A Century of Building Tractors

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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This tractor started John Deere in tractor manufacturing: the infamous Waterloo Boy. (Progressive Farmer image by Frank Holdmeyer)

John Deere officially entered the tractor market 100 years ago by purchasing the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. for $2.25 million. Things got off to a rough start, and Deere nearly gave up on tractors. No doubt farmers and company officials alike are glad it didn't.

A century later -- March 18, 2018 -- Deere marked the 100th anniversary of the acquisition during a special ceremony at the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum, in Waterloo, Iowa. David Meyer, manager of John Deere Engine Works, points out the purchase "forever changed the future of the company and our Cedar Valley Community." It resulted in John Deere's first commercial tractor, the Waterloo Boy.

LATE TO THE DANCE? Deere had been working on tractor design years before purchasing the Waterloo Gas Engine Co., developing in 1912 what it called the tractor plow, explains Neil Dahlstrom, manager of corporate archives and history. Deere designed what it felt would be the best tractor on the market and built 90 of them. But, despite the advanced design, Deere leaders determined the all-wheel-drive machine was not the right tractor for its customers at that time.

"Imagine, after seven years and a number of different designs, and investing a little more than $250,000, Deere decided to set this one aside," Dahlstrom notes. "Fortunately, Deere engineers had witnessed Waterloo Boy field trials and had high praise for its durability, ease of operation and economy. So, when the opportunity arose [for the acquisition of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co.], it happened quickly.

"Some feel John Deere actually got in the tractor business a little late," he continues. "Yes, Deere entered the tractor business late compared to some of the at least 160 companies that built tractors around 1918. But, being a little late in 1918, as a result of a lot of research, testing, study and conversations with customers and dealers, is the best kind of late in my mind."

Meyer explains that Deere considered the tractor business a long-term investment. By Oct. 31, 1924, losses for the tractor division amounted to $3.4 million, he adds. It took nine years for the tractor division to report a profit.

In 1922, the board of directors even considered eliminating the tractor line to focus on gasoline engines. Instead, it decided to move forward with the 2-cylinder tractor design and continue development in what became the Model D, introduced in 1923. Consequently, the Waterloo Boy was discontinued.

Forty-five years after its historic purchase, John Deere surpassed the International Harvester Co. for the first time in total sales of farm and light industrial equipment, posting $762 million in worldwide sales, Meyer says. Since 1918, John Deere has built more than 2.8 million tractors.

Deere held a 100-year anniversary event in June in Waterloo. More than 100 machines, some rare, were on display. Current and historic tractors will also be on display at major farm shows the rest of the year.

Special tractors featured at the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum include the Waterloo Boy model "N" (1920) and the 2018 employee-signed John Deere 8400R.

Russ Quinn