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Henry Ford with Experimental Tractor
Pulling Disc Harrow, about 1906

August 2003

Henry Ford and the Fordson—A Model T for the Soil

In 1915, American farmers owned over 20 million horses to pull farm machinery. Though American companies had manufactured tractors for more than fifteen years, no one imagined that farmers would begin to shift to machines for draft power any time soon. Nevertheless, the transition was about to begin en masse. The man who put the world on wheels wanted to put farmers on tractors too. At the same time that Henry Ford developed the Model T, he experimented with tractor production. He may be known for his role in automotive history, but his agricultural contributions are equally significant.

MORE: Henry Ford and the Fordson—A Model T for the Soil

As a farm boy, Henry Ford disliked horses and the drudgery of farm labor. As an industrialist, he sought to improve the farmer's life through the mechanization of farm work. Beginning about 1906, Henry Ford directed his engineers to devise an agricultural tractor to replace the horse on the farm. At the time, most tractors weighed more than two tons and cost around $1,000. Henry Ford hoped to create a small, inexpensive tractor that most farmers could afford. Literally, a Model T for the soil.

Ford tractors first saw service with Ford Motor Company. In 1906 or 1907, according to Joseph Galamb, a Ford engineer, Henry Ford asked him to build a light tractor to use with wheat production and harvesting. Ford wanted the tractor built in three days. Though he initially wanted the machine to pull a binder to cut and tie grain, Ford later referred to this tractor as an “automotive plow.” It was designed for pulling implements like plows, disc cultivators and binders through the field. The engineers completed it in a week, missing Ford’s three-day deadline.

Experimental Tractor Pulling a Grain Binder, about 1906
Experiments continued intermittently on tractors, as Ford patented a frameless tractor in 1909, and occasionally engineers turned out a test model. By 1916, Ford undertook the work in earnest. World War I had taken men and horses from farms in Europe. The British Ministry of Munitions sought tractors to replace the draft power of animals and increase productivity of farm workers. Ford’s desire to manufacture tractors had become well known, and the company’s industrial capacity and international reputation gained the interest of British authorities. Ford’s relationship with Lord Percival Perry of the British Board of Agriculture cemented the deal, and the Ministry of Munitions ordered 6,000 tractors from Ford. On July 27, 1916, Henry and Edsel Ford incorporated Henry Ford & Son to build the tractors. From its start, the company had a ready market for its tractor. These Ministry of Munitions tractors served as the predecessors to the world’s first mass-produced tractor, the Fordson.

In 1918, the United States Department of Agriculture authorized Henry Ford & Son to manufacture their Fordson tractor. The first commercial tractor off the line in Dearborn went to Ford’s friend, Luther Burbank. The Fordson became the dominant tractor of the early 1920s. It originally sold for $750.00, ran on kerosene, and weighed a little over a ton. By 1927, more than 750,000 Fordson tractors had been sold worldwide. American farmers embraced power farming. Seventy-five percent of the tractors in the United States were believed to be Fordsons. The Fordson realized Henry Ford’s dream of a lightweight, affordable tractor for the average farmer.

Fordson, 1918
The Fordson had its problems. It did not start easily; it had a gear below the seat that generated heat making it uncomfortable to drive. Because of its light weight and farmers’ unfamiliarity with tractors, accidents occurred. Farmers were injured, sometimes fatally. In 1924, the company offered fenders to help prevent accidents and increase utility.

The tractor performed adequately at pulling a plow or powering a saw from its belt pulley, but Ford Motor Co. relied on other manufacturers to supply implements. The Fordson, or possibly Henry Ford’s own lack of flexibility caused the tractor to lose popularity to other tractors, especially the International Harvester Farmall. The Farmall had adjustable wheel widths to meet individual farmer’s preference for their crops, could power machinery while it pulled, and had a set of implements designed specifically for it by International Harvester. The Farmall set a new standard, as the Fordson had done before it.

The Fordson in Henry Ford Museum
The Fordson’s waning popularity, the agricultural depression of the 1920s, and Ford Motor Company’s troubles proved too much for the little tractor. In 1928, Ford Motor Company ceased domestic production, though an improved Fordson and its sucessors remained popular in Europe into the 1950s. Ford tractor manufacturing in the U.S. took a hiatus. The American farmer showed he was ready to move to power farming, but in the U.S. he had to wait until 1939 for a new domestically-produced Ford tractor—the 9N.

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Leo Landis, Curator of Agriculture & Rural Life




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