The 1920s tractor bubble.

The farm tractor was still an unknown, emerging technology in the first decade of the twentieth century. But as automobiles replaced horses and wagons on farmsteads across the country, it seemed only a matter of time before the tractor displaced the horse entirely. But sometimes things happen too fast.

If you were farmer, the largest occupation in the country, the possibilities of the tractor were hard to ignore. Horses needed to be fed, sheltered, and cared for, while the tractor, a mechanical horse needed none of these things (so they said). In reality, farm tractors were incredibly complex. In 1909, only nine companies built 2,000 farm tractors in the United States, but those numbers grew steady, and then exploded. Unfortunately, some of the early tractors working the prairie literally exploded. That was enough to keep many farmers away, for awhile.

Refinements in design, a transition from steam to gasoline and kerosene, and the introduction of smaller and lighter models, made tractors increasingly attractive to the average farmer who worked less than fifty acres. A design evolution put the tractor on a new path to adoption. In 1915, sixty-one companies built—and sold—21,000 tractors. 

Tractors and horses working together on the farm in 1910. Library of Congress LC-USZ62-63139.

If you could have gathered around the radio and listened to the Super Bowl in 1916, you might have heard commercials from the Ford Tractor Company, the Bull Tractor Company, the Avery Company, the Minneapolis Steel & Machine Company and the Michigan Tractor Company. They would have overspent on the ad space to tell you about the merits of their innovative and reliable machines to transform the farm. Of course, it was 1916, so instead they poured advertising dollars into newspapers and magazines, and converged on county and state fairs. Perhaps you attended the show in Champaign, Illinois in August 1915, or were one of the more than 100,000 people that watched demonstrations in Fremont, Nebraska, Bloomington, Illinois or Madison, Wisconsin.

If you were a perspective customer, what you could not have known was that many of the manufacturers were already over-leveraged and desperate for customers. Certainly, you did not anticipate that a few years later many of those early pioneers would not even exist.

By 1916, the buzz could not be ignored, and it seemed that everyone wanted to be in the tractor business. In 1918, one-hundred forty-two companies built more than 132,000 farm tractors.

Why was the tractor on such a meteoric trajectory? There are many reasons, but two come to the top: 1) farmers were (and are) business owners, and 2) farmers were (and are) futurists. Farm families worked daily to stretch their dollars and earn greater yields per acre. Every seed was an investment, and every effort was made to maximize its value. Measurement of investment and its yield was a way of life.

Farmers also knew transformational technology when they saw it, adopting automobiles at a much faster pace than the rest of the country. This was a plus for Henry Ford. Farmers driving a Model T were primed to add a Fordson tractor. The Fordson was inexpensive and familiar.

But for the first time in American history, only half the population was living on the farm in 1920, and it looked as though that number would continue to decline. Would the tractor further lead to the shrinking farm population, or would the exciting and emerging technology keep young people on the farm, and bring others for the first time?

Only time would tell how the farm would evolve, and the biggest test for tractor manufacturers was ahead. In 1921, an agricultural depression swept across the nation, and it took hold fast. It looked as though the bubble had burst, and the farm tractor would be relegated into the the “what could have been” category. Was it truly the end, or only the beginning?