John Deere and the Motor Cultivator


Courtesy of John Deere, and Company, Moline, Illinois.

John Deere

Content Tools

Route 5, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060. (The photograph photocopies are through the courtesy of John Deere and Company, Moline, Illinois.

Deere and Company's involvement with the production of tractors includes some unique experimental firsts. There is Max Sklovsky's one-piece, cast iron body which was the first experimental tractor to use such a frame. C. H. Melvin's integral power lift was unique when he experimented with his model at the Deere Plow Works from 1912-1914. And Joseph Dain's all-wheel drive tractor that could change from low to high gear without clutching was certainly unusual in design.

John Deere was anxious to retain its important position in the implement trade and it was only prudent to recognize the potential change the tractor might bring to the implement industry. Thus, through several board directives, engineers and designers were put to work on a broad front. A motor plow design, a heavy tractor and various motor cultivators were all pursued from about 1912 to 1921. When Deere acquired the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, Waterloo, Iowa, in 1918, most tractor work was focused on the re-design of the Waterloo Boy.

There were quite a few motor cultivators on the market by 1916. International Harvester, Moline Universal (Moline Plow Company), B. F. Avery, Emerson-Brantingham, Toro, Allis-Chalmers, Parrett and Bailor all produced either one or two row models. The Model D Moline Universal, introduced in 1916, was perhaps the best known of the early motor cultivators; it was one of the first tractors to use a storage battery for starting, ignition and lighting. Unfortunately, the cross-mounted motor had no air cleaner and limited forward vision further decreased its usefulness. The International Harvester motor cultivator also presented some distinct limitations. Its center of gravity was so high that it was dangerous to operate on hilly ground. Also, the small rear drive wheels left objectionable ruts in the field. Later models of the International included a PTO which was probably a result of the influence of E. A. Johnston and Bert R.

Benjamin, two men of extraordinary engineering ability. While articulation of the front and rear sections of the Moline provided a means of dodging row crops, it had the drawback of dividing the operator's attention between steering and dodging the rigs. The International motor cultivator was faulted by this same limitation.

Theo Brown, Early tractor Development, this was one of the twenty-five 'Tractivators' built at the Marseilles Plant in East Moline in 1917.

Sent in by Lowell Carlson, Route 5, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060 - picture through

Theo Brown, Early Tractor Development. Deere experimented with the idea of running the Tractivator backwards, using it without the cultivators for such work as plowing. There was already an effort to create a mult-purpose machine.

Sent in by Lowell Carlson, Route 5, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060 - picture through

Theo Brown, Early Tractor Development, the International.

Sent in by Lowell Carlson, Route 5, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060 - picture through

The concept of a motorized cultivator followed the pattern of horsedrawn cultivators except a steering wheel replaced the reins. The first man to place a pivot-axle cultivator ahead of a tractor was apparently a farmer from Sheldon, Iowa, J. B. O'Donnell. He applied for a patent for his invention July 14, 1915; however, O'Donnell did not use laterally swinging rigs. Five designers, four of them with Deere and Company, independently arrived at the idea of using laterally swinging rigs mounted on the front portion of a tractor. A sketch made by Joseph Dain, February 8, 1916, is apparently the earliest record of Deere's activity in tractor cultivators. The sketch showed a tractor with front mounted rigs, single rear drive wheel and rear mounted hopper-cooled engine. Dain, who was elected to the Board of Directors in 1914, was one of the leading advocates of tractor development or the board. A design by Theo Brown, an engineer at Deere 'a Marseilles Plant, was the company's first actual motor cultivator constructed. It used parts from a horse-drawn cultivator and was pushed by a 7? hp. New-Way air-cooled engine. The outfit was mounted on a chassis equipped with manure spreader wheels. The engine was a big share of the cost at $115. It was orginally estimated the machine could be sold to farmers for about $300; eventually less provided production increased.

The Ronning brothers, of Deere and Company, won the five-way race to secure patents for a front mounted motor cultivator. Of the five men, the Ronning brothers, Joseph Dain, Theo Brown and E. A. Johnston, the Ronning brothers patents were issued first in 1925, the same year Farmall sold their first 250 row crop tractors. When equipped with cultivators, they were held to infringe on the Ronning patents and Farmall was forced to pay a royalty of $1.00 per tractor -- equipped with cultivator or not.

