Tractors of the New Deal

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by H William Tetlow/Getty Images

Period of rapid technological innovation collides with the crippling global financial meltdown.

Few today remember the Great Depression or had first-hand experience with the trauma it caused. Fewer still remember the Dust Bowl of the American and Canadian prairies. Just over 90 years ago, in 1929, prosperity disappeared in a single October afternoon when the stock market crashed. The crash ushered in the Great Depression, and business in this country ground to a stop.

Some of us, however, remember President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who took office in 1933, because he remained in office until he died in 1945 – just 75 years ago. What younger generations may not remember, however, is that FDR (as Roosevelt was known) was elected president of the U.S. by promising America, “a new deal.” Not everyone was convinced that FDR’s New Deal was the solution to the grave situation America (and, indeed the world) found itself in as a result of the Great Depression, but because enough did, he was swept into office.

A perfect storm of calamities compounded impact of the Great Depression

The roots of the Great Depression can be traced back as far as 1862, when Congress passed the Homestead Act. Signed into law by Abraham Lincoln to encourage Western migration, the act offered 160 acres of free land in the southern Great Plains. Several land rushes occurred as sections of land were opened on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those who secured land took to ranching and growing wheat. Both practices gradually destroyed the thick prairie grass that stabilized the soil. With the onset of a devastating and lasting drought in 1930, the over-farmed and over-grazed land began to blow away in wind-whipped clouds of choking dust.

The Dust Bowl eventually encompassed 19 heartland states. People abandoned their homes and land; most hoped to find work in California. Dust clouds darkened the sun as far away as Chicago. This agricultural devastation did not cause the Depression, but it contributed to it and helped to lengthen it.

The after-effects of World War I also contributed to the calamity of 1929, especially for those who made their living in agriculture. The war heightened demand for American farm products, causing prices to rise and encouraging more production. When the war ended, prices dropped.

A 1926 Farmall Regular. Until the larger F-30 came out in 1931, the original version of this model was simply known as “Farmall.” The much-improved replacement for the Regular, the F-20, came out in 1932. At peak production before the stock market crash of 1929, about 24,000 Farmalls were produced yearly at the Rock Island, Ill., plant.

Innovation spurs tractor sales as Legge takes over Federal Farm Board

To counter the loss of revenue, many farmers increased their planted acreage. Those who could afford it bought modern equipment, hoping to gain an economic advantage. Tractor sales rose from 80,000 in 1919 to 250,000 in 1929. Sales in 1930 dropped to about 200,000, but fell to 70,000 in 1931 and only 19,000 in 1932.

The year 1933 saw an 80 percent rise in tractor sales over 1932, partly due to the introduction of the first diesel tractor, the Caterpillar Sixty. In 1934, tractor sales rose another 40 percent. The major innovation that year was the introduction of rubber tires – standard on the Allis-Chalmers Model U, but optional on all other major brands.

Farm organizations pressured Washington for price supports, or even government purchases of surpluses. These, of course, were an anathema to President Hoover, a fiscal conservative. Instead, Hoover established the Federal Farm Board, and recruited International Harvester’s General Manager Alexander Legge to chair it.

The plan was to convince farmers to plant less, but no amount of jawboning by Legge could change the farmers’ minds. By the time the Federal Farm Board was disbanded in 1932, farm prices had dropped 70 percent. Legge went back to his old job at Harvester, only to die of a heart attack within a year.

Tractors needed for government programs here and abroad

Elements of the New Deal included price and wage supports as well as government-funded “make-work” programs. Some were good (like the Civilian Conservation Corps), others less so – but all got money flowing through the system. Construction projects such as the Good Roads Movement and the Tennessee Valley Authority provided a market for tractors and other earthmovers.

When the Communists took over Russia in 1922, there was a drive to mechanize food production on the huge collective farms there, some as big as 500,000 acres. The grain trust Zernotrest, through its buying agent, Amtorg (American Trading Co.), ordered mostly wheel-type tractors. But for the largest farms, more than 1,350 Caterpillars were purchased, plus several hundred combines.

From 1933 until 1941, President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs and policies did more than regulate banks, adjust interest rates, tinker with farm subsidies, and create short-term make-work programs. Programs launched in that era – Social Security, unemployment insurance, federal agricultural subsidies, and deficit-spending – are still with us today.

