THE FATE OF THE Ford Tractor Company

| October/November 1998

  • Ford Tractor Cover Page

  • Ford Tractor
    These illustrations are reproduced from the brochure of the short-lived Ford Tractor Company.
  • Ford Tractor

  • Ford Tractor Cover Page
  • Ford Tractor
  • Ford Tractor

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.

Likewise, it seemed evident that the small tractor market would be one of enormous proportions. This would be a real bonanza, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. . . the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

As a result, the race to build practical tractors generated fierce competition. Archer P. Whallon, writing for the Farm Quarterly in 1947, noted that over 400 tractor companies had been established between 1915 and 1920. (This number reached 593 by 1947.5) Many businessmen made honest efforts to produce good tractors, but other fly-by-night operators, imbued by the get-rich-quick mania, simply bought motors and other parts from suppliers and assembled these on a chassis, inscribed the company name on the machine and sold stock to gullible suckers.

It was during this period of frenzied activity that the Ford Tractor Company was born. A group of promoters in Minnesota established a plant in Minneapolis and built their first tractors in 1915. Their actions, however, created a story which has circulated for almost a century.

Rumors claimed that E. B. Ewing and his associates named their firm the Ford Tractor Company in a clever scheme which implied that their tractors were manufactured by a branch of the famous Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. To make this ingenious ploy seem more plausible, they hired a day laborer by the name of Paul B. Ford to join the executive staff. This move would add considerable authenticity to the title of the Ford Tractor Company. Perhaps they believed that many of the naive 'sod busters' would fall for this deception. Since Henry Ford was the most famous industrialist in America, and since his Model T Fords were selling like hot cakes, the use of his name would enhance sales and huge profits would be ripe for the plucking.

Meanwhile, the chance to capitalize on the Ford name was enhanced because the 'Detroit Motor King' announced in 1915 that he would use his mass production system to manufacture farm tractors. The following year he built his first Fordson and on July 20, 1916, in Kansas City, he proclaimed that the country needed 10 million tractors. He said he was going to make a Ford car, truck and tractor, and sell all three for $600. He added, 'I'm going to do it, if I don't croak first.'6

At this time the Henry Ford name spread across the country like a prairie fire. Newspapers reported he would sell his tractor for $200, or for ten cents a pound the same as scrap iron. He would reduce the cost of farming by 33 percent, free farmers from debt, and sell his tractors through mail order companies. One journalist observed that, 'Ford's name is known whenever people meet and the air smells of gasoline.' A Chicago Tribune reporter intoned, 'One need not mention Ford. . . he mentions himself.'8

Today it may be impossible to know whether the officials of the Ford Tractor Company used unethical practices in using the Ford name. One cannot discern the motives or read the minds of people who lived 83 years ago. In addition, does anyone really care about the facts? The point here is that this is a good story. It is good because it incorporated one of the stereotyped biases of rural Americans, namely that they were often victimized by city slickers who bilked them in shady deals. Cartoons often depicted these shysters as dandies in fine clothes, top hats, diamond rings, and gold watch chains draped across fat bellies. Another favorite cartoon revealed an elongated cow, with its head eating grass in Kansas while its udder was being milked in New York by Wall Street bankers.

The Ford Tractor Company legend remained popular because in this case, hard working farmers were not bamboozled or hood-winked by insidious entrepreneurs. The tables were turned on the business officials this time when their project failed and their names sank into obscurity. Therefore the villains in the piece were, in a sense, hoisted on their own petards.

However, even at this late date, we can discover some valid information about the organization of the Ford Tractor Company. In response to my inquiry, Erin Foley of the Minneapolis Public Library on February 3, 1996 reported the following evidence with regard to the Ford Tractor Company recorded in the volumes of the city directory:

1913-No listing 1914-No listing 1915-Ford Tractor Company. W.B. Ewing, president; A. R. Barres, secretary; P. B. Ford, superintendent. Located at 525 Lumber Exchange Building.

