How John Deere's Small Tractors Replaced the Horse

Making the move from horse power to horsepower on America's small farms using small tractors.


The Waterloo Boy Model N. Deere & Co. purchased Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Engine Co. in 1918 and continued production of Models R and N. The Model N was modernized and had a 2-speed transmission. Both were produced until the Model R parts inventory was exhausted. Production of the Model N continued through 1924.

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When Deere & Co. got into the tractor business with the Waterloo Boy in 1918, promotional writers crowed that, “Everything that can be done on a farm can be accomplished by a Waterloo Boy.” Twenty years later, the Model LA was said to be, “Powered to pull loads ordinarily handled by a 3-horse team.” Thirty years after the launch of the Waterloo Boy, 1948 Deere ads were still trying to drive the point home. “Many horse-drawn implements can be adapted to the new Model M,” an ad proclaimed.

Real horse power was a way of life on most farms into the 1930s, and even later than that on smaller farms. Feeling of a sense of camaraderie and trust developed through a lifetime of laboring together, farmers were reluctant to give up on their horses. On the small farm, it was hard to afford both a team and a tractor, so the team often stayed and the tractor purchase was deferred. 

Rated by the number of horses replaced

At the turn of the 20th century, mechanized power came to the farm in the form of steam traction engines. Early gas tractors mostly copied the steamers. For the large acreage farmer who could afford either one of those behemoths, a herd of horses was still a necessity. A Society of Agricultural Engineers publication estimates that, in 1910, the combined mechanical and animal power on U.S. farms was about 28 million hp. About 24 percent of that was mechanical (nearly all steam). Between 20 and 22 million horses made up the balance.

Tractors began to be rated by the number of horses they could replace. Deere purchased Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Traction Engine Co., and its Waterloo Boy tractor in 1918. Deere became a solid contender with a tractor touted as being able to replace four to five horses. The Fordson, which hit the U.S. that year, also claimed to be a replacement for a team.

Tractors of the era were mainly good for drawbar work and flat belt power. In 1924, International Harvester introduced the tricycle all-purpose Farmall. It could do all of the conventional tractor’s work and cultivate row crops, clearing the way for the complete elimination of animal power from the farm. Deere’s response was the 1927 Model C/GP (General Purpose), a 4-wheel tractor with an arched front axle for straddling the center row in 3-row cultivation.

But the small farmer remained reluctant to part with his horses. For the man who farmed with one or two teams, the financial risk was still too great. Then there was the sentimental factor, as expressed by a farmer in a 1930 issue of Gas Review:

“I have a member of the Old Dobbin family that is of the third generation, which, with his two forbears, have rendered service in our family for practically 60 years – and the possibility of not continuing that co-partnership presents a problem I just don’t want to contemplate. The horses on our farm are not only animals of servitude but companions and friends, partners in the business ... surrounded by a sentiment of love and mutual dependence ...”

Smaller, lighter and cheaper

In 1934 and 1935, Deere countered International’s Farmall with the all-purpose row-crop Models A and B, which were also available in standard tread, industrial and orchard versions. Nevertheless, the smallest farmers remained unconvinced well into the depths of the Great Depression. The original Deere Model B was powered by a 149-cubic inch, 2-cylinder engine producing 12 drawbar hp and rated for two 12-inch plows. It weighed just under 3,000 pounds and sold for about $700 (about $12,500 today). “Smaller, lighter and cheaper” was going to be necessary to crack the one-team horse-farmer market.

In 1935, Deere launched a two-pronged approach. Waterloo engineers began work on a scaled-down Model B to be known as the Model H, and simultaneously, Moline Wagon Works engineers were commissioned to take a look at a tractor capable of replacing two farm animals.

The Wagon Works team was unencumbered by Deere tractor traditions. The only concession to heritage was a 2-cylinder engine. This team was under such tight budget restrictions that a new engine design was out of the question, but Novo Co., Lansing, Michigan, was producing an 8 hp 2-cylinder L-head, water-cooled, gasoline-only engine that seemed to fill the bill. The availability and selection of the Novo engine prompted the unique (for Deere) configuration of an in-line rather than a transverse engine mounting.

The new design had the engine slightly offset to the left and the driver’s seat to the right. The steering shaft and wheel were also offset to the left, not in front of the driver. The engine was mounted on a dual tubular frame. A Ford Model A transmission was mounted directly to the clutch housing with a drive shaft running back to the differential. This prototype was called the Model Y. About 20 of the Model Y configuration were built and tested in the summer of 1936. While expectations were met, the little Novo engine had insufficient oil capacity for tractor work and overheated.

