Yesterdays Tractors

The Fordson Tractor F Series was a product of Henry Ford and Son and was the first tractor on the American scene in 1916. The four cylinder, three speed transmission tractor was mass produced the same way that made the Model T automobile famous. Yesterdays tractors were really an extension of the automobile and were in great need for more productive farming.

fordson series f tractor
Fordson Model F Tractor

The whole idea with the Fordson tractors was to create a model that would dominate the American tractor market. It’s been estimated that some 750,000 of these tractors were sold between the years 1917 and 1928. Production first began on the Fordson tractors at Ford’s Dearborn Michigan factory. The Fordson tractors, which originally was made by the company as separate from it’s automobiles, were eventually merged into Ford Motor Company in 1920. Fordson tractors continued to be manufactured until the 1960’s. Fordson tractors would be built in factories in the U.S. Ireland, Russia and England. The Fordson tractor shown in the above photo is on public display at the Pioneer Homestead in Plano Texas, a northern suburb of Dallas.

To say the farming world needed such a machine in the early 1900’s is an understatement. The very first tractor to be seen was a steam powered machine in 1868. It’s general purpose was to haul mostly timber. The gasoline tractor that would come later was a direct result of the first gasoline engine which was developed by the Charter Gasoline Engine Company of Sterling, Illinois in 1887.

john deere waterloo boy tractor
John Deere Waterloo Boy, public domain photo

Prior to Ford’s tractor production there was a tractor designed in the early 1890’s. This was an invention by a man named John Froelich. This was a one cylinder gas engine machine built in Iowa. Froelich’s company was called the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and their first tractor was built in 1892. Froelich lost the company mostly due to the Financial Panic of 1895, which also bankrupted a few railroads, but the original company would eventually become the John Deere Tractor Works without John Froelich. John Deere himself was credited with inventing the first steel plow in 1837.  Interestingly enough, while Froelich lost everything he had with the failure of his company, he moved to Minnesota where he eventually became quite wealthy with the invention of the “Froelich Neostyle Washer“, a clothes washing machine.

During the early 1900’s, the Fordson tractors and the John Deere’s were in hot competition. In the 1920’s, International Harvester would enter the picture with their Farmall brand name tractor. Ford can be credited with introducing the first mass produced and affordable tractor, obtaining a lot of help from their unique automobile assembly systems. By the year 1925, Ford had built it’s 500,000th tractor.

farmall tractors
Circa 1936 Farmall F 20 Tractor

Today, John Deere is known as the the number one agricultural equipment maker in the world. The company’s slogan which almost everyone has heard is “Nothing Runs Like a Deere”.

The 1936 Farmall Tractor show at right was manufactured by International Harvester. The Farmall’s were general purpose tractors and were built between the 1920’s to the 1970’s. They were somewhat similar to the Fordson’s and were mass produced. While the mass produced, affordable Farmall’s were built good and it’s costs were reasonable, they competed with Ford head to head and kept Fordson from owning the agricultural equipment market. The Farmall’s of the 1930’s, like the F 20 shown, were improved with more powerful engines, International Harvester still kept building smaller F-12’s. In the later year International Harvester built a model of tractor for almost every farm and every need. The Farmall name was discontinued in 1973. This was a long run since the first Farmall was sold in 1924.

What’s very interesting about the story of tractors is that Ford was really the only early automobile company that designed a mass produced tractor that became a long lasting part of it’s product line. Ford was the first company to use the mass assembly system in tractor building which allowed them to hit the market at affordable prices. The sales figure of 500,000 by 1925 testifies to the popularity of the Fordson tractor. Yesterdays tractors evolved into the agricultural equipment industry that today includes cotton harvesters, balers, sprayers, combines and other dedicated machines.

(Fordson and Farmall tractor photos from author’s private collection)