Tractor Wars

From The Wall Street Journal:

When one thinks of Henry Ford, one thinks of automobiles. The visionary engineer and entrepreneur all but invented the auto industry when he founded the Ford Motor Co. in 1903. Five years later he manufactured the first affordable car for middle-class Americans, the Model T, having first devised the assembly-line process to mass produce this epoch-making innovation.

Few Americans, however, associate the Ford name with agricultural and farm-class vehicles. Yet years before he conceived the Model T, Ford—who was born on a farm near Dearborn, Mich., in 1863—was obsessed with “making some kind of a light steam car that would take the place of horses,” especially, as he later wrote in his memoirs, “to attend to the excessively hard labour” of plowing, threshing and pulling. Nothing, his first-hand experience had taught him, could be “more inexcusable than the average farmer, his wife, and their children drudging from early morning until late at night.”

The story of Ford’s dream of perfecting an affordable, all-purpose tractor—or, as Ford later imagined it, a gasoline-powered “automobile plow”—is seldom told. Neil Dahlstrom’s “Tractor Wars” tells it well. As the manager of archives and history at John Deere, Mr. Dahlstrom is in a unique position to describe the rise of the tractor in detail, and to follow the arc of both Ford’s ambition to improve American agricultural methods and his rivalry with other farm-vehicle makers.

In 1906, two years before the Model T transformed the American cityscape, Ford asked one of his engineers to develop “a rudimentary tractor built mostly from leftover automobile parts.” Early prototypes contained a Model B engine and transmission, Model K front wheels and radiator, and a grain binder’s rear wheels. It was first demonstrated in 1908, at a fair in Winnipeg, in a pull contest between steam- and gas-powered tractors. Ten years later, the first Model F tractor, built by the Ford subsidiary Fordson, rolled off the assembly line and was delivered to botanist Luther Burbank, in Santa Rosa, Calif.

By 1918 there were many competitors in America’s great tractor pull. Most were small or mid-sized firms, including the Gas Traction Co. of Minneapolis, and the Moline (Ill.) Plow Co. and the Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Engine Co. Two ultimately broke out of the pack with loud, gas-guzzling chugs.

The first, International Harvester, was formed in 1902 when the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. and the Deering Harvester Co. merged with three smaller firms. Enjoying support from financier J.P. Morgan, it instantly became the nation’s fourth-largest corporation, consolidating “85 percent of the harvesting equipment market.” Early attempts by International Harvester to develop a gas-powered tractor were only moderately successful, but in 1920 its engineers made a breakthrough, converting the two front wheels into “traction wheels,” moving the engine from the rear to the middle, and adding three reverse speeds. All of this, plus enhancements to compatible cultivating attachments, made Harvester’s Farmall tractor competitive with the Fordson.

Ford’s other chief rival was the John Deere Co. Its earliest claim to fame was becoming the “world’s largest manufacturer of steel plows.” The company shifted course in 1907 when William Butterworth, the son-in-law of Charles Deere, took control. According to Mr. Dahlstrom, Butterworth was “cautious with the family money that still financed the company, pushing for long-term gains in a cyclical, low-margin, weather-dependent business.” While some outsiders “mistook Butterworth’s preference for steady forward progress as indecision,” his business model turned out to be ingenious.

Recognizing that head-to-head competition with International Harvester would be fruitless, Deere hand-crafted a distinctive product called the “motor plow.” Staff designer Charles Melvin built the first model in 1912, and his colleague Joseph Dain perfected it by adding what became known as all-wheel drive. Although the “continued sheepishness of the banking community” tempered Butterworth’s enthusiasm for tractor development, the company found prestige with its nimble, lightweight—if rather expensive—Tractivator. Then, in 1918, about a month before the first Fordson arrived at Burbank’s doorstep, Butterworth purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. This allowed Deere to sell Waterloo Boy tractors until 1923, when the iconic green-and-yellow John Deere Model D tractor was rolled out for all to see.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but PG apologizes if you hit a paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG grew up on ranches and farms. Some his earliest memories involve steering a tractor at a slow speed while his father picked up hay bales in a field and threw them on a wagon that was being pulled by the tractor. Since tractors often spend a lot of time traveling at a set speed while pulling farm implements, they have throttles that control how fast an engine is moving that are typically set by hand, so there’s no accelerator pedal like there is on an automobile or a truck.

PG’s father would hoist PG up onto the tractor seat and tell him to drive the tractor straight along side a row of bales, then put the tractor in a low gear and set the throttle so the tractor would move at 2-3 miles per hour. He would engage the clutch, jump off the tractor and load hay bales while little-boy PG drove straight down beside the line of bales.

When the tractor reached the end of the field, PG’s father would jump back on to turn the tractor and towed wagon around to go down the next row while PG steered.

PG remembers when he was not much older and had learned how to set the throttle, put the tractor in gear and let out the clutch slowly so as not to jerk the tractor forward or kill the engine. The tractor had the clutch pedal on the left side of the tractor and the brake pedal on the right side of the tractor with a large enclosed drive train running in between.

