The Van Trump Report

The Great Tractor Story

According to an early 1920s study, only 6% of farmers in the corn belt states had tractors, with the rest saying as long as they had to keep enough horses or mules to do cultivating, they might as well use the animals for all their other farm fieldwork as well, so no need for a tractor. Remember, horses and mules pulled an impressive variety of farm implements at the turn of the century, including plows, disks, harrows, planters, cultivators, mowers, and reapers. It was obvious that innovation was needed, but designing and manufacturing a general-purpose tractor that could do all the work required on a row crop farm was a difficult hurdle to clear. But as we all know, this became one of the most important innovations in farming. 

Seeking to fill the void on the farm, a young Henry Ford completed his first experimental tractor In 1907, using the Ford Model T vehicle as his platform. Ford worked to create a farm machine that could get all the work done just like the horses and mules, but also be more efficient and more profitable for the farmer in the long run. Ford would first refer to this machine as his “Automobile Plow.” By 1916 the first prototypes were completed and called the “Fordson Model F”, allowing Ford to now offer farmers a machine that brought more power with less labor to small farms.

I should back up a moment and explain, in the 1910s International Harvester Company (IHC) essentially owned the tractor market led by its triple crown, the Titan 10-20, International 8-16, and McCormick 15-30, but there were still more than +24 million horses and mules on American farms. 

Ford came along at just the right time and offered a more economical solution, a smaller, less expensive model which he called the Fordson. This model sold well for several years, aided considerably by the fact World War I caused a shortage of horses. After a post-war crash in farm prices drastically reduced sales in 1920-21, Ford initiated a price war in 1922 by cutting the price of its Fordson from $625 to $395 and knocked down all three IHC kingpins with one big roll and within a few short years came to claim over +75% of the horsepower market, leaving the IHC management stunned as they watched their market share shrink to less than 10%. They knew a change was needed so they brought in a young man from Iowa named Bert Benjamin.

Benjamin graduated from Iowa State with a mechanical engineering degree and would go to work for the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. In 1902 after a merger with several other farm implement companies, International Harvester Company was formed and Benjamin was given the position of supervisor for the experimental department of McCormick Works. 

Earlier in his career, Benjamin had spent a lot of time studying farming methods and implementing new designs. In fact, at one point Benjamin was assigned to Ford’s facilities in an effort to adapt International implements to Fordson tractors. It was there, that Benjamin not only created a kit that transformed Fordsons into cultivating tractors but also dreamt of a machine that would serve even more of the farmer’s needs. 

It was during his time at McCormick Works that the general-purpose Farmall tractor would be conceived and built. It’s worth mentioning that over the course of his career, Benjamin, who has been dubbed as “The Father of the Farmall tractor” would be granted over 140 patents for tractors and tractor accessories, and some would argue, none more significant than the PTO.

Interestingly at the time, there was an apparent distrust from farmers for those who were building general-purpose tractors, meaning those that could both plow as well as cultivate row crops. In fact, opposition even came from within the company. And the first Farmalls were released almost in secret, with no advance publicity. From what I understand, in normal circumstances, the highly conservative Harvester management likely would never have gambled on the experimental new tractor, but they believed something drastic had to be done to meet the Fordson threat. 

Even though the new Farmall was a well-kept secret, 22 were actually built in 1923 and put into farmers’ fields for extensive testing, two of which were operated for +15,000 hours without trouble. Because the Texas farmers who tested them were so pleased, IHC decided to release the new machine on the commercial market.

There were a number of features that set the Farmall apart at the time, including the “Triple Control Feature,” a system of cables and pulleys that allowed the operator to use the steering wheel to steer the tractor, shift the cultivator gangs and apply either individual rear wheel brakes. This feature provided for both close cultivation and short turns at row ends. Also, the new Farmall was tall with large rear wheels that gave 30 inches of clearance beneath a wide rear axle that could straddle two rows and the small front wheels were set close together to allow short turns and to run between the rows. Best of all, the tractor was equipped with a power take-off shaft to drive binders, harvesters, and mounted mowers. 

In 1924, 205 Farmalls were built, priced at $825, with a variety of mounted implements being offered for the machine, including cultivators, mowers, and 2- and 4-row planters. Powered by a 4-cylinder, 3-3/4- by 5-inch engine, the Farmall turned 9.35 drawbar and 18.03 belt horsepower on the rated load test at Nebraska. I’m told it produced 12.70 drawbar horsepower and 2,727 pounds of pull on the maximum load test. The dramatic success of the Farmall eventually did finish off the Fordson, and in 1927, U.S. production of Fordsons stopped completely. 

Farmalls became so famous that International Harvester adopted “Farmall” to refer to its entire innovative tractor line, capitalizing on brand recognition. This all-purpose tractor quickly expanded into a line of tractors for various applications known as the “Letter Series” and was released in 1939, from the A to the MD. In 1952, the Letter Series turned into the Super Series, morphing again into the Number Series in 1955, and by 1973, International Harvester had dropped the Farmall name. (

Moral of the story, it was the stiff competition from Ford, that forced International Harvester to make significant improvements in its tractors and change its game, and do things differently. It was these very changes and gambles that paid off and helped the company re-innovate and push to such greatness. It was also these changes that helped create such widespread adoption on the farms. 

I should note, three other improvements were critical in completing the technology base for the tractor. Deere released a power lift for its models beginning in 1927. This device allowed the implement to be raised before every turn by pulling a lever. Prior to this, the farmer had to lift the implement by hand at each turn, which was a time-consuming and enervating task. Rubber tires first became available for tractors in 1932, and by 1938 had largely replaced steel wheels. The low-pressure tires not only did less damage to fields but also allowed a higher forward speed, due to reduced friction. Finally, the development of diesel engines in the mid-1930s gave farmers access to lower-cost fuel for their machines. Many tractors from that time forward had a small gasoline tank for cold starts and a large diesel tank for the majority of the operation. And the rest is history…
Economists argue that the tractor has had a massively positive economic impact on the US. While horses and mules provided farm power, they typically ate up more than +20% of the food they helped farmers grow! By replacing them with machines that consumed much less expensive quantities of fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluid, farmers were able to reduce their costs and pass these social savings along to food buyers. More importantly, the millions of farmworkers freed up by the technology we’re able to contribute their labor elsewhere in the economy, creating larger economic benefits. According to some recent estimates and studies, the U.S. would have been at least -10% poorer in 1955 in the absence of the farm tractor. Along with the revolution in yields generated by the advances in biological and chemical research, the farm tractor has helped agriculture make a significant contribution to economic growth in the United States. 

In case you are wondering, the John Deere Model D tractor was first introduced in 1923 and became the first tractor built, marketed, and named John Deere. It replaced the Waterloo Boy in the company’s product line. The two-cylinder kerosene-burning engine produced 15 horsepower at the drawbar and 22 at the belt. The Deere Model D was produced from March 1, 1923, to July 3, 1953, the longest production span of all the two-cylinder John Deere tractors. Over 160,000 were made. (Source:, wiki)

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