THE FATE OF THE Ford Tractor Company

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