The Rise and Fall of Moline Plow Co.

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A Moline two-way plow.
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Cover art from a circa-1920 Moline Plow Co. catalog.
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Rear view of a Moline Universal Model D tractor with a Moline 2-bottom plow at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in 1993.
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Front view of a Moline Universal Model D tractor at the 2010 Antique Gas Engine & Tractor Show, Hudson Mills Metropark, Mich.

In about 1850, Alonzo Nourse had an agricultural warehouse at Main and Wells streets in Moline, Illinois. There he sold eastern-made revolving hay rakes and built fanning mills and a few other implements to order with the help of Henry W. Candee, and, a few years later, Robert K. Swan.

In 1854, Candee and Swan bought the place, giving birth to what was to become Moline Plow Co. At about the same time, a Swedish immigrant named Andrew Friberg came to Moline and went to work for John Deere building plows, soon becoming foreman of Deere’s blacksmith shop.

In 1864, Friberg developed lung problems and moved to the Rocky Mountains for his health. He returned a year later to work for Candee, Swan & Co., after which they began to build the Moline line of plows. This upset Deere, who had been using the Moline name for some of his plows (even the logo Candee, Swan & Co. used was similar to Deere’s) and he sued. The court battle dragged on for three years and Deere lost, after which Candee and Swan were free to incorporate in 1870 as Moline Plow Co. with Swan as president.

Broad expansion of product line

The Moline product line increased through the 1870s and ’80s. In 1884, a 3-wheel “Flying Dutchman” sulky plow was introduced. The plow’s third wheel allowed the plow bottom to be carried on the plow frame, rather than being dragged through the ground, and made square corners easy.

The Moline Champion corn planter came out in 1886. It was the first to gear the dropping mechanism to the planter wheel so one kernel at a time could be dropped into the valve, allowing corn to be checkrow or drill planted.

Other products were added, including harrows, cultivators, stalk cutters, cotton planters, potato diggers and sugar beet tools. Acquisitions included Henny Buggy Co., Freeport, Illinois, in 1903; Mandt Wagon Co., Stoughton, Wisconsin, in 1906; Monitor Drill Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1909; and Adriance, Platt & Co. in 1913. These acquisitions gave Moline a line of vehicles, grain drills, and haying and harvesting machinery.

A 1908 account tells us that Moline Plow Co. then had “14 magnificent branch houses,” capital stock in the amount of $6,000,000, nearly 2,000 factory hands, and some 200 traveling men to sell their goods, and that the firm’s “foreign trade has grown until it is a very considerable business in itself.”

Embracing new technology

By 1910, Moline Plow was interested in the relatively new internal combustion engine. They began by selling gas engines built by the Alamo Mfg. Co., Hillsdale, Michigan, although the engines were re-badged with the Flying Dutchman name.

At about the same time, Moline Plow began suffering from the tractor itch and reportedly designed a motor plow. International Harvester Co. built a few samples of the machine for Moline, but they proved unsatisfactory.

Meanwhile, Universal Tractor Mfg. Co., Columbus, Ohio, had been building a 2-cylinder, 10 hp motor cultivator. Universal bought specially built plows for it from Moline Plow. In 1915, Moline bought Universal for $150,000. While it built a similar machine for a year or two, in 1917 a 4-cylinder engine (possibly built by Root & VanDervoort, at least initially) was adopted. The new Moline Universal Model D 9-18 was tested at Nebraska in 1920 and developed 17.4 drawbar horsepower, far higher than the 9 hp manufacturer rating.

Electric governor, starter and lights were uncommon in that era, but they were standard equipment on the Moline Universal. A good many Universals were sold, but there were some inherent drawbacks to the Universal’s design, such as the narrow wheel span and high center of gravity that made the thing prone to upsets, as well as the difficulty in backing up when the hitch tended to buckle upwards.

Struggling in economic downturn

Moline Plow got into the automobile business for a while when the buggy business fell off before World War I (anti-German sentiment during the war also caused Moline to temporarily discontinue use of the Flying Dutchman trademark). George W. Stephens had been company president at one time, and the new auto, which was made in the Henny factory, was named the Stephens. Introduced in 1916, the Stephens Salient Six was in full production in 1917, with more than 1,300 built that year.

By the war’s end, even though it was the fifth largest farm equipment company in the world, Moline Plow Co. was in trouble. Like a lot of firms, Moline had overextended itself during the war, and in addition had sold a lot of machinery to czarist Russia. After the 1917 revolution, the new Soviet government refused to pay the old Imperial government’s bills, leaving Moline high and dry. The Agricultural Depression of the early 1920s badly hurt the company.

In an attempt to survive, Moline Plow built the Moline Model 10, a 1-1/2-ton truck, for three or four years during the early 1920s, but it didn’t prove to be a big seller. In 1924, Moline Plow, even though weakened by the business downturn, bought the Milwaukee line of harvesting machinery from IHC, which had been forced to sell it and others by the U.S. government.

Last-ditch efforts

Moline leadership did everything it could to keep the company alive. In 1923, when most farmers were opting for conventional tractors, Moline dropped manufacture of the Universal tractor. In 1925, the company changed its name from Moline Plow Co. to Moline Implement Co. Nothing seemed to help.

An interesting aside: On Oct. 3, 1920, the Moline Universal Tractors, a professional football team, played the Decatur Staleys, a team affiliated with the newly organized American Professional Football Conference (which later became what is today’s NFL). Under player/coach George Halas, the Staleys won 20-0 and went on to become the famous Chicago Bears.

That 20-0 football loss set the tone for the struggling Moline Plow Co. during the 1920s. Finally, in 1929, a merger was worked out between Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co., Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co., and Moline Plow Co. The new firm thus created was Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Co., which was one of the major farm equipment companies for more than three decades before White Motor Co. bought it in 1963. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email

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