In 1938, Orson Wells broadcast his adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, German troops entered Austria, Superman appeared in a new comic series and Harry Ferguson and Henry Ford introduced the Ford-Ferguson tractor in a handshake deal.
Based on the revolutionary Ferguson plowing system, the Ferguson and Ford partnership produced the Ford 9N in 1939. By shifting the weight of the plow to the tractor, the rear wheels gained more traction, allowing smaller, lightweight tractors to do the same work as larger, heavier tractors. Together with a hydraulic lift system, a Ford-Ferguson tractor was the thing to have.
At about the same time, Jake Shafer was a student at Fairfield High School in Fairfield, Iowa. The local Ford-Ferguson dealer offered a correspondence course on the tractor to students. After completing the course, Jake went to work for the local dealer.
"I was working for him when Ferguson came out with the TE-20 Ferguson tractor in 1947," Jake recalls. "The Ferguson company had a factory showing of their new line of tractors. I asked my boss for a day off to go see what we were going to be competing against.
"The next day, I came back to work and the boss fired me on the spot. He said someone told him I was the new Ferguson dealer.
"I had an elderly gentleman I confided in and it was his shoulder I went to cry on," Jake continues. The man, a GMC dealer, told Jake that losing his job might be a golden opportunity. At the time, Jake owned a Jeep and had $500 to his name. He commiserated with his friend that $500 wouldn't buy much.
"He told me that the impossible only takes a little longer and suggested I go home and sleep on it for a night or two and, if I wanted, he would take me to Des Moines to meet with the Ferguson people."
The two took that trip to Des Moines and Jake came home with a franchise, a tractor and a plow. Jake and his wife, Joan, ran the business together. She was in charge of parts and did the bookkeeping. Jake operated a "mobile sales office," taking a tractor and plow out to the fields. He gave product demonstrations to very skeptical farmers.
"They didn't understand how the plow would stay in the ground," Jake recalls. "It out-plowed anything out there." The Ferguson tractor system's consistent plowing earned Jake his customers. No matter what the terrain, the depth of the furrows stayed the same. "The Ferguson had a better engine than the Ford," Jake says. "And (the Ferguson) had more power."
For $1,635 you could buy a new tractor with electric start, plow, disc and cultivator. Eventually a side delivery rake and hay baler became available. The Ferguson tractor was so simple and trouble-free, Jake says he's not surprised so many are still running today.
Jake sold hundreds of tractors in a five-county area including Jefferson, Henry, Van Buren, Wapello and Lee counties in southeast Iowa. His mobile office consisted of a 1-ton truck with an 8-foot bed and two 8-foot ramps. He remembers a near disaster near the town of Ollie. He parked the truck on a slope and almost dropped the tractor over the side of the truck while attempting to unload for a demonstration. His next purchase, he recalls, was a trailer.
In 1947, Ford dropped Ferguson tractor, which resulted in each manufacturer building its own very similar tractors.
In 1950, Jake's mobile sales room grew roots when he moved to a new building in Fairfield. After selling the same thing for eight years, Jake began to sense market saturation. Then came the Ferguson TO-35 in 1954.
The tractor was considered one of the most useful of its time, featuring a 3-point hitch as well as a solid drawbar. An aftermarket loader was also available. The TO-35 had power steering, live PTO, live hydraulics, self-adjusting wheels for cultivating and a double clutch. The company made one tractor for every dealer in the country and shipped them by rail.
When Jake went to pick up his tractor at the station in Eldon, he saw a flatcar loaded with seven more new Fergusons, each designated for other dealers. Against his better judgment, he cut the seven dealers out of their orders and sold all eight tractors in the next 12 hours. The last one sold to local farmer Roy Salts at 11 p.m.
"The next day, I sent a certified check to Ferguson," Jake recalls. "I never got any rebuttal from the company or the other dealers."
Jake's 10-year reign as a Ferguson dealer ended in 1959. He sold Ford tractors for four years before switching to New Holland. Eventually, the Shafers tried their hand at automobiles, selling Ramblers, International Harvester, Jeep and Chrysler. Later, the company worked on chassis for buses manufactured at the Blue Bird Bus Co. in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
In retirement Jake built 12 pads for fellow members of a camping club to use when they visited in the area. Nearly 20 years later, those sites have grown to a 112-spot campground (J&J Camping) on the west side of Mt. Pleasant. FC
- Interested in Ferguson tractors and equipment? Check out the Ferguson Enthusiasts of North America online at www.fergusonenthusiasts.com
Kirsten Heerdt is editor of The Chaff, the quarterly news magazine of the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where she lives with her husband and two children.