Rise of the Tractor

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Above: Henry Ford announced in 1915 that he was entering the small farm tractor field. Production tractors, however, were not available until 1918. A total of 34,000 Fordsons were sold the first year; 57,000 in 1919 and 67,000 in 1920. This plow is a John Deere No. 40, the only plow designed for the Fordson with a self-adjusting hitch – a draft-reducing feature appreciated by farmers who worked in wet, heavy soil conditions.Left: The John Deere Model D replaced the Waterloo Boy tractors in 1923. It was the first 2-cylinder tractor to bear the John Deere name and trademark. With improvements over the years, it remained in the John Deere line until 1953. The original Model D had 15 hp at the drawbar and could pull 14-inch bottoms in most soil conditions.
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Right: This “will-fit” manufacturer offered a kit to convert a car to a tractor. It was claimed that a car of 20 to 25 hp could do the work of four horses; a 50- to 60-hp car could replace six to eight horses. This ad appeared in a 1918 issue of Farm Implement News.
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Above: The kerosene-burning Mogul 8-16 tractor was first manufactured by the International Harvester Co. in 1914. A similar tractor won first place in the small tractor category of the Winnipeg plowing competition in 1910, plowing one acre in one hour and 15 minutes with a plow with three 12-inch bottoms.
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Above: Deere & Company bought the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. in 1918 and continued to sell Waterloo Boy tractors until 1923. The tractor shown delivered 12 hp at the drawbar, “enough to pull a 3-bottom plow,” and 25 hp at the flywheel, “ample power to operate most economical-sized belt machinery,” according to claims in company sales literature.
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Below: Because they were often built using the same wheels, chassis and steering mechanisms as steam traction engines, early gasoline-burning tractors, such as this Avery, resembled steam traction engines. Avery was the first to offer an electric starting and lighting system.
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Left: This poem appeared in a 1918 issue of The Furrow, a farm magazine published by John Deere. It illustrates one of the many methods farm equipment companies and the federal government used to encourage farmers to increase crop and livestock production during World War I.

Prior to 1914, a good team of horses or mules provided
all the power the typical Midwestern farmer needed. If his tillable
land exceeded 100 acres, he may have had more than one team. At
harvest, when belt power was needed to drive a threshing machine,
the farmer hired a steam engine. Horses pulled wagons loaded with
bundles to the threshing site and hauled the separated wheat,
barley or oats to the storage bins. After 1915, though, two
unrelated events contributed to a rapid change from horses and
mules to tractors: the introduction of the automobile, and the
scarcity of food in Europe resulting from the upheaval caused by
World War I.

In 1908, Henry Ford introduced his famous Model T. Within a few
years, thousands of Model Ts were bouncing over unpaved rural
roads, replacing the horse and buggy. More importantly, the Model T
demonstrated to farmers that the gasoline-burning internal
combustion engine was both dependable and safe. Even a year before
Henry Ford introduced his Model T, he took parts from a prototype
auto and a grain binder and built an experimental tractor. He
realized, however, that the market for a low-priced automobile was
more lucrative than that for a new small farm tractor. The tractor
would come later.

The word “tractor” was virtually unknown prior to 1906. That was
the year W.H. Williams, sales manager of the Hart-Parr tractor
company, first used the word “tractor” in sales literature as an
abbreviation for “gasoline traction engine.” Actually, the word
“tractor” had appeared previously in an 1890 patent issued by the
U.S. Government to George Edwards in Chicago. The Hart-Parr company
is generally credited, nevertheless, for making “tractor” the
common word it is today.

In the early 1900s, farmers started comparing the merits of the
steam traction engine with those of the new gasoline-burning farm
tractor. To settle the debates, field plowing trials were conducted
in Winnipeg, Canada, from 1908 to 1912. In one of the trials, 12
tractors were divided into three class sizes: under 20 hp, 20-30 hp
and over 30 hp. Their plowing performance was compared to the
single class of six steam engines.

In the small tractor class, an International Harvester tractor
won first prize by plowing one acre in an hour and 15 minutes. It
was hitched to a plow with three 12-inch bottoms. In the middle
class, another IHC tractor was awarded the first prize. Using a
plow with four 14-inch bottoms, it turned a little more than two
acres in two hours and 17 minutes. In the over 30 hp class, a
tractor built by the Kinnard Haines Co. won first place by plowing
3-1/2 acres in 1-1/2 hours hitched to a plow with eight 14-inch
bottoms.

