Farm Collector

General-Purpose Row-Crop Tractor: The Farmall Debuts

The proud name “Farmall” stood for smooth, dependable row-crop tractors for more than 50 years.

I know right now my John Deere friends are rolling their eyes, but the International Harvester Co. was the first tractor builder to develop a successful row-crop tractor, aptly named the Farmall.

In time, its design would be copied by virtually every other manufacturer.

Rising need for a general-purpose tractor

When gas tractors were developing during the first 15 years of the 20th century, they were based on the heavy steam traction engines that preceded them. About the time of World War I, lighter machines were demanded and built, but they were still meant for heavy draft work such as plowing, fitting ground and powering belts. They weren’t practical for planting and cultivating row-crops such as corn and cotton.

Cultivation of such crops as corn and cotton was primarily to help control weeds, but the soil thus loosened let water penetrate more easily, while the dirt that was thrown up around the base of the plants helped to strengthen them and prevent dislodging. It was common practice to cultivate corn two or three times before “laying it by,” so a good cultivating machine was an important consideration to row-crop farmers.

Some farm equipment builders recognized that the corn or cotton farmer had little incentive to motorize his farm unless they could give him a row-crop machine that was easier to use, cheaper and faster than working horses.

An early 1920s study revealed that only 6 percent of farmers in the corn belt states had tractors. The balance reported that as long as they had to keep enough horses or mules to do cultivating, they might as well use the animals for all the other work as well.

Clearly, a need existed, but it was one tractor manufacturers proved slow to fill. The delay was partly due to conservatism but mostly to the difficulty of designing a successful general-purpose machine that could do all the work on a row-crop farm.

As early as 1910, IHC tractor engineers had discussed the merits of a universal tractor, and in 1916 had patented a 2-row motor cultivator. This machine was too specialized and expensive for most farmers, but Harvester engineers experimented with many uses for, and configurations of, the machine. IHC archive photos show it pushing or pulling just about every implement then in use, giving the engineers valuable insights that helped them to later create the Farmall.

Countering the Fordson

In July 1921, IHC’s legendary general manager Alexander Legge called a meeting of his top executives to find a way to counter Henry Ford’s rapid takeover of the tractor market. Edward A. Johnson, head of Harvester’s engineering department for 30 years, and his chief tractor engineer, Bert Benjamin, pushed for further development of the row-crop tractor. Even then, their machine was called the Farmall, and they assured Legge it was much better than the Fordson.

Commercial birth of the Farmall didn’t come easily, though. An industry insider wrote: “No development in the industry was regarded with more distrust and wholesale opposition than the suggested general-purpose tractor.”

Opposition even came from within the company, and the first Farmalls were released almost in secret, with no advance publicity. Under normal circumstances, the highly conservative Harvester management likely would never have gambled on the experimental new tractor, but they believed something drastic had to be done to meet the Fordson threat. At the time, Henry Ford was selling almost three quarters of all new tractors on the market.

Testing the Farmall in the field

Even though the new Farmall was a well-kept secret, 22 were built in 1923 and put into farmers’ fields for extensive testing. The Farmall worked. Two of the machines were operated for 15,000 hours without trouble, and Texas farmers who tested them were so pleased that IHC decided to release the new machine on the commercial market.

One improvement adopted as a result of the initial field tests was the “Triple Control Feature,” a system of cables and pulleys that allowed the operator to use the steering wheel to steer the tractor, shift the cultivator gangs and apply either individual rear wheel brakes. This feature provided for both close cultivation and short turns at row ends.

The new Farmall was tall with large rear wheels that gave 30 inches of clearance beneath a wide rear axle that could straddle two rows. The small front wheels were set close together to allow short turns and to run between the rows. Cultivators were mounted in front and to each side so the operator could watch the plants he was cultivating.

The tractor was equipped with a power take off shaft to drive binders, harvesters and mounted mowers. A belt pulley drove such equipment as hammer mills, balers and small threshers.

The Farmall debuts, market adapts

In 1924, 205 Farmalls were built, priced at $825 each (about $8,500 in today’s terms), and a variety of mounted implements was offered for the machine, including cultivators, mowers and 2- and 4-row planters. Powered by a 4-cylinder, 3-3/4- by  5-inch engine, the Farmall turned 9.35 drawbar and 18.03 belt horsepower on the rated load test at Nebraska. It produced 12.70 drawbar horsepower and 2,727 pounds of pull on the maximum load test.

The dramatic success of the Farmall finished off the Fordson; in 1927, U.S. production of Fordsons stopped, although in-stock Fordson tractors still were being sold as late as 1928.

Other competitors soon entered the fray with row-crop tractors of their own, though. Most aped the Farmall’s “tricycle” design – large rear wheels and small, closely spaced front wheels.

The ones that tried other configurations, such as Deere with the 3-row General Purpose, Minneapolis-Moline and its KT (or Kombination Tractor), and Massey-Harris and its 4-wheel drive General Purpose all soon switched to the preferred Farmall tricycle design. FC

Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery while growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. Now a resident of Salem, Ohio, he collects antique tractors, implements and related items.

  • Published on Oct 1, 2001
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