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John Deere historian unpacks the American Tractor Wars in new book

"Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture" is a new book by Neil Dahlstrom that looks at the behind-the-scenes action of tractor manufacturing in the early 1900s.

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A 1944 John Deere B tractor at the 2008 Michigan Steam Engine and Threshers Club annual meet in Mason, Mich. (Joe Ross / Creative Commons)
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Editor's note: Agweek will have a full review of this book in the coming weeks.

Neil Dahlstrom is the manager of archives and history at John Deere — which for a historian is a pretty cool gig.

Dahlstrom, who was recently a guest on the Agweek Podcast, overlooks all of the company's displayed and stored history in Moline, Illinois, where John Deere is headquartered.

"I definitely have the best job on the planet," said Dahlstrom, whose book "Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture" was released on Jan. 11.

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As far as his favorite items in the collection , Dahlstrom said anything related to John Deere himself.

"My favorite item that we have probably is Mr. John Deere's two-piece bathing suit in our collection," he said. "It's amazing it survived, because not a lot from John Deere's life survived."

Dahlstrom said there's only a few letters written by Deere that exist in their collection, and only seven or eight photographs of him.

"So the fact that we have something so personal as a bathing suit is incredible and strange," he said.

What were the American tractor wars?

The American Tractor Wars is a term coined by Cyrus McCormick III, whose grandfather created International Harvester, said Dahlstrom. The term refers to a period in the 1910s and 1920s which marked the introduction of gas and kerosene powered farm tractors for an average size farm, which was about 50 acres, said Dahlstrom.

The tractor wars sparked off thanks to Henry Ford, who entered the tractor business following World War I.

"There was a series of price wars when Ford dropped the price of the Fordson to $395, and then all of the 140 to 150 tractor manufacturers were scrambling to catch up," said Dahlstrom. "And so you see this industry that goes from six manufacturers in 1908, to 150 or 160 manufacturers in 1915."

By the 1920s, the number of tractor manufacturers in the U.S. was back down to just a handful.

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"A lot happens in that period of 20 years, and that's really what the book is about," said Dahlstrom.

Was Butterworth against the tractor?

Through his book, Dahlstrom said he got to answer a question he'd been looking into for a long time: Was John Deere President William Butterworth really opposed to the tractor?

"It's one of the questions that's really bothered me through most of my career," said Dahlstrom. "He was opposed to the tractor, but it's much more nuanced than that."

He said the theory can be traced back to a single letter that Butterworth wrote in 1916, in which he informed the John Deere board of directors that he couldn't make it to the next board meeting, but that he wanted to "put a stop" to any further discussion about tractor development.

But Dahlstrom said the time of the letter needs to be examined to understand the context. Butterworth penned the comments just a couple months after Henry Ford debuted his tractor at a farm show in Fremont, Nebraska.

"And Deere people saw it, and said yeah, that's going to be really hard to compete with right away," said Dahlstrom. "William Butterworth was in St. Louis at the time, talking to bankers trying to to raise money for further development, and they all said no. So he was opposed to it, at that particular point in time."

Dahlstrom said in reality, Butterworth was probably only opposed further tractor development for a few days at the most.

"And what it led to was, instead of (John Deere) internally doing all the development, they thought who could they reach out to, to help," said Dahlstrom.

Related Topics: AGRICULTUREHISTORY
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