PG’s legs were too short to depress the clutch pedal and the brake pedal at the same time so he would shift his body weight to his left leg in order to disengage the clutch so he could take the tractor out of gear, then move his body weight to his right leg to push down on the brake to bring the tractor to a stop.

On some occasions where the tractor’s brakes weren’t that good and the tractor was headed down a shallow incline, PG would move both feet to the right brake pedal and jump up and down with his entire not-very-large body weight while continue to hold on to the steering wheel in order to get the tractor to stop.

Had he grown up somewhere other than a farm or ranch, this would have constituted a high adventure. For PG, it was just helping out his dad. PG’s father has been deceased for several years, but he still remembers his earliest tractor driving experiences as well as many other tractor adventures that followed until he went away to college, never to drive a tractor again.

Fordson tractor – 1940’s (Wikipedia)
John Deere Model B (Wikipedia)
Farmall Model BN (Wikipedia)

10 thoughts on “Tractor Wars”

  1. I was told that in farming communities you could commit no sin worse than trying to marry into a family that used a *different* make of tractor than yours. My grandfather used a Ford, so that was my tribe 😀

    • In my experience, that might be a little extreme. However, a lot of people showed their farm equipment allegiances by wearing a John Deere or Farmall baseball hat or t-shirt. Dealers were happy to give them away. If you made a substantial purchase, the dealer would likely give you a winter coat with the company logo on it.

  2. Decades ago, I attended a conference where the head of John Deere spoke, on the subject of inventory management.

    He came out on stage holding some miscellaneous bent iron rod. “Know what this is?” he said, as he waved it at the crowd. “It’s a framus [I’ve forgotten the real word] from a [piece of farm equipment] from the 1880s. There are still some Amish farmers who use those, and so we get an order for a few every year. And we have them in stock.”

    He was illustrating the depth of his inventory, with pride.

    Compare this to the average tech supplier (Apple, for example) where 10 years availability is almost unheard of — partly because tech advances so quickly, but also because of deliberate obsolescence for both new-market capture and inventory-size-expense reduction.

    Which philosophy is better, in the long run? While I can see Apple’s point, I wonder if John Deere won’t outlast them, as long as they continue to innovate. After all, computer-guided design can create more “framus” pieces on demand…

    • Long life is common for industrial machinery.

      Only this year, we upgraded some almost 20 year old machines to Windows 10 (second upgrade; originally Windows XP, then upgraded to Windows 7, finally this last upgrade). We’ve also created some upgrade parts for items that went out of production. However, if certain parts break (like the motion controller), it’ll be hard to fix, since those haven’t been made for roughly a decade (e.g. the main IC is no longer available, so even if the manufacturer wanted to make more, they couldn’t).

      There is plenty of even older equipment running; I know of a number of 1940’s or 1950’s machine tools such as mills and lathes – the newer ones might have spiffy new features, but they’re not as robust.

    • I can attest that a great many tractors last for a very long time.

      The older ones were (I think purposely) designed so that the farmer could perform most maintenance him/herself. (There have always been female farmers and likely more today than in bygone times, ditto for ranchers. The whole family works on the farm, especially during crunch times. My mother drove tractors, hay balers, etc. on a regular basis. She also helped with the birth of calves and baby pigs – just like with humans, sometimes there are problem births.)

      On older tractors, everything is exposed where you can get at it easily. Oil changes were a cinch. Ditto for draining and replacing hydraulic fluid and changing spark plugs and air cleaners.

      We sometimes had an older tractor that wasn’t used any more except for parts. Something broke on a working tractor, you went to the parts tractor to see if it had a part that would work. Sometimes neighbors accessed parts tractors.

  3. Deere is a company that everyone who studies patent law (even just the introductory-level course in law school, and often in non-law-school introductory courses) gets at least marginally familiar with, and that’s just the leading example. Let’s just say that the company’s attitude toward “parts availability” is historically inconsistent with its attitude toward intellectual property and leave it very gently there, where only exceptionally nerdy lawyers will even notice, ok? There isn’t enough caffeine in Seattle to keep y’all awake for an explanation of the details… unless you’re one of those exceptionally nerdy lawyers (like me).

  4. I grew up in the Texas suburbs, but my father would ship my brother and me each summer to South Dakota to help his siblings with bailing hay and harvesting oats. I learned to drive a ’55 Farmall (so many levers) and a ’70s Oliver. So much fun for this kid.

    I’ve outlined and plan to write a trilogy sort of The Waltons meets Little House on the Prairie based on my family in South Dakota from the 1930s to 1950s. Tractor Wars will provide great research. My grandfather used a team of horses through the 1950s but did have a tractor for heavier work starting in the late 1940s.

  5. You wrote that your father loaded hay bales. My appreciation of you has deepened even more. However, you might’ve mentioned that hay bales are heavy and thrown upwards, the rows are long and the weather is always a concern, if not a severe challenge. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is a bittersweet expression.

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