An improved version called the Model 62 was built and tested in 1937. This model was powered by a Hercules NXA 2-cylinder engine designed for Deere. The 62 also had a Deere transmission mounted next to the differential, rather than to the clutch. The 62 soon morphed into the Model L and serious production began. In 1939, the Model L received sheet metal styling by the Dreyfuss Industrial Design Group. In 1941, a slightly larger version – the Model LA – was introduced. That model had a central rear PTO in addition to the belt pulley, and a 13 hp engine built by Deere. Promotional materials suggested it could replace three horses. Production of the L and LA continued to 1946.

A tractor for both ends of the market

Simultaneously with development of the L, Waterloo tractor engineers were working on the Model H. The H was, for Deere, a much more traditional design with a horizontal, side-by-side 2-cylinder engine mounted crosswise to the direction of travel. It looked like a scale model of the Model B. Deere sales people were still trying to talk the small farmer out of his horses, and at the same time, persuade bigger operators to buy a small tractor to go along with a big one. 

The small farmer remained the biggest untapped market. The economics proved that one 15-20 hp all-purpose tractor could do the work of several teams since it didn’t tire. The initial cost of a tractor was a problem, but if the farmer could be talked into selling all of his horses, he would have the price of a basic Model H. The Model H was built along the classic all-purpose lines, and therefore, should be able to replace all of the horses on a farm of less than 80 acres. The Model L/LA, while versatile, could not operate on low-cost kerosene, still the fuel of choice for many farmers.

By 1937, Model H prototypes were undergoing testing. By 1939, the model was ready for production. As a cost-saving measure, the H engine provided its power output not from the crankshaft, but from the camshaft. Since the camshaft operates at half of the crankshaft’s speed, expensive bull gears in the final drive were not required. It also meant that a reasonably sized belt pulley could be used without reduction gearing. To save the cost of a road gear, a governor override gas pedal was added. In third gear, 1,800 rpm was available, rather than the rated 1,400 rpm, giving the tractor’s top speed a 2 mph boost.

The Ford 9N challenge

The appearance in mid-1939 of the Ford-Ferguson 9N with its 3-point hydraulic hitch caught Deere & Co. by surprise. By the 1941 model year, Deere was able to sweeten its Model H by offering a live hydraulic system, one capable of operating two remote cylinders and with a self-starter (beginning with serial no. 27,000).

While the little Ford had a major impact on the future of the tractor industry and sold extremely well, in terms of versatility it was no match for the Model H. The H had easily adjustable rear wheels and was available in tricycle and high-clearance versions. The H had front-mounted cultivators with the ability to handle up to eight rows. The 9N was relegated to rear 3-point cultivators. Although rear cultivators eventually became the norm, they encountered stiff resistance in early going.

The Ford-Ferguson 9N tractor sold very well at its $585 introductory price, despite the fact that the farmer had to buy new implements to gain the advantages offered by the Ferguson 3-point system. More than 10,000 of the little gray machines rolled into the fields in the remaining three months of 1939.

Deere management was quick to acquire examples of Ford’s offering for in-house tests. They found that while the 9N could indeed do a great job of plowing, it lacked traction to do much else without either the weight transfer effect of an implement, or much ballast on the back wheels. The most intriguing thing about it was how handy it was. Implements could be changed in minutes and, with the driver’s seat forward, it was much easier to mount and dismount than conventional platform tractors, and it started, sounded and drove much like a small car.

Testing a prototype

The Waterloo engineers had pioneered hydraulics as far back as 1934, so going to the 3-point system was not a technical problem, but Ferguson had it tied up in patents. Deere’s newly established Moline Tractor Works undertook design studies and by 1943, a completely new small tractor existed on paper. In keeping with tradition, the drawings showed a 2-cylinder engine. Called the Model 69, it borrowed from both previous Deere small tractors and from the competition. It would be about the size and power of the Deere Model H, but it would have a vertical in-line engine like the Model L. It would be “frameless,” like the Ford and the Allis-Chalmers Model B. These all relied on the cast iron engine and transmission housings to act as a frame.