1916-Ford Tractor Company. W.B. Ewing, president and treasurer; L.H. Dapprich, vice-president; C.N. Graming, secretary; Paul B. Ford, mechanical engineer. Address listed as 2621 University Ave. SE.

1917-Ford Tractor Company. W.B. Ewing (New York) president; F.L. Lucke, vice-president; F.E. Satterlee, treasurer. Listed at 1701 Madison St. Paul B. Ford is now listed as a draftsman for Acme Oil Co.9

This data proves that Paul B. Ford did act as an executive of the company in 1915. However, the next year he served as a mechanical engineer, and by 1917 he worked as a draftsman for the Acme Oil Company. Apparently he was on the payroll for only two years and thus he played only a minor role in management. The rapidly changing executive staff suggests that this company lacked stability in making policy. Since newspaper files yield nothing about this tractor firm, and since it failed in three years, few records were left for the use of historians. My nephew, Richard Wik, a book publisher executive in Bloomington, Minnesota, recently visited the site of the company's general office and factory at Madison Street and 17th Avenue in northeast Minneapolis. Today the original multi-storied brick building still stands, but it is now used to build hydraulic systems.

Perhaps the most important question to ask is, what kind of machine did the Ford Tractor Company produce? An original company brochure revealed a front page which featured a drawing of the world with an eagle perched on top. The words THE FORD TRACTOR were inscribed over the globe, while at the bottom of this trademark the bold type read, 'TRACTOR, NEW MODEL 'C' 10-20, $695.10

The text described the tractor as a horizontal two-cylinder opposed motor, force-feed oil system, flyball governor, high tension magneto, a spur gear transmission, and one-speed forward. Pictorial material included a front and rear view of this three-wheel tractor, painted in a bright orange color. Other photos showed the machine doing field work such as plowing, seeding and discing.

Aware that the horse versus tractor debate was raging, this catalog claimed this tractor could do more work than that done by horses. One banner line read, 'CHEAPER AND BETTER THAN HORSES.' This was an important argument, because pro-horse advocates insisted that horses were a superior form of power because they lived off the land, they reproduced and were objects of genuine affection. One farmer exclaimed, 'I will not stand by and see the horse, which has been a good friend of man since the days of Jesus Christ, become annihilated by a lifeless, spiritless and unfeeling machine.' Others said tractors required expensive repairs, mired down in soft ground, created horrible noises and were luxuries similar to yachts, polo ponies and private schools for girls.

In rebuttal, tractor owners insisted that their machines reduced hard manual labor, eliminated transient workers, encouraged young people to stay on the farm, and would work without asking for holidays, shorter hours, higher wages and they would not step on a farmer's toes or switch a tail in his face.

Additional information about the Ford tractor built in Minneapolis is revealed in the Buyers' Guide to Farm Tractors published by the Twentieth Century. Farmer in Omaha, Nebraska, on August 1, 1916. The editor, Thomas F. Sturgess, believed that smaller, family owned tractors would solve the power problem on farms. Consequently he organized a series of tractor demonstrations near Fremont, Nebraska, which would permit people to see these machines doing field work. The 1913 event featured 40 tractors at work. The 1914 trials included 60 tractors and the 1915  demonstration had 84 tractors in operation. The most dramatic tests were in 1916 when 250 tractors valued at one million dollars plowed 100 acres in 50 minutes. A crowd of 60,000 people arrived in 8,000 automobiles to fill an 80 acre field. It was an awesome sight.12

The 1916 Buyers' Guide to Farm Tractors included 32 pages which gave a description of tractors manufactured by the 50 companies entered in the spectacular demonstration. In most cases photos were included with descriptions and specifications in the text. The Ford Tractor Company was printed on page 14 but with no picture. The data included: rating-8 HP, 16 HP belt. Fuel-gasoline; engine, Gile; cylinders, two: bore 5 inches, stroke 6? inches; speed, 750-875 rpm; lubrication, Madison-Kipp pump; piston rings, Gile; carburetor, Wilcox or Venturi; ignition, National or Kingston; spark plugs, J. D. Petticoat; radiator, open screen type; bearings, plain; overall dimension-length 11 feet 5 inches, width 6 ft. 9? inches, height five ft.; wheels, three: drive wheels two, diameter 54 inches, face 12 inches; castor wheel one, diameter 24 inches, face 8 inches; pulley diameter 24 inches, face 8 inches; speeds: two to three miles per hour, plowing speed two miles per hour; gasoline-10 gallon; cooling system 17 gallons; working weight 4,200 lbs; price $495.12

