Some John Deere History

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Waterloo Boy tractor as exhibited at the Mt. Pleasant Reunion. It was in good running order. It portrayed history and development.

Intrigued by the replica of the Froelich first tractor exhibited at the Mt. Pleasant Reunion in 1952, we are here giving some history as started by Mr. Froelich in 1892. This is copied from some literature of Deere and Company with their permission. — Ed.

John Froelich was born November 24, 1849, in Giard, Iowa.

But he was living in nearby Froelich (named for his father) when he began wondering if he couldn’t build a more useful traction engine than the steam engines then in use.

He knew about steam engines from experience. They were heavy and bulky, hard to maneuver. They were always threatening to set fire to the grain and stubble in which they worked, and on flat prairie, with wind blowing, that was no joke. Froelich believed that he could build a gasoline traction engine — or tractor — that would remove all these drawbacks to mechanical power.

The first tractor

Likely you’d smile if you could see his first attempt. It was a sort of hybrid vertical, one cylinder (14-inch stroke and bore) engine mounted on the running gear of a steam traction engine.

The two halves didn’t fit together too well. In fact, in most respects, they didn’t fit at all, and Froelich and his helper, William Mann, had to design many new parts. It took time to figure everything out. But the day came when the hybrid was assembled and ready for trial.

Froelich tugged at the massive flywheel. The machine wouldn’t start.

No matter how hard Froelich and Mann yanked on that flywheel, the machine simply wouldn’t start, and somewhere, among the spectators, there was a snickered “I told you so!”

That did it

Then Mann had an idea.

He twisted the bullet from a rifle cartridge, wedged the cartridge in the primer and hit it with a hammer.

With a cough and a roar, the one-lunger came to life. The flywheel began to spin … horses reared and tried to pull loose from a nearby hitching rail. “I knew old John’d do it!” shouted the onlooker who, a moment before, had started to scoff.

Froelich, on the driving platform, gingerly eased his invention into gear. The hybrid lurched forward. He tried the reverse. The machine clanked backward.

Out on the road he went, and to a farm where a neighbor was threshing grain. The hybrid was substituted for the steam engine. It did the job.

A few weeks later, Froelich and his crew started for the broad fields of South Dakota, with the gasoline tractor and a new threshing machine.

That fall they threshed 72,000 bushels of small grain.

Success seemed assured.

But success was still 20 years away. First to come were failure, discouragement, heartbreak.

The years of struggle

As result of further successful demonstrations, a company headed by Mr. Froelich was organized to manufacture gasoline tractors. A frame building was erected in Waterloo, Iowa. The company was named the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co.

But efforts to build a practical tractor failed. True, two were sold but they were returned.

The company decided to manufacture stationary gasoline engines in order to have some income while tractor experiments continued. The engines apparently were good ones, but somehow they didn’t sell very well.


The company decided to reorganize. In 1895, the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. was incorporated — but John Froelich, whose interest was in tractors, not stationary engines, chose to withdraw. Later he moved to St. Paul, Minn., where he died May 23, 1933. Even after the value of his contribution to agriculture became apparent, the world gave him little recognition. But Froelich, Iowa, remembered him; in 1939 the little community dedicated a historical marker to his memory.

The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. continued the building of stationary engines, with increasing success, and also in 1896 offered an improved tractor. It was a good job for those days. But the world wasn’t ready for gasoline tractors. Only one was sold.

In 1897, another tractor was designed. Again only one was sold. Demand for stationary engines, however, had become so good that a new factory and foundry were built.

In 1902 a merger was arranged, the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. and the Davis Gasoline Engine Co. combining their facilities and resources. One product was to be the Charles E. Duryea three-cylinder automobile.

The Waterloo Boy

Two years later the merger was terminated. The Davis organization turned to building Davis engines and a few Duryea automobiles. The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. redesigned and greatly improved its stationary engine, bringing out the “Waterloo Boy” models which immediately became popular (some of them are still in use today) that for several years constant factory expansion was necessary to meet demand.

The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. also began manufacturing two cylinder automobiles. Space limits and the mounting demand for stationary engines made it necessary to discontinue that project after only six automobiles had been sold.

But tractor experiments continued. None was successful until, in 1913, the company offered the Model L-A, a two-cylinder opposed engine on a four-wheeled chassis. Twenty tractors were sold. The tide was turning.

Farmers liked it

Early the next year the company brought out the Model R single-speed tractor (the first Waterloo Boy tractor). Farmers liked it. Within a year sales reached 118.

Design was modified, largely on basis of users’ suggestions, and by the end of 1918 the company had sold 8,076 Model R Waterloo Boys. IMA

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