By late 1944 a prototype Model 69 was ready to test with a 101-cubic-inch engine and a 3-point hydraulic lift system that avoided Ferguson’s patents. The hydraulic control system was named the “Touch-O-Matic” (but nicknamed the “Liquid Brain”). The new system did mostly what the Ferguson system did, but with easier implement attachment. The one drawback was in depth control, which Ferguson’s patents protected. The Deere system was mechanical and somewhat crude compared to Ferguson’s draft load-controlled hydraulic arrangement, but it worked reasonably well.

Unveiling the Model M

New farm tractors were generally available during World War II; those who could afford them moved quickly to mechanized farming. Those who couldn’t come up with financing often made their own “doodlebug” tractors from shortened trucks. The U.S. military also provided incentive as a ready buyer for draft horses. At any rate, the farm horse population diminished dramatically during the war years.

Post-war production of the Models L, LA, H, BR and BO was terminated in 1946. Deere acquired land near Dubuque, Iowa, for a new tractor plant. There, the company would build the Model 69 tractor, now called the Model M (in keeping with the company’s other letter-series tractors). Material shortages pushed back the build date to March 1947.

Deere counted on the new Model M to replace its previous small tractors, including the standard-tread versions of the Model B. Since the BO had found considerable success as a crawler, modified to that configuration by Lindeman Power Equipment Co., Yakima, Washington, a Model M (less wheels) was shipped to the Lindeman operation in 1947. The results were so encouraging that Deere bought out Lindeman and took over the operation. Crawler development continued at Yakima and the Moline test farm.

The other variation of the Model M was the MT (for tricycle). It was a 2-row, row-crop tractor that could be ordered in dual tricycle front, single front wheel, or wide-front row-crop configurations. It was much the same as the regular M except that it was built to provide clearance for tall crops. A new split rockshaft implement lift – one that allowed separate control of forward and aft cultivators – was available on the MT. Both the MT and the MC went into production in 1948. Priced at about $1,200, more than 100,000 units were sold between 1947 and 1952. The price was about the same as that of the equivalent Ford model, an improved 8N, and the price of a matched pair of Percherons. 

Evolution of the Model 40

With Deere changing from letter model designators to a two-number system in 1953, the M became the Model 40. It retained much of the M’s configuration, but the engine got a higher compression ratio and an increase in the operating speed, giving 15 percent more hp. The same versions were continued from the M and new ones were added.

In 1956, Deere changed to three-digit designators and the 40 became the Model 420. Distillate (improved kerosene) or all-fuel models were continued, but not many were sold. An LPG (propane) version became an option in 1958. For the 420 and subsequent models, the thermocycle cooling system (gravity-induced flow) was replaced by a water pump, thermostat and pressurized radiator. 

The Model 40 also morphed into the Model 320, a low-cost variation. Coming out in 1956, the Model 320 used the same engine as the 40. It came in standard and utility versions. As Ford and Ferguson had battled out the patent situation by then, the 320 was available with draft-control hydraulics. The Model 330 replaced the 320 in 1958. The only changes from the 320 were ergonomic improvements.

Traditional ways a good fit for some

In 1950, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were approximately 8 million horses and mules in the U.S. By 2006, that number had increased to 10 million. Only 20 percent (about 1.8 million) were farm and ranch animals. The rest were used for recreation, shows and competition, and racing.

Horses used in Amish and Mennonite communities numbered about 150,000 (not including those used on buggies). About the same number of draft animals is used on non-farms, and the number is trending up in both areas. They are growing in popularity with those who want to farm with a renewable source of power and experience traditional practices.

On a number of smaller farms today, the horse plays its traditional role as the equine tractor that burns home-grown fuel and raises its own replacements. The Amish in Ohio and Mennonites in Ontario are also producing new horse machinery in order to provide customers with the appropriate equipment.

Did Johnny Popper replace the horse? On the whole, the answer is a resounding “yes.” But horse farming is on the increase. Advocates say it’s a very personal way to farm. It’s quiet; you can have a relationship with the horses. “It’s nice at the end of a day. If you’re plowing or mowing a field and you stop and look back, it’s a good feeling to be in touch with the land,” one horse farmer says. “That’s the greatest reward a farmer has.” FC

– After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey-Ferguson 85.


A 4-horse team of Belgians

“Do not do away with the horse, but take away the heavy burdens from his shoulder – that is the tractor farming idea. Every man who loves his horses has often wished that the killing work of plowing and discing and harvesting might be done in some other way. Now many farmers are doing it in another way. Horses are kept in better condition and better spirits and feed bills are reduced.” From the Prairie Farmer, 1915.