New Deal Tractors: Model T Conversion Offered Affordable Alternative

The New Deal Model T conversion tractor by Johnson Mfg. Co. offered Depression-era farmers an affordable alternative to pricey mainstream tractors.


| September 2008



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Built by Johnson Mfg. Co., Daniel Pickard's New Deal general purpose tractor was designed as an affordable alternative for the Depression-era farmer. A Ford Model T conversion, the 1935 New Deal sold new for $265 (on rubber tires) or $230 (on iron wheels and lugs). Photo by Jame McKay.

Every once in a while a person finds himself drawn to an item that seems of great importance in his life. Most of the time it's an absolutely irreplaceable family heirloom. To the average person most of this stuff wouldn't fetch $5 at a yard sale, but to one individual, it's priceless. When I first saw my grandfather's tractor, I found myself in this situation: I knew the tractor was special.

My great-grandfather, Herman Peterson, owned a 40-acre farm in Nye, Wis. He had minimal funds for extras and luxury items. I never knew my great-grandfather but if he were anything like my grandpa Burt, he would classify a nice new Farmall as a luxury item. Nevertheless, a tractor is a necessity on a small farm and I'm sure Herman shopped for a deal.

My grandmother recalls Herman buying two New Deal tractors from the Johnson snow fence factory in Wyoming, Minn. Herman used those tractors until he moved our family to Spokane, Wash., in 1965. One of the tractors had been used as a parts tractor to keep the other one running and I'm told it was left in a field in Nye. I can only hope it was salvaged and restored as one of the 11 New Deal tractors known to exist today.

It wasn't until I was 16 that I even knew my grandpa had a tractor. All I ever saw while growing up was a lump behind the tin shed with a heavy canvas tarp over it. For all I knew it was a stack of wood. One day while I helped Gramps with automotive bodywork, he started talking about this fantastically rare tractor he had out back. I asked to see it. I immediately fell in love with it and offered my services to help in its restoration. My grandfather accepted with great delight. We would restore the tractor together and parade it in the local fair for all to admire. I was working steady and my grandfather was busy, too. At every family function we eagerly discussed our restoration plans: We were like kids at Disneyland. The years came and went, and we continued to make plans, until one day my grandfather became ill.

My situation was becoming precarious: One of my uncles was claiming possession but he did not share our values nor future plans for the tractor. He expressed no interest in the restoration of the tractor, only the value of it. While my grandfather was sick, I straight-out asked him for the tractor. Grandpa felt it was his obligation to pass the tractor down to his children and believed one day I would receive it, but I knew that would never be the case. In desperation, I asked my uncle about the tractor. He offered to sell the tractor to me so I could keep it as an heirloom. Because I was family, he said, I deserved first chance. I was young, working for a living and didn't have the money at the time. Dumbfounded, I had to decline.

After my grandfather passed away, I had the sinking feeling this was the last of the New Deal tractor. The tractor was passed down to my grandfather's three siblings. It was decided that the New Deal was to be sold and the proceeds split three ways. My mother pleaded with my uncles to give the tractor to me. Finally it was decided by majority vote that the tractor would stay within the family. Fortunately I had the skills, equipment and desire to restore it. The tractor was given to me so I could care for it as Granddad did. The one stipulation was I could never sell it and that was fine by me. I never had any such plans anyway.