Of the six steam traction engines, two pulled 10-bottom plows;
one was hitched to a 12-bottom plow; and three used 14-bottom
plows. These plows all cut 14-inch furrows. The six steam engines
plowed between 3-1/2 to 4 acres in an average time of one hour and
15 minutes. However, in this plowing competition, the tractors
still fared pretty well in the eyes of the farmers in attendance.
Each tractor cost less than each steam engine, the farmers noted,
and the tractors needed only one operator. Each of the steam
engines had a two-man crew; one man to steer and one to feed the
firebox. Tractors were also easier to maneuver than the much larger
and heavier steam engines, especially in soft field conditions.

Many tractors manufactured prior to 1914 resembled steam engines
in design. This was due in part to the fact that steam engine
chassis, wheels and steering were frequently used in building
tractors. Tractors designed after 1915 were generally smaller,
weighed less and were easier to steer than earlier models. That was
the same year Henry Ford formally announced his entry into the farm
tractor field.

Ford had attended the plowing trials in Winnipeg in 1910 and
said afterwards that he had “seen the behemoths of that era bog
themselves down in the mud.” Ford claimed his new tractor, to be
called the Fordson, would be light in weight, pull a 2-bottom plow
and sell for $200. A few Fordsons were built in 1917, but it was
the spring of 1918 before production tractors were available to
farmers. Although the selling price had more than tripled to $750,
the Fordson was an instant success. More than 34,000 were sold in
1918.

World War I contributed to the Fordson sales success, and it
also accelerated development of many other early tractors. By 1918,
the U.S. was in its second year at war. Because thousands of men
had either enlisted or been drafted into the armed services, there
was an acute shortage of farm laborers. At the same time, work
horses and mules were in short supply as well. Thousands of those
animals had been shipped overseas to replace those killed on the
battlefield.

Food shortages also played a role. Within a year after the war
started in 1914, there was a serious shortage of food in eastern
Europe. Two armies with more than one million men each faced one
another across the border between France and Belgium. Thousands of
square miles of once-productive farm land became muddy trenches
laced with shell craters and miles of barbed wire. Even before the
U.S. entered the fight in 1917, the federal government asked
American farmers to increase farm production. Grain and meat were
needed for export. With fewer farm laborers and work animals
available, small tractors became the obvious answer to increased
farm production.

It’s difficult to believe today, but by 1917, more than 200
companies were in the business of manufacturing small farm
tractors. In 1918, more than 132,000 tractors were shipped by U.S.
manufacturers – double the previous year’s total production of
62,742 tractors. These firms were located in 17 states with
Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa producing the most.
There were more than 160 brands or models. Within a decade,
however, two-thirds of those brands disappeared, along with the
companies that manufactured them. The antique tractor enthusiast of
today may recognize only about 15 of those early brand names, names
such as OilPull, Allis-Chalmers, Aultman & Taylor, Avery, Case,
Hart-Parr, International, Minneapolis-Moline, Oliver, Heider,
Huber, Universal, Waterloo Boy and Fordson.

In addition to tractors, some manufacturers built 2-, 3- and
4-bottom plows to sell with their tractors. Famed plow manufacturer
John Deere began to feel the impact of that competition, enough so
that Deere & Company decided in 1918 to enter the tractor
market. Even though John Deere had been designing and experimenting
with a tractor of its own design for several years, the company
decided that the fastest way to enter the market was to buy a
well-established tractor manufacturer with a highly regarded
product. The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co., the manufacturer of the
kerosene-burning Waterloo Boy tractors and engines, was Deere’s
choice. John Deere bought the Waterloo firm on March 18, 1918, and
continued to sell Waterloo Boy Model N and Model R tractors until
1923, when the John Deere Model D was introduced.

For more information: The Agricultural Tractor,
1855-1950
, available from the American Society of
Agricultural Engineers, St. Joseph, Mich.

Ralph Hughes is retired from a 38-year career with Deere
& Company. He joined the company in 1954 as a writer for
The Furrow magazine, later worked as an
advertising copywriter, and was director of advertising at the time
of his retirement.

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