Early U.S. tractor history: The story begins in Iowa in 1892


I have a book titled Fordson, Farmall, and Poppin’ Johnny, written in 1987 by Robert C. Williams, a farmer and historian from Clarendon, Texas. In it, Williams tells the history of the tractor beginning with John Froelich’s 1892 contraption, generally credited with being the first gasoline engine powered traction engine, up through the 1980s.

First gasoline tractor

Williams writes in his first chapter, The Birth of the Tractor: “In 1892, when John Froelich built the first mechanically successful gasoline tractor, he explored a new technology.

Four-stroke cycle

The Otto four-stroke cycle engine was only 16 years old. Internal combustion was something of a novelty even in the industrialized areas of Europe and North America.” He points out that the experiments of such automotive pioneers as Daimler, Benz, Panhard and Peugot in Europe, as well as Duryea and others in this country, were still in their infancy.

Powering a thresher

He writes: “Yet in Iowa, during the autumn of 1892, Froelich built a gasoline traction engine that powered a thresher and pulled the rig from field to field.”

According to Williams, the little known John Froelich “…pieced together a tractor from components made by other people (an engine made by Van Duzen on a Robinson steam traction engine chassis), then vanished into other, less noteworthy interests.”

I’m not so sure they were “less noteworthy.”

Stationary engines

Man on Ford tractor
A man on a Ford tractor with a Ferguson System (From a Ford-Ferguson plowing instruction booklet in Sam Moore’s collection)

In 1893, Froelich started the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company, however as the firm at first built only stationary engines and John Froelich was primarily interested in tractors, he resigned and ended up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he continued to invent. The website of Froelich, Iowa, said: “John Froelich is listed in the Iowa Inventors Hall of Fame.

He is credited with having invented many things: a washing machine, dish washer and dryer, a mechanical corn picker, and the mounting of a gasoline engine on his well drilling outfit. It is this invention that led him to modify the gasoline engine for a tractor for threshing. John Froelich also invented the first air conditioner, which went on to become the Carrier Air Conditioning Company.

Hackney gang plow

While in St. Paul, Froelich became associated with the Hackney Motor Plow Company and one of his patents is for a powered lift for the Hackney gang plow that automatically lifted and dropped each gang in turn so the furrow ends and beginnings were even.

In a later chapter, Mr. Williams tells us; “By the time Americans motored into the Roaring Twenties, the tractor had achieved a fair level of practicality, improved above the Fordson generation.”

Production life

After a description of the IHC 10-20 and 15-30, which embodied these improvements, he goes on: “In 1923, John Deere introduced the Model D, which earned the company a steady income for so many years that it probably set a record for production life – it was built for almost three decades.”

John Deere

A man named Wayne Worthington, who wrote for Implement and Tractor magazine, described the early John Deere Model D thus: “Its operation was noisy; the operator’s position was low and he was subjected to much dust and dirt. Forward vision was poor. The exhaust was practically unmuffled and plagued the operator with fumes and smoke. The seat was a steel stamping supported on a rigid flat steel ‘spring.’ But the tractor was low in cost, durable and economical to operate, started readily, was easily accessible for repairs and thoroughly dependable. It introduced tractors into areas where tractors had heretofore failed to penetrate.”

Farmall changes everything

Then in 1924, International Harvester introduced the Farmall and the world changed for all tractor manufacturers. Row-crop tractors became a hot item and most of the other manufacturers scrambled to develop their own versions of the versatile machines. A couple of manufacturers gamely fought back with wide front three row machines, with the front axle arched to provide more crop clearance.

Heavy implements

These were Twin City with the Kombi, and Deere with the Model GP, which was the first row-crop tractor with a mechanical lift to raise heavy implements instead of the “armstrong” hand levers used previously.

Williams said: “The power lift quickly became a popular idea, although the John Deere GP did not.

The GP was designed with a wide front end and was intended to work three rows instead of two, a concept that farmers rejected. Eventually John Deere replaced the GP with the four-row John Deere A, which had a tricycle-type format, and which was eminently successful.”

Farmall F-12

International Harvester had shaken up the tractor industry in 1924 and did it again ten years later with the introduction of the little Farmall F-12, for “a sizeable prospect list of small acreage holders with big farm ideas.”

The small tractor idea really took off with the Allis-Chalmers Model B in 1937. Deere developed their Model B to combat the F-12, and answered the A-C B with the model 62 in 1937, soon followed by the Model L. John Deere Model H. In 1939 Deere came out with the Model H, which was just in time to be over shadowed by the Ford tractor with Ferguson system, which again caused tractor manufacturers to scramble to catch up.

Implement lifts

Implement lifts weren’t new, many manufacturers had been offering mechanical lifts for several years, and when Deere put their Model A in production in April of 1934, it was the first tractor to offer the feature, however Henry Ford’s neat little, easy to drive tractor, combined with Harry Ferguson’s 3-point hitch and its integral implements and especially, its automatic draft control, was revolutionary.

Ferguson/Ford split

Because of the disruption of the 2nd world war, competing tractors weren’t really able to fight Henry and Harry until nearly 1950, and by that time the two men were fighting each other. But the Harry Ferguson/Henry Ford split is another story for another day.

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