What was the first John Deere tractor? I know the answer. I think. Well, maybe. Let’s explore the candidates.
My research into the origins of the farm tractor began in 2016. John Deere was on the verge of a milestone, 100 years in the tractor business. I had spent time researching the topic for others off and on over the years, but I had not committed to it, meaning, I had not taken the next step, then the next. I had not scoured libraries and archives, tracking down names and places and following leads (one of the best parts). And there was one question I could not shake as I spoke at events and talked to more and more people. What was the first John Deere tractor?
It’s a simple question without a simple answer.
But there are several candidates, most named after their creators. Brand names were not an industry in themselves like they are today, and these tractors were mostly experimental, so the buying public (and there wasn’t much of a buying public for tractors yet) would never know some of the tractors anyway. The Melvin, the Sklovsky, the Dain and Waterloo Boy are typical candidates. But have you also considered the Tractivator (twenty-five were built but recalled in 1917)?
The Melvin was an experimental tractor built in 1912, based largely on the well known Hackney Motor Plow. Only one Melvin was built, but it did have the John Deere name scripted across the front of the radiator. Does that make it the first?
Three tractors built by Max Sklovsky (A-2, B-2, D-2, the latter never built) were purely experimental, and each one was different, a reflection of fragmented consumer attitudes in an emerging industry. The Sklovsky A-2 came after the Melvin, so this is an easy one to cross off the list.
In the middle of all of this, Theo Brown, Walter Silver and others worked on a motor cultivator, what came to be called a Tractivator. Internally, this was destined to be John Deere’s first tractor. They were excited enough that twenty-five were built and shipped to dealers in 1917. But what they learned was that the cost was equal to the cost of a team of horses, and so as a replacement it would not do. Scratch the Tractivator from the list.
That leaves the All-Wheel Drive, better known as the Dain? “Up to 100” were approved for production beginning in 1918, and at least ninety were “mass” produced and sold. No one has ever been able to determine if they were all built in 1918, or if perhaps production was stretched into 1919. But, records indicate the first was finished in April 1918 and shipped to a government test farm in Garrett Park, Maryland. Clearly the Dain is the first John Deere tractor. Except…
Something important happened just before that first All-Wheel Drive tractor rolled out of the factory. In March, Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Company, and with it the Waterloo Boy tractor. The Waterloo Boy tractor, as a product of John Deere, debuted at a farm show in August. And, it did not carry the John Deere trademark until January 1920. Does the Waterloo acquisition make the Waterloo Boy the first John Deere tractor?
I’ve had this conversation hundreds of times, and it turns out that the idea of first is complicated. Its also entirely dependent on your definition. If you define it as a tractor with the John Deere name on it, then the Melvin wins the prize. If its the first tractor built by Deere, its still the Melvin. If its the first tractor intended to be sold by Deere, then its the Tractivator. If its the first tractor built in a factory owned by John Deere that was available for purchase, then its the Waterloo Boy. If its the first tractor built and sold by John Deere with the John Deere name on it, then its Dain’s All-Wheel Drive.
And the winner is….
For me, this one is decided on a technicality. The first John Deere tractor is the first tractor built and sold by John Deere (regardless of whether the John Deere name was on it). That puts me in the Waterloo Boy camp. Then again, I could be wrong. What do you think?