As International Harvester becomes market leader, Deere scrambles to compete

A prominent historic event impacting the onset of the Great Depression was the entry of automobile magnate Henry Ford into the farm tractor market early in the 1920s. Ford dominated the market with his inexpensive, lightweight Fordson, selling 850,000 of them in a 10-year period. International Harvester countered with the All-Purpose Farmall, and Deere with its General Purpose (or GP), both of which could do many farm chores the Fordson could not. Thus, in 1929, Ford elected to leave the U.S. tractor market and moved production of the Fordson to Great Britain.

Ford’s departure from the scene left International Harvester in the dominant position. In 1931, International introduced a new, larger Farmall – the F-30 – as a running mate to its original, now called the F-20. Meanwhile, Deere was clearly being left behind as their Model GP was struggling in the marketplace.

Deere, like most farmers and farm equipment makers, had avoided the worst of the crash. Farm prices were low, but farmers were getting by, and those who could were investing in modern equipment. Deere sold about 5,000 Model D and GP tractors in 1930. Yet, field performance and sales of the GP remained disappointing.

Elected company president in 1928, Charles Deere Wiman (nephew of Charles Deere) recognized that the situation was worsening and that the company was in a precarious position. Then, in 1931, farm prices hit an all-time low. Over the next three years, farm bankruptcy and foreclosures multiplied, the result of both the Depression and the effects of the Dust Bowl.

Exacerbating the situation, farmers who had bought modern equipment on credit were suddenly unable to make payments. In a stroke of genius, Wiman made the decision to simply carry the farmers as long as necessary; the company would not foreclose and confiscate machinery. Eventually, most farmers were able to pay, and the gamble paid off handsomely in loyalty. Part of the reason Deere could hold U.S. farmers’ debt was that the Russians had bought, and paid for, $10 million of Deere equipment.

Build a better all-purpose tractor …

In 1933, at the depth of these hard times, Wiman made another fateful decision: Betting the company on two new all-purpose tractor designs: a two-plow Model A and a one-plow Model B were launched as replacements for the disappointing Model GP.

When the Great Depression began, there were seven full-line American farm equipment manufacturers. At that point, International Harvester held 52 percent of the market; Deere & Co., 21 percent; J.I. Case, 8 percent; Oliver, 8 percent; Minneapolis-Moline, 4 percent; Massey-Harris, 4 percent; and Allis-Chalmers, 3 percent.

Each of these manufacturers actively sought the perfect “all-purpose” tractor to counteract the onslaught of the Fordson. Then, suddenly, the Fordson was gone to the U.K. and International Harvester’s Farmall was the one to beat. By 1930, Case had its Model CC row-crop general purpose. Massey-Harris came out with its unique Model GP four-wheel drive, and Oliver had its tricycle Row-Crop. In 1931, Allis-Chalmers brought out its tricycle All-Crop. Even Sears-Roebuck entered the fray with its Bradley GP. For 1932, there was the Minneapolis-Moline Universal, and the new, smaller Farmall F-12.

Deere’s genius designer, Theo Brown, came up with not only the two all-purpose tractors introduced in 1934 (for the A) and 1935 (for the B), but also had standard-tread versions of each for the farmer who wanted a conventional tractor.

A game-changing feature of the Models A and B was a built-in hydraulic implement lift. Hydraulics was a rather new science at the time, not used as it is today because of problems with dirty environments shortening seal life. Brown overcame that challenge by putting the pump and lift cylinder inside of the transmission and differential housings. While there were engine-powered lifts on the market, they were mechanical, expensive, and troublesome, and they dropped the implement from full height to the ground with a crash. The hydraulic lift was simple and, when released, let the implement down easy.

World War II puts tractor development, production on hold

The woes of the Depression abated gradually every year, but not until 1938 and the onset of World War II did things begin to change more rapidly (actually, it was still deficit spending, but the public had more of an appetite for it when it was for defense). Styled tractors spurred the market, despite many of the older generation saying they were not influenced by them. Then, in 1939, Henry Ford (and his new partner Harry Ferguson) was back in the tractor business with his best-selling Model 9N.

During the course of World War II, little tractor development took place. Post-war offerings were mostly the same, although both bigger and smaller versions of familiar models were introduced. Pent-up demand for new tractors led to some new (but short-lived) names such as Jumbo, Silver King, Long, and Brockway. The Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, and America’s subsequent entry into World War II, effectively ended the Great Depression. FC

After 36 years in the aircraft industry, Bob Pripps returned to his first love and began writing about tractors. He has authored some 30 books on the subject and several magazine articles. Pripps has a maple syrup farm near Park Falls, Wisconsin. In harvesting the maple sap, he relies on a Ford Jubilee and a Massey Ferguson 85.

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