How John Deere's Small Tractors Replaced the Horse

Making the move from horse power to horsepower on America's small farms using small tractors.

| September 2016

When Deere & Co. got into the tractor business with the Waterloo Boy in 1918, promotional writers crowed that, “Everything that can be done on a farm can be accomplished by a Waterloo Boy.” Twenty years later, the Model LA was said to be, “Powered to pull loads ordinarily handled by a 3-horse team.” Thirty years after the launch of the Waterloo Boy, 1948 Deere ads were still trying to drive the point home. “Many horse-drawn implements can be adapted to the new Model M,” an ad proclaimed.

Real horse power was a way of life on most farms into the 1930s, and even later than that on smaller farms. Feeling of a sense of camaraderie and trust developed through a lifetime of laboring together, farmers were reluctant to give up on their horses. On the small farm, it was hard to afford both a team and a tractor, so the team often stayed and the tractor purchase was deferred. 

Rated by the number of horses replaced

At the turn of the 20th century, mechanized power came to the farm in the form of steam traction engines. Early gas tractors mostly copied the steamers. For the large acreage farmer who could afford either one of those behemoths, a herd of horses was still a necessity. A Society of Agricultural Engineers publication estimates that, in 1910, the combined mechanical and animal power on U.S. farms was about 28 million hp. About 24 percent of that was mechanical (nearly all steam). Between 20 and 22 million horses made up the balance.

Tractors began to be rated by the number of horses they could replace. Deere purchased Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Traction Engine Co., and its Waterloo Boy tractor in 1918. Deere became a solid contender with a tractor touted as being able to replace four to five horses. The Fordson, which hit the U.S. that year, also claimed to be a replacement for a team.

Tractors of the era were mainly good for drawbar work and flat belt power. In 1924, International Harvester introduced the tricycle all-purpose Farmall. It could do all of the conventional tractor’s work and cultivate row crops, clearing the way for the complete elimination of animal power from the farm. Deere’s response was the 1927 Model C/GP (General Purpose), a 4-wheel tractor with an arched front axle for straddling the center row in 3-row cultivation.