Lifting the Burden of Farming with the Fordson Tractor

Small, maneuverable and inexpensive, Fordson tractors were an affordable option to many farmers.


| September 2017



Ford

A portrait of Henry Ford in about 1919.

Photo by Farm Collector archives

The first couple of decades of the 20th century were a time of great creativity in the automotive and agricultural fields, so it seems the 100th anniversary of some automobile, truck or tractor now comes along regularly. This time it’s the once ubiquitous and infamous Fordson tractor.

Charles Hart and Charles Parr built their first tractor in 1902 and became the first commercially successful tractor company. They were soon joined by the newly minted International Harvester Co. in 1906 and Rumely in 1909, while Aultman & Taylor, J.I. Case, Fairbanks-Morse and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery and several smaller firms soon took the plunge, some with strangely designed contraptions, as no one yet quite knew what a tractor should look like. An engineer named C.M. Eason wrote in 1916 that there were some 150 different tractors on the market and that “no two of them (were) alike.”

However, “freak tractors,” as Editor Raymond Olney of Power Farming called them, began to disappear, and by 1920 a more or less standard design had evolved. Four wheels, including two large drive wheels at the rear, 4-cylinder engines (with a couple of notable exceptions), and automotive-type, sliding gear transmissions were features of most 1920 tractors.

Gear trains were usually enclosed and running in oil, and magneto ignition replaced the old make-and-break type, while roller and ball bearings began replacing babbitt metal. Much credit for these improvements was given to the 1917 merger of the Society of Tractor Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers, which resulted in automotive practices being applied to tractors.

Improving the farmer’s life

A prime example of the application of car-building expertise to tractors was the Fordson introduced by Henry Ford in 1917. For several years prior to the U.S. entry into the war then raging in Europe, rumors about Ford building a tractor had been making the rounds. It’s not so surprising when one thinks about it – a “farm motor” or tractor was certainly a lot more like an automobile than the binders, threshers and plows being cranked out by McCormick, Case and Deere.

Henry Ford was the son of a farmer and hated the drudgery of farm work. Legend has it that 12-year-old Henry, while riding with his father in a wagon behind a team of horses, saw his first steam threshing rig. This supposedly sparked the boy’s abiding interest in improving the life of farmers through mechanization.