A Hundred Years of Value

| September 2003

Henry Ford's impact on the America landscape is inescapably linked to the Model T automobile. In a time when automobiles were available only to the wealthy, Ford's mass-produced cars answered the dream of auto ownership for many working-class Americans. Yet, many people overlook Ford's enormous impact on the agriculture business in this country and abroad. In fact, today's widespread agricultural mechanization can directly be traced back to Henry Ford's efforts to apply the Model T production principals to farm equipment.

Henry Ford was born July 30, 1863 in Dearborn, Mich., when Abraham Lincoln still lived in the White House. As a youth, he developed a dislike of horse-powered farming, and his deep respect and love for machinery blossomed. Ford's sense of mechanical design seemingly came natural to the man. He had no formal training beyond his rural schooling - and even in that Ford didn't excel, preferring to work on machines on the family farm rather than academics. According to Charles Sorensen, Ford's closest associate for 40 years, the automaker didn't read blueprints, nor was he able to make a sketch. Regardless, Sorensen wrote that Ford's mind held a repository of mechanical concepts.

Birth of the Fordson

After the Model T was introduced in 1908, Ford focused his attention on building a farm tractor. A deep dislike of farm drudgery fueled Ford's desire to create an affordable machine to ease the farmer's chores. Experimentation with tractors began as early as 1905, however, using parts from his early cars to build a quality machine. Then, in 1908, Ford directed part of his car design staff to switch to tractor development.

By 1915, Ford's experimental tractor began to look like the Fordson recognizable today. Because of a rift between some Ford Motor Co. shareholders about the company's new project, Ford decided that the tractor operation should be separate from the automobile business. As a result, Ford established Henry Ford and Son Co., which was abbreviated to Fordson in 1917. During that time, Ford also sent some of the prototype tractors to England for possible production to help European farmers regroup after the devastation of World War I.

Finally, in January 1918, the first Fordson tractors were sold to American farmers for about $750 each. The small, lightweight, compact design was so radically different from the large, heavyweight and cumbersome prairie-style farm machines of the day that it was difficult for farmers to imagine this little tractor would take the place of a team of horses or oxen.

As with any radical paradigm shift, the Fordson created new possibilities for farmers. They were no longer forced to plant crops just to feed the teams, nor did farmers have to include teams in the daily chores. Although $750 was a lot of money in 1920, the tractor was much more affordable than most other tractors of the day.