Farm Collector

When John Deere Set His Sights on Steam Power

Common knowledge is that Deere & Co.’s first fling at building a tractor was in 1912, when C.H. Melvin was assigned the job of developing a “tractor plow,” with the additional goal of making “it possible to porce the tractor from the plow and to thus make it available for general purposes.”

This is true (although Melvin ultimately failed), but John Deere himself had a brief love affair with a tractor, albeit a steam-powered model, as far back as 1858.

Probably the first farm use of steam power in the U.S. was on the large sugar cane plantations in Louisiana, where steam engines were used as early as 1818 to drive the cane-grinding mills, but these engines were usually built on a brick foundation and couldn’t be moved. 

It wasn’t long, of course, before curious people watching a steam locomotive rolling along the tracks wondered why a similar machine couldn’t pull a set of plows across a field. In 1850, after seeing a stationary engine driving a thresher, Horace Greeley wrote in his newspaper, the New York Tribune: “… threshing will cease to be a manual and become a mechanized operation … and this engine will be running on wheels and driving a scythe before it, or drawing a plow behind it, in five years.”

Idea new to the public

In 1849, A.L. Archambault of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, built what is said to be the first portable steam engine in the U.S. Archambault’s steam engine on wheels was called “The Forty Niner,” and was available in 4, 10 and 30 hp versions. Others soon got into the business, but acceptance by farmers was slow; the engines were expensive and mysterious to most. The editor of the Cincinnati Gazette watched a steam-powered thresher in 1857 and wrote that, “The idea was new to me and is equally new to the public.”

Obed Hussey, who probably should have credit for the first successful reaper instead of Cyrus McCormick, demonstrated a steam plow at the 1855 Maryland State Fair, but it wasn’t successful and Hussey apparently worked on the thing until he was killed by a train in 1860.

At about the same time, Joseph W. Fawkes, a farmer from Christiana in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, began work on a steam plow that he christened “The Lancaster” and first demonstrated at the Lancaster County Fair in 1858. Fawkes then heard that the Illinois Agricultural Society had offered $5,000 for the best steam engine adapted for plowing, so he shipped his contraption to Centralia, Illinois, and demonstrated it at the Illinois State Fair, pulling a 6-bottom plow.

Wild huzzas over the prairie

A Chicago paper reported, “The excitement of the crowd was beyond control, and their shouts and wild huzzas echoed far over the prairie, as there beneath the smiling autumn sun lay the first furrow turned by steam on the broad prairies of the mighty West.” The society still had doubts, however, and ordered another test for the next month, but wet conditions intervened.

Fawkes’ wondrous machine consisted of a wide platform on which was centered an upright boiler with the fire door facing forward where the fuel, coal or cordwood was carried in a short, tapering bow. At the rear was a water tank that “holds three barrels, sufficient for three hours running.” Protruding from the front of the frame was a gooseneck to which was attached the front truck, two small wheels that were steered by the engineer from his post atop the frame and beside the boiler with a vertical, spoked steering wheel. The horizontal cylinders were 9 inches in diameter with a 15-inch stroke and were mounted one on each side of the boiler.

At the rear, under the water tank, was a barrel-shaped drum or roller, 6 feet in diameter and 6 feet long, composed of an iron head (or spider) at each end and one in the center, to which were bolted thick, narrow planks, cut like staves, and fitted closely together.

‘Started and stopped instantly’

The 1859 Wisconsin Farmer, Vol. VII, reported that, “The adhesion is, therefore, produced by a surface of wood 6 feet long, which never becomes polished, and the bearing of which is always across the grain. There is no slipping; the machine is started and stopped instantly; and, except when propelling itself a considerable distance on turnpike and paved roads, the wear and tear is slight. This substitution of the driving roller for the ordinary side-wheels wonderfully increases traction, and prevents sloughing in wet or yielding soil; while moderate irregularities of surface scarcely affect the onward march of the plow.

“Another great advantage is gained by the gearing of the drum. Instead of being attached directly to a crank on the axle of the drum, each connecting rod communicates motion to a pinion, which turns easily, but without shake on the axle just mentioned. The pinion interlocks with a cogwheel, which by a pinion on its axes imparts motion to the cogwheel bolted to the drum. The whole being so proportioned that six strokes of the piston cause one revolution of the drum.”

It was claimed that, “Steam may be got up in 15 minutes, although twice that time is usually necessary. The engine is of 30-horse power. The entire length of the machine is about 18 feet; its weight, with water and fuel, ten tons; and cost, including ‘donkey’ engine and pump, about $4,050 (about $115,000 today).”

The eight plow bottoms were carried in a frame that was “suspended by chains passing over grooved pulleys in two beams, projecting from the seat to the engine. These chains communicate to the windlass in charge of the fireman in front, by which the gang of plows may be raised or lowered.”

A John Deere gang plow

John Deere saw The Lancaster at the Illinois Fair and apparently was quite taken by it. Evidence is slim, but it appears he began to build a gang plow for Fawkes to use the following year. Deere wrote to a friend: “It will be a great day when Illinois can show a steam engine taking along a breaking plow, turning over a furrow 10 or 12 feet in width.” He went on to reveal in the same letter that, “There’s also a steam engine being built at my shop to haul it, and to do other farm work.”

There is no indication that Deere ever actually put his name on a steam plow, but he did build a gang plow for Fawkes to use at the Illinois State Fair in 1859. Although those results weren’t great, Fawkes, using the 8-bottom Deere plow, did win a grand gold medal later that year at a Chicago contest sponsored by the U.S. Agricultural Society. 

 Success eluded Fawkes, however. His machine was too heavy and too complicated and kept breaking down or getting stuck. Steam engine technology just wasn’t up to the demands of plowing, and of course Fawkes was chronically short of money, so even though he kept trying into the 1860s, his machine never became a practical alternative to horse power. His last effort was finally moved to a machine shop in Decatur to be used as a stationary power unit and the big plowing engines of the prairies were decades in the future. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at

  • Published on Feb 6, 2018
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