Wilmot F. Crozier was almost certainly not the only farmer to cuss the Ford Model B tractor. But turning lemons into lemonade, he was the only one to convert a bad experience into a consumer protection agency that endures today: the Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory in Lincoln.
Capitalizing on a name
The story of the Ford Model B tractor begins well before a Nebraska farmer kicked one in his field. W. Baer Ewing was the driving force behind establishment of Ford Tractor Co. In Standard Catalog of Farm Tractors, author and historian C.H. Wendel notes that prior to 1915 Ewing organized several companies, including Federal Securities Co., Minneapolis, which sold securities in Power Distribution Co. But when the bonds came due, bondholders had trouble getting their money.
Ford Tractor Co. was another of Ewing’s enterprises, apparently intended to capitalize on the well-known name of automaker Henry Ford. “In 1916,” Wendel writes, “virtually anything that had ‘Ford’ on the nameplate found a ready market.”
Eventually, according to an Aug. 2, 1917, account in the New York Times, witnesses testifying during an investigation of Ewing’s company revealed that Ewing, in establishing a tractor company, was “largely interested in a tractor that promised large financial returns. Even if the company’s business of making and marketing automobiles did not enable it to get up on its financial feet, it was said, the tractor business would assure it.”
Building a scam
Ewing first became interested in the Lion tractor manufactured by Lion Tractor Co., Minneapolis, in 1914-15. He became associated with D. Maurice Hartsough, inventor of the Lion tractor. After a short time, Ewing severed his connection with Hartsough. During that time, the Lion company was entangled in a patent litigation case. It’s possible that suit (which began in 1915 and was resolved by 1917) caused Ewing to look elsewhere for a tractor company he could invest in. Whatever the reason, Ewing’s relationship with Lion was short-lived.
Ewing later employed a man named Kinkaid to make a tractor, but the first prototype wasn’t much good, one observer noted, “because it wouldn’t run in a line.” But it was good enough for Ewing’s purposes. It’s unknown whether Ewing deliberately sought out Paul B. Ford or simply stumbled on an opportunity. However it happened, in the June 1917 edition of Tractor and Gas Engine Review an article mentioned a young electrician named Paul B. Ford who was working for a “local concern and knew little or nothing of tractors.” In spite of Ford’s lack of experience with any type of farm equipment, Ewing invited him to become part of what Ewing established as Ford Tractor Co. of South Dakota. At the outset, the company was capitalized for $1,000,000 ($21,230,000 today).
In advertisements published in 1917, Ford Tractor Co. claimed that, “Mr. Paul B. Ford, inventor and designer of the Ford tractor, has devoted years of his life to its study. He nurtured the idea until he found men who were willing and able to convert his ideas into a reality. When Paul B. Ford, of Minneapolis, gave the world the farm tractor that bears his name, he rendered a great public service to mankind.” In fact, he did nothing more than lend his name to a tractor built by Kincaid and heavily influenced by D. Maurice Hartsough’s designs.
In a January 1916 edition of Modern Woodman Magazine, the editor wrote, “Since last July, the Ford tractor that takes its name from Paul Ford, one of its inventors, has been on the market as an output of Ford Tractor Co. of Minneapolis. Through the courtesy of Chas. N. Bigelow, head of the agency department, we show a cut of the tractor. The Ford tractor has been in actual use in the field all summer. Gasoline or motor spirit can be used, and the motor is a 16-horsepower, 2-cylinder, 4-cycle, of the opposed type. The steering principle of this tractor, the company claims, is unique and simple, as in plowing the right wheel follows the furrow, and with the steering wheel set, little attention is required of the operator. The Minneapolis company making this tractor has no connection whatever with the Ford motor company of Detroit.”
What the Modern Woodman editor apparently didn’t know was that Ewing’s tractor company was already in litigation. According to an Aug. 2, 1917, article in the New York Times, Ford Tractor Co. of South Dakota “ran along” for one year until about June 1915, when Ewing apparently “got in a wrangle” with some of his partners. As a result of the conflict, Ewing was nearly forced out of the company.
An article appearing in Tractor and Gas Engine Review late in 1917 reported further problems with Ford Tractor Co. “Last summer Ford Tractor Co. demonstrators … claimed they were making 20 tractors a day. But those who furnished them with accessories credit them with only 300 for the year.”
The article also noted that when Ewing first established the tractor company, he required dealers to purchase a “block of stock — a practice that few new concerns care to adopt, not that there is anything particularly wrong about it, only it is apt to arouse suspicions — and it did in this case, especially among those who had followed the career of Mr. W. Baer Ewing in his connection with Federal Securities Co. and Power Distribution Co. of Minneapolis several years ago.” The article concluded with a warning to investors of the possibility that the company was probably not what it appeared to be.
Following dissolution of his initial Ford Tractor Co., Ewing reorganized his tractor business in Delaware under the name of Ford Tractor Co. Ltd. The Delaware concern began business on Nov. 8, 1916, with $1,000,000 authorized capital. W. Baer Ewing was president of the board; C.B. Elliott, vice president; and M.R. Johnston, secretary/treasurer. John H. Meier, Paul B. Ford, John L. Smith and R.A. Jacobson were directors. In an initial stock offering, the company extracted $350,000 from approximately 3,000 people, selling about 80,000 shares at $4 to $5 per share.
House of cards
Things quickly unraveled. An Aug. 2, 1917, New York Times headline read, “Emerson Motors Co. in New Indictment, Five Officers and ‘Ford Tractor’ Heads Accused of Misusing the Mails, Frauds in Stocks Alleged, Brokers Who Handled Shares Also Included – Some History of Tractor Concerns.”
Emerson Motors Co. was the enterprise devised by Nicholas Field Wilson, who, according to a November 1918 article in The World’s Work, a monthly business magazine, sought to get in on one of the nation’s “most lucrative fields for the get-rich-quick promoter.” Wilson had already been indicted and sentenced to prison by July 1917 for his company’s fraudulent activities. He came under further scrutiny when he was linked to Ford Tractor Co., which by then had its own legal issues. The link between the two companies was Robert P. Matches & Co., a brokerage firm that had worked with both Wilson and Ewing.
Eventually, in 1918, remnants of Ford Tractor Co. were sold at auction. But by then, the case had taken on a life of its own: Rumors persisted that Ewing had also organized a tractor company in Canada. FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at email@example.com.
Read more about the Ford Model B in Unanswered Questions for Ford Model B and Nebraska Tractor Test Laboratory Offered Early Consumer Protection.