John Froelich’s 1892 Farm Tractor

For two or three months each year, John Froelich left the grain elevator he owned and operated in Froelich, Iowa, a small town in northeast Iowa named for his father. Like most years, South Dakota was his destination. With him travelled a group that left their jobs, families, and neighbors for the tedious, back-breaking work of bringing in the harvest.

Custom threshing crews from Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota followed the weather west, supplementing the thousands of hands required to bring in the fall harvest in the Dakotas. Crews negotiated for territory, set terms and rates, then prayed for cooperative weather and functional equipment. The massive, steam-powered engines, droves of horses and wagons, straw burners and threshing machines, were too cumbersome to move too far.

A successful harvest meant they could return, year after year.

Western threshing crew takes time to pose for the camera. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Threshing was not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for the unskilled. In some cases, neighbors banded together, moving equipment from farm to farm and settling their affairs at the end of the harvest. Others hired crews, self-supporting cities in themselves that worked, ate, slept and socialized in the field. Driven by massive steam-powered traction engines, a symphony of ropes, belts, chains and pulleys cut, tied, shocked and threshed millions of bushels of wheat to feed a growing population. Boilers blew, belts broke, wheels got mired in the mud. Thick clouds of grain dust found every crevice. Terrifying and uncontrollable prairie fire was a constant fear.

Farmer profits came from the land. All they knew and all they learned was poured back into the soil in a never-ending quest to increase the yield of every acre. One farmer in New Rockford, North Dakota broke it down. It cost the same amount to plow, harrow, seed, cut, shock, thresh, transport and sell low-yield wheat as it did for high-yield wheat. A farm raising a hundred bushels of wheat on ten acres could expect a profit of $4.50 per acre. With all inputs the same, the same farm producing twenty-five-bushel wheat profited $92.00. “Roughly stated, it costs 40 cents a bushel to raise a poor crop, and only 23 cents per bushel to raise the good one.”[i]

Froehlich’s “tractor”

John Froelich, a “quiet and retiring” man, spent each fall operating the technological marvels pushing the land to produce more, but the threshing ring was a complex, difficult operation. And with each passing year, the equipment continued to disappoint.

His breakthrough came in July 1892. In William Mann’s blacksmith shop in northeast Iowa, Froelich, mounted a single-cylinder, gasoline engine from the Van Duzen Gas & Gasoline Engine Company, to a modified a steam engine. In appearance, it was a mess of exposed gears, pipes and wheels. For the few who had seen a stationary engine, or a steam engine, like those operating in factories across the country, the contraption would not have been too foreign to the eyes.

The engine easily weighed 10,000 pounds. Two massive flywheels, the counter-wheel mounted on the opposite side, accounted for fifteen percent of that weight.  Collectively, the hand-cranked engine, mounted on four wheels, supplied sixteen-horsepower. The tractor nearly reached the height of two average sized men.

Not unexpectedly, the machine refused to crank. Prompting action, Mann wedged a rifle cartridge into a small priming cup, and hit it with a hammer, a not uncommon method for such machinery.

It thirstily circulated gasoline through a maze of hoses and valves. Froelich, a thin, bearded man of common stature and presence, stood on a small wooden platform, hands on the steering wheel, and put the engine into gear. And it moved forward. He moved a lever, and now, it moved backwards.

Never before had those things come together in one machine for the farm.

John Froelich’s “tractor”

That fall, an engine, a J.I. Case threshing machine, and a fleet of cooking and sleeping wagons, were shipped to Langford, South Dakota. Over the next fifty days, the sixteen-man crew threshed over 62,000 bushels of grain, primarily wheat.

Over the next year, Froelich showed that his gasoline traction engine could run for half the cost of a steam engine. By the time a company was formed and the engine was put into production, that cost fell by two-thirds, to two-dollars a day. Business offers came from Omaha, Minneapolis, Chicago and elsewhere. Soon, the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. was capitalized, less than ninety miles to the southwest, in Waterloo, Iowa.

“He is confident that his engine will revolutionize the motive power of threshing machinery and in time will be the successor of steam” reported the Waterloo Courier, in anticipation of the next day’s live demonstration. 

On August 9, 1893, the first gasoline traction engine built by the company, patent pending, debuted on the dirt streets of Waterloo. Four were completed and sold. Two were returned.  Eleven more traction engines were underway, they told an exuberant media. “If they only had them, they could sell twenty-five in less than one week.” Supply chain issues caused delays. Patterns, coming from Chicago, were late.

A farmer in South Dakota ordered a machine sight-unseen. Curious farmers came from as far as a hundred miles away come to see the demonstration on his farm, only to learn that the order was not fulfilled and there would be no demonstration.[iii]

The enthusiasm of Froelich’s partners proved fleeting, though, and they decided that a more predictable, and profitable, future lie in small stationary engines. John Froelich was now one of the first, though certainly not the last, financial victim of this new technology for the farm.  His patent was finally granted in 1895, two years after its filing, and just in time for his departure from the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Co. [iv]

As of yet, there was no word to describe the machine developed by John Froelich. Soon, another Iowa company, Hart-Parr, would call a machine of their own design a “tractor.”

[i] Mitchell (North Dakota) Daily Republica, June 24, 1894.

[ii] Daily Huronite, September 22, 1892.

[iii] Patent no. 550,266 was granted in 1895.

[iv] According to an article in the Dubuque (IA) Evening Times, a steam traction engine cost $15 a day to operate, while the Froelich engine claimed to run on $7 a day. $2 a day in Waterloo Courier, August 9, 1893.

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Neil Dahlstrom Posted on

John Deere archivist and historian. Author of three books, including Tractor Wars, The John Deere Story, and Lincoln's Wrath.

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