THE FATE OF THE Ford Tractor Company

| October/November 1998

4641 Meldon Avenue Oakland, California 94619

The story of the Ford Tractor Company belongs to one of the most dramatic periods of technological change in American agricultural history, namely the era which featured the shift in power sources from steam engines to tractors. The years were from 1908 to 1920.

Following the Winnipeg trials held from 1908 to 1913, industrialists such as Henry Ford, Benjamin Holt, J.B. Bartholomew, and others agreed that in the past steam engines had provided adequate power for threshing grain and breaking up the prairie sod. However, these leviathans were unsuited for general field work on American farms. They were slow and awkward to handle, they consumed too much water and fuel, they were fire hazards, and they were expensive. E. Roy Potter, a Canadian expert, stated that these huge engines tended to mire down in soft ground so badly that at times it took several days of hard work using jacks and timbers to get them out of mud holes.2

Unfortunately these problems continued because many of the early tractors built in the United States were almost as ponderous as the earlier steam traction engines.

Many of these huge tractors weighed over eight tons and pulled ten-bottom plows. Some were so hard to start that owners let them run all night rather than face this baffling problem in the morning. Operating instructions for the first Hart-Parr tractors listed 19 rules for starting the motor and 13 rules for stopping it. The gas traction 'Big Four' weighed 23,000 pounds, had drive wheels eight feet in diameter, and tanks which held 110 gallons of water, 77 gallons of kerosene and five gallons of oil.3 Professor H. W. Riley of Cornell University believed these monsters were too expensive and that their weight did serious damage to the soil.4

Thus by 1913 it seemed clear to most farmers and manufacturers that smaller, reliable, easy to operate, and less costly tractors were desperately needed to provide adequate power for agricultural purposes. Since farmers could drive cars and trucks they could operate tractors as well.