Apparently the Ford tractor was pretty much a hybrid with essential parts built by subcontractors. This was not unusual because many other fledgling firms did the same thing. For example, 21 of the tractors entered in the Fremont demonstrations in 1914 were powered by Waukesha motors built in Milwaukee.13

Since the early tractor industry went through an experimental stage, the results varied from some sensible designs to bizarre monstrosities and oddballs which were little more than a pile of junk. Some tractors had only one drive wheel, some were driven like a team of horses with a pair of lines. A few tricycle models had two rear drive wheels and one steering wheel in front. The Ford tractor employed the opposite design, with two drive wheels in front and a steering wheel in the rear. However, the small spuds on the drive wheels provided little traction while the motor was limited to 10 horsepower.

In addition, inadequate capital drove most of these experimental tractors into bankruptcy. The Ford tractor suffered the same fate. In this case the old expression had some credence, namely, 'A good try-but no cigar.'

In retrospect it can be noted that the tractor industry evolved out of the farm implement business rather than the automobile industry. When the major threshing machine firms began to turn out tractors around 1910, these industrial giants had access to large factories, huge capital reserves, good engineers and well-trained executives. They had distribution systems in place with dealers to advertise, make sales and provide repair services. Thus when the switch to tractor production arrived the only change was the addition of new machines to the already well-established line of products. Therefore, the conversion from steam to gasoline tractors occurred without delays causing the tractor industry to be launched almost full grown. This may help explain why the automobile originated in Europe while the tractor was born in the United States.

Notes 1. Lynn W. Ellis and Edward A. Rumley, Power and the Plow (New York, Doubleday Page & Company) 1911. p. 4. Also: The American Thresherman (Madison, Wisconsin) September 11. 1911. pp. 50-51.

2. Letter: E. Roy Potter, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Reynold M. Wik, Oakland, California. July 25, 1985.

3. The Big Four Thirty Catalogue; (Emerson-Brantingham Implement Company, Rock-ford, Illinois.) 1912. p. 5.

4. Reynold M. Wik, Steam Power on the American Farm. (University of Pennsylvania Press.) 1953. p. 204.

5. Archer F. Whallon, 'There Were Giants in Those Days,' Farm Quarterly (Cincinnati, Ohio.) Spring, 1947. p. 24.

6. Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), August 26, 1916. p.1.

7. Rural New Yorker, June 9, 1923.

8. The Prairie Farmer, (Chicago, Illinois.) June 1, 1918. p. 514.

9. Letter: Erin Foley, Minneapolis Public Library, Minneapolis, Minnesota, to Reynold M. Wik. February 3, 1996.

10. Catalogue, The Ford Tractor Company. (Minneapolis, Minnesota.) 1916.

11. John Edwin Lamborn, 'A History of the Development of Dry Farming in Southern Idaho,' (M. A. thesis. Utah State University, Logan, Utah), 1963. p. 123.

12. Fremont Herald (Fremont, Nebraska) September 5, 1913. p. 1. Also, August 6. 1915. p.1 See also The Nebraska Farmer August 26, 1914, and The Twentieth Century Farmer, (Omaha, Nebraska) August 26, 1914. p. 6. Also, August 30, 1913; June 30, 1915. p. 2; and September 1, 1915.

13. Catalogue, The Ford Tractor Company (Minneapolis, Minnesota) 1916.

14. 'The Buyer's Guide to Farm Tractors,' Twentieth Century Farmer (Omaha, Nebraska.) Bulletin 2. No. 2. August 1, 1916. p. 14.


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