The Brown motor cultivator was extensively rebuilt to make it suitable for manufacturing. In addition a more powerful motor was sought; a motor designed by Theodore Menges and built under contract by Associated Manufacturers of Waterloo, Iowa, proved to be a failure when tested and McVicker of Minneapolis, Minnesota, was retained to design a new engine. When the blueprints were completed, the new design was again produced by Associated Manufacturers. In the meantime, experimentation with the Brown motor cultivator continued. It was run backwards with the idea of attaching other implements such as a plow. R. C. Livesay, a member of the Deere Harvester Works Experimental Department, attached a mower to the reverse end of the motor cultivator and pushed the implement. However useful, it apparently made mowing a two-man operation.

After preliminary reports by H. B. Dinneen, manager of the Plow Department, the Board of Directors, gave approval to construct twenty-five, one row 'Tractivators' equipped with McVicker two-cylinder hopper-cooled engines. The Tractivators were built at the Marseilles Plant which is now the John Deere Spreader Works. The first unit was completed February 17, 1917. Two of the motor cultivators were sent to the San Antonio, Texas, test grounds for earliest possible field testing and arrangements were made for each branch house to receive a tractor to work through the season under observation. April 10, 1917, L. R. Clausen, who was named to the Board of Directors in 1919, and a vice-president in 1921, was placed in charge of motor cultivator experimentation. Factory men were instructed to follow the tractors and make daily reports. When the reports began to filter back from the branch houses, the Tractivators showed a discouraging lack of capacity over a man with a one row cultivator and a team. Mechanical problems were also revealed. The one speed transmission was too slow. The engine lacked sufficient power for hilly ground and it showed an excessive consumption of lubricating oil and evaporation of water - as much as two gallons per hour. A leaky carburetor reduced engine efficiency even further. In comparison with the International Harvester motor cultivator, even with its faults, the John Deere model could only half as much in a day and offered no advantages over a team and a one row cultivator.

From Theo Brown, Early Tractor Development. This drawing was the beginning of the Tractivator design.

Sent in by Lowell Carlson, Route 5, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060 - picture through

From Theo Brown, Early Tractor Development (Moline: John Deere and Company, 1953 - out of print).

Sent in by Lowell Carlson, Route 5, Maquoketa, Iowa 52060 - picture through

As a result, Deere and Company dropped the one row motor cultivator idea. In retrospect, the Brown Tractiva-tor was designed along implement lines -- not automative. Overall it showed a lack of engineering but was important to that company's efforts at producing a perfected tractor. The Tractivator was transitionary, new design ideas were evolving from its shortcomings. It may be that engineers perhaps learn more from failures than from qualified successes.

I fear that Theo Brown's reputation as an engineer has suffered from my brief account of some of the fascinating tractor lore in his book, Early Tractor Development. Brown received his first patent in 1903, for an end-gate for a manure spreader and culminated a series of spreader inventions in 1908, with the beater-on-the-axle construction. He joined John Deere in 1911, where his manure spreader ideas were put into commercial production. His motor cultivator activities have been but briefly sketched. He was deeply involved also in other tractor development projects with Deere. The period from 1917-1919, was largely spent in design and production work related to Deere's manufacture of combat wagons for World War I. Theo Brown was elected to the directorate of Deere and Company in 1923, and this marked the beginning of his unending work of intracompany standardization. His work also included the design of a tractor lift system which reached commercial production in 1928. Theo Brown received the Cyrus Hall McCormick Gold Medal in 1935, for his work in agricultural engineering, an award he justly deserved.

This is a snapshot of my father leaving this farm yard with his Rumely Oil Pull 20-40 and Minneapolis sheller for another corn shelling job. We lived at Sibley, Iowa at that time. This was in the 1920s. My father was in the threshing and shelling business for a long time. His first outfit was an 8 hole sheller powered by a portable gas engine. He mounted it on sled runners in the winter and pulled from one job to another by a team of mules

The first record of Deere & Co. in the development of the motor cultivator is a sketch by Joseph Dain dated Feb. 9, 1916. This sketch preserved in the Deere & Co. Patent Department files, is shown in Figure 45. Patent application was made June 6, 1916, and Patent No.1,667,843 was issued May 1,1928. This structure was never built.