Before the Waterloo Boy: Origins of the John Deere Tractor, 1912-1917

March 14, 2018, marks the 100th anniversary of the day Deere & Company purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company, in Waterloo, Iowa.

John Deere Marseilles Works, East Moline, Illinois, in 1917, the site of much of Deere’s experimental tractor development from 1912 – 1918. The site later became the John Deere Spreader Works.

The first two decades of the twentieth century saw sweeping changes at Deