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

  • The Waterloo Boy Model N. Deere & Co. purchased Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Engine Co. in 1918 and continued production of Models R and N. The Model N was modernized and had a 2-speed transmission. Both were produced until the Model R parts inventory was exhausted. Production of the Model N continued through 1924.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A team of Percheron draft horses pulling an old-fashioned grain binder. Percherons, which weigh about 1 ton each, represent 70 percent of the American draft horse population.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The Case 110 hp steam engine, which weighed about 18 tons, was rated to pull 10 14-inch plows. It featured mechanically assisted power steering and all-gear drive to both rear wheels. The model was built 1910-13.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1924 Farmall Regular. International Harvester brought out the first tricycle row-crop all-purpose tractor touted as being capable of replacing all of the horses on a farm.
    Photo by John Wagner
  • A better-than-new John Deere Model GP on display at Deere & Co. world headquarters in Moline, Ill. The designation was changed from C to GP in 1928 to reflect the tractor’s general purpose qualities, and better differentiate it from the John Deere Model D, also in production at that time.
    Farm Collector archives
  • An early John Deere Model B pulling a restored Case thresher at Midway Village Historic Site, Rockford, Ill.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1937 John Deere Model L. Built in 1937-38, the unstyled Model L was similar to the Model 62 that preceded it.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The slightly larger Model LA, introduced in 1941, was co-produced with the Model L through 1946. Besides larger rear tires, the LA featured more horsepower and a central rear PTO.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The John Deere Model H was built in Waterloo, Iowa, from 1939-47. It had about the same horsepower as the co-produced Model LA, but was configured as a smaller and lower-cost version of the popular Model B. The H sold for about $100 more than the Model LA.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1939 John Deere Model HWH. Higher and wider than the Model H, the HWH was sold mainly to California truck gardeners.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1939 Ford-Ferguson 9N. More than 10,000 9Ns were sold in the final three months of 1939, the first year of production. Almost 100,000 had been sold by the time the model was phased out in early 1942.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The John Deere Model M arrived after World War II and was sold from 1947-52. This one is shown taking part in a firewood operation.
    Farm Collector archives
  • This 1936 homemade “doodlebug” tractor was somewhat more refined than the usual doodlebug. Made from a foreshortened track, it had headlights, a 6-cylinder engine and two transmissions, one behind the other. It was built by Peter Mogg.
    Photo courtesy Peter Mogg
  • A 1949 John Deere Model MT. The tricycle version of the Model M was built from 1949-52. It was also available with a wide-front end or a single front wheel.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The John Deere Model 40 replaced the Model M in 1953. Engine power was pumped up by 15 percent by increasing the compression ratio and operating speed. This one is painted a spectacular “highway yellow” for roadway shoulder mowing, but was otherwise much the same as agricultural versions.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1958 John Deere Model 320. The 320 was built in 1957-58 and used the same engine as the Model 40. Later 320s had this angled steering wheel; on earlier models, the steering wheel was vertical.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1956 John Deere Model 420 wide front. It was much the same as the Model 40, but had 20 percent more power, an optional 5-speed transmission and a live PTO.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1958 John Deere Model 430. The 430 featured the new slanted instrument panel and the angled steering wheel. The one shown was equipped for using LP gas. The 430 was the last of Deere’s smaller 2-cylinder tractors.
    Farm Collector archives

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.