Froelich Launched New Era on the Farm

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Inventer John Froelich.
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The original Froelich traction engine delivered 16 hp from its single-cyclinder Van Duzen engine. It provided speeds of 2-1/2 mph (forward) and 3-1/2 mph (reverse).

The original Froelich “tractor” itself was not a commercial success.

In 1888 John Froelich, who ran a grain elevator in Froelich, Iowa, headed an itinerant contract threshing team. He traveled to farms in Iowa and South Dakota with a rig that included a J.I. Case straw-burning steam engine and threshing machine. He was dissatisfied with his equipment – it threatened fire at every turn, was heavy and lumbering, dangerous and prone to breakdowns – so in 1892 he conceived the idea of building a gasoline-powered machine to replace it.

Using modified Robinson Co. steam engine running gear, Froelich added a single-cylinder Van Duzen engine of 14-by-14-inch bore and stroke (built by Van Duzen Gas & Gasoline Engine Co., Cincinnati) and various other parts to build this early machine, whose descendants would eventually be called “tractors.” The engine’s displacement of 2,155 cubic inches delivered 16 hp; assembly was done in a small blacksmith shop in Froelich.

According to Waterloo: A Pictorial History, by Margaret Corwin and Helen Hoy, “With a helper, William Mann, (Froelich) put together a sort of hybrid machine which stubbornly refused to work on its trial run. Mann wedged a rifle cartridge (without the bullet) into the priming cup, hit it with a hammer and the flywheel set to spinning. Froelich put the machine in gear and it moved forward. He put it in reverse and, clankety clank, it moved backward.”

In the fall of 1892, Froelich was ready with his machine. Along with a crew of 16 men, and a dining and sleeping car, he took the Froelich on a 52-day threshing circuit in South Dakota. “Froelich … made a small fortune threshing 62,000 bushels of grain,” write Corwin and Hoy.

Following his triumphant return, Froelich moved quickly. The newly-formed Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. was formed with officers of John Froelich, George B. Miller, Louis W. Witry and J.E. Johnson. Witry was an engineer, uncommon in these early companies. A patent application was filed in 1893 on the Froelich, and patent no. 550,266 was granted to Froelich two years later. The Waterloo company (later renamed Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co.) went on to produce the Waterloo Boy tractor, which, after a noteworthy 1918 acquisition, provided the foundation for tractor development at Deere & Co.

In 1893, four experimental Froelich engines were built (none of which is known to survive). Two were sold but both were returned, possibly because of the impact of dust on the sliding-gear transmission. That development alarmed the company’s directors, who decided to concentrate on stationary engines. Froelich went off on his own, working with other tractor companies until his death in 1933, even though he had invented, as tractor historian R.B. Gray wrote, “probably the first gasoline tractor of record that was an operating success.”  FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56569;

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