Nebraska Tractor Shows, 1913-1919 and the Beginning of Power Farming


| December/January 1998



McCormick Deering Tractor

T. J. McDivit of rural Des Moines used his 1924 McCormick Deering 10-20 tractor to crush sorghum in making molasses. Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society.

Nebraska State Historical Society

Piedmont Gardens, 33 Linda Avenue Oakland, California 94611-4816 Reprinted from Nebraska History, Summer 1983, with permission of Nebraska State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska 68501-2554.

Prior to the advent of the gasoline tractor in the early 1900s, the American farmer had become familiar with power machinery in the form of steam engines. From 1807 to 1849 stationary steam engines mounted on skids were used to saw wood, gin cotton and thresh grain. From 1849 to 1875 these engines were mounted on wheels and were pulled from one location to another by a team of horses. From 1875 to 1920, the steam traction engines were self-propelled and were used for threshing grain, plowing, lumbering and hauling freight. Much of the sod stretching from Canada to Mexico was broken with huge steam engines, some of which weighed 15 tons and pulled 12 plow bottoms.

However, these leviathans needed to be supplied with large amounts of water and coal. They were awkward to handle, presented a fire hazard and required the skill of an expert mechanic. Usually an engineer in the community did custom work for numerous neighbors. These engines were manufactured by such well-known firms as J. I. Case, Avery, Nichols and Shepard, Minneapolis, Frick, Reeves, Holt, Best, Gaar-Scott, Rumely and Port Huron. The prices averaged $100 for each horsepower developed; thus a 20-horsepower steam engine in 1900 would sell for approximately $2,000. However, steam engines ushered in an age of power farming and this trend was accentuated with the arrival of the internal combustion tractor at the turn of the century.

A series of tractor shows staged in the Midwest from 1913 to 1919 encouraged the growth of power farming in the United States.1 These public demonstrations tended to prove that tractors rather than horses and mules would be the wave of the future in American agriculture. The special events were held at selected sites reaching from Texas to the Canadian border.

On certain days as many as 60,000 people watched tractors working under field conditions. During these exhibitions some farmers were so impressed that they pulled out their checkbooks and bought tractors on the spot. At a four-day tractor show at Fremont, Nebraska, in 1915, one manufacturing company sold 100 tractors.2

However, this type of advertising was not original. For many years the manufacturers of farm machinery had demonstrated their products at state fairs. In addition the plowing contests held near Winnipeg, Canada, from 1908 to 1913 had proved that field trials could elicit wide public attention. These annual contests sponsored by the Winnipeg Industrial Exhibition Association featured a corps of judges who rated the performance of each engine and awarded gold, silver, and bronze medals to the winners. The American Thresher-man in September, 1911, listed the scores of 31 tractors and steam traction engines. Editor Bascom B. Clarke noted that manufacturers, engineers, and farmers had come from all parts of the continent to witness the application of mechanical power to agriculture.3