The story of how John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works came into being goes back more than 100 years, when Benjamin Harrison was president of the United States and Admiral Robert E. Perry made the first of his polar expeditions…
…well over a half century ago, when Randolph Diesel took out his first patent on the type of engine which bears his name and is wide use today; back to the time when hissing, panting, whistling steam engines were used to power threshers and a few other stationary machines….when farming meant long hard days of tiring muscle work and far less production per man and acre than with today’s modern methods of power farming…
…back to the year, 1892, when some of the folks around a small farming community in northeastern Iowa were considerably amused by what a man named John Froelich was saying.
They admitted that he had invented two or three mighty handy gadgets, and that he was a good businessman—what with running a grain elevator, and picking up extra income with a well-digging outfit and with the straw-burning smoke-and-spark spitting steam traction engine and threshing rig which he took on “runs” in Iowa and South Dakota each harvest season.
But, after all, John wouldn’t see 40 again. He was old enough to know better than to go around saying that mechanical power had a great future—that some day traction engines would do the work of horses even on medium sized farms. As for his talk about inventing a smaller traction engine, one that would run on gasoline—could it be that John had been out in the sun too much?
Well…John Froelich was born on November 24, 1849 in Girard, Iowa, but he was living in nearby Froelich, (named for his father) when he began wondering if he couldn’t build a more useful traction engine than the steam engines then in use.
He knew about steam engines from experience. They were heavy and bulky, hard to maneuver. They were always threatening to set fire to the grain and stubble in which they worked—and on the flat prairie, with a wind blowing, that was no joke. Froelich believed that he could build a gasoline traction engine—or tractor—that would
remove all these drawbacks to mechanical power.
Likely you would smile if you could see his first attempt. It was sort of a hybrid—a vertical one-cylinder (14 inch stroke and bore) engine mounted on the running gear of a steam traction engine.
Froelich tugged at the massive flywheel. The machine wouldn’t start. No matter how hard Froelich and Mann yanked on that flywheel, the machine wouldn’t start…and somewhere among the spectators, there was a snickered, “I told you so!”
Then Mann had an idea. He twisted the bullet from a rifle cartridge, wedged the cartridge in the priming cap, hit it with the hammer. With a cough and a roar, the one-lunger came to life. The flywheel began to spin…horses reared and tried to pull loose from a nearby hitching rail…”I knew old John’d do it!” shouted the onlooker who, a moment before had started to scoff.
Froelich, on the driving platform gingerly eased his invention into gear. It lurched forward. He tried the reverse. The machine clanked backward.
Out on the road he went and to a farm where a neighbor was threshing grain. The hybrid was substituted for the steam engine. It did the job.
Afew weeks later Froelich and his crew started for the broad fields of South Dakota with the gasoline tractor and a new threshing machine. That fall, they threshed 72,000 bushels of small grain.
Success seemed assured. But success was still twenty years away. First were to come failure…discouragement…heartbreak.
As a result of successful demonstrations, a company headed by Mr. Froelich was organized to manufacture gasoline tractors. A frame building was erected in Waterloo, Iowa. The company was named the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company.
But efforts to build a practical tractor failed. True, two were sold…but they were returned. The company decided to manufacture stationary gasoline engines in order to have some income while tractor experiments continued.
The Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company continued the building of stationary engines with increasing success, and also—in 1896—offered an improved tractor. It was a good job, for those days. But the world wasn’t ready for gasoline tractors. Only one sold.
In 1897, another tractor was designed. Again, only one was sold. Demand for stationary engines, however, was so good that a new factory and foundry were built.
The Company also began manufacturing two-cylinder automobiles. Space limits and the mounting demand for stationary engines made it necessary to discontinue that project after only 6 automobiles had been sold.
But Tractor experiments continued. None was successful until in 1913, the company offered the Model “LA,” a two cylinder opposed engine on a four-wheel chassis. Twenty tractors were sold! The tide was turning.
Early the next year the company brought out the Model “R” single speed tractor (the first Waterloo Boy Tractor). Farmers liked it. Within a year, sales reached 118.
Design was modified, largely on a basis of user’s suggestions, and by the end of 1918, the company had sold 8,076 Model “R” Waterloo Boys.
The Model “N” Waterloo Boy with two forward speeds was introduced. It, too, was successful. The tide had turned.
With the opening of WW1, farm prices had begun to rise and the opposition to tractors was melting in the heat of popular demand for dependable mechanical farm power. In fact, there was such sudden acceptance of the tractor idea that the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company was faced—in a matter of months—by scores of competitors.
John Deere had been watching the development of farm power…the growing need for tractors. There was talk of starting a John Deere tractor factory.
But John Deere had also been watching the progress of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company and the mounting quality of its product. Here was an organization with many years of experience, a company with firsthand knowledge of what farmers wanted, of what it took to build a good tractor. The purchase of the Waterloo Boy Gasoline Engine Company was a logical step. This took place in 1918 and brought the plant facilities and employees of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company into the John Deere organization.
John Deere and Waterloo engineers and technicians promptly pooled their thinking and knowledge. Improvements, in the Waterloo Boy, were a natural result. By 1921, this tractor had established itself as a leader. Although it was sold as a two-plow tractor, farmers said that it handled three-bottoms with no trouble. It operated on low-cost kerosene.
For five years following the merger, the tractors continued to be known by the name “Waterloo Boy.” Then in 1923, a powerful new machine was placed on the market under the identity of John Deere Model “D.” Few, if any, tractors of whatever make or model have been so popular.
Truly, the Model “D” marked the beginning of a new era in American agriculture. Succeeding years have brought a steady procession of John Deere tractor improvements, of specialized models, of steady, continuous growth and development in both tractors and the John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works, bringing it to its position of leadership in the design and manufacture of modern farm and industrial tractors.