreviation for "gasoline traction engine." Actually, the word "tractor" had appeared previously in an 1890 patent issued by the U.S. Government to George Edwards in Chicago. The Hart-Parr company is generally credited, nevertheless, for making "tractor" the common word it is today.
In the early 1900s, farmers started comparing the merits of the steam traction engine with those of the new gasoline-burning farm tractor. To settle the debates, field plowing trials were conducted in Winnipeg, Canada, from 1908 to 1912. In one of the trials, 12 tractors were divided into three class sizes: under 20 hp, 20-30 hp and over 30 hp. Their plowing performance was compared to the single class of six steam engines.
In the small tractor class, an International Harvester tractor won first prize by plowing one acre in an hour and 15 minutes. It was hitched to a plow with three 12-inch bottoms. In the middle class, another IHC tractor was awarded the first prize. Using a plow with four 14-inch bottoms, it turned a little more than two acres in two hours and 17 minutes. In the over 30 hp class, a tractor built by the Kinnard Haines Co. won first place by plowing 3-1/2 acres in 1-1/2 hours hitched to a plow with eight 14-inch bottoms.
Of the six steam traction engines, two pulled 10-bottom plows; one was hitched to a 12-bottom plow; and three used 14-bottom plows. These plows all cut 14-inch furrows. The six steam engines plowed between 3-1/2 to 4 acres in an average time of one hour and 15 minutes. However, in this plowing competition, the tractors still fared pretty well in the eyes of the farmers in attendance. Each tractor cost less than each steam engine, the farmers noted, and the tractors needed only one operator. Each of the steam engines had a two-man crew; one man to steer and one to feed the firebox. Tractors were also easier to maneuver than the much larger and heavier steam engines, especially in soft field conditions.
Many tractors manufactured prior to 1914 resembled steam engines in design. This was due in part to the fact that steam engine chassis, wheels and steering were frequently used in building tractors. Tractors designed after 1915 were generally smaller, weighed less and were easier to steer than earlier models. That was the same year Henry Ford formally announced his entry into the farm tractor field.
Ford had attended the plowing trials in Winnipeg in 1910 and said afterwards that he had "seen the behemoths of that era bog themselves down in the mud." Ford claimed his new tractor, to be called the Fordson, would be light in weight, pull a 2-bottom plow and sell for $200. A few Fordsons were built in 1917, but it was the spring of 1918 before production tractors were available to farmers. Although the selling price had more than tripled to $750, the Fordson was an instant success. More than 34,000 were sold in 1918.
World War I contributed to the Fordson sales success, and it also accelerated development of many other early tractors. By 1918, the U.S. was in its second year at war. Because thousands of men had either enlisted or been drafted into the armed services, there was an acute shortage of farm laborers. At the same time, work horses and mules were in short supply as well. Thousands of those animals had been shipped overseas to replace those killed on the battlefield.
Food shortages also played a role. Within a year after the war started in 1914, there was a serious shortage of food in eastern Europe. Two armies with more than one million men each faced one another across the border between France and Belgium. Thousands of square miles of once-productive farm land became muddy trenches laced with shell craters and miles of barbed wire. Even before the U.S. entered the fight in 1917, the federal government asked American farmers to increase farm production. Grain and meat were needed for export. With fewer farm laborers and work animals available, small tractors became the obvious answer to increased farm production.
It's difficult to believe today, but by 1917, more than 200 companies were in the business of manufacturing small farm tractors. In 1918, more than 132,000 tractors were shipped by U.S. manufacturers - double the previous year's total production of 62,742 tractors. These firms were located in 17 states with Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa producing the most. There were more than 160 brands or models. Within a decade, however, two-thirds of those brands disappeared, along with the companies that manufactured them. The antique tractor enthusiast of today may recognize only about 15 of those early brand names, names such as OilPull, Allis-Chalmers, Aultman & Taylor, Avery, Case, Hart-Parr, International, Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver, Heider, Huber, Universal, Waterloo Boy and Fordson.
In addition to tractors, some manufacturers built 2-, 3- and 4-bottom plows to sell with their tractors. Famed plow manufacturer John Deere began to feel the impact of that competition, enough so that Deere & Company decided in 1918 to enter the tractor market. Even though John Deere had been designing and experimenting with a tractor of its own design for several years, the company decided that the fastest way to enter the market was to buy a well-established tractor manufacturer with a highly regarded product. The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., the manufacturer of the kerosene-burning Waterloo Boy tractors and engines, was Deere's choice. John Deere bought the Waterloo firm on March 18, 1918, and continued to sell Waterloo Boy Model N and Model R tractors until 1923, when the John Deere Model D was introduced.
- For more information: The Agricultural Tractor, 1855-1950, available from the American Society of Agricultural Engineers, St. Joseph, Mich.
Ralph Hughes is retired from a 38-year career with Deere & Company. He joined the company in 1954 as a writer for The Furrow magazine, later worked as an advertising copywriter, and was director of advertising at the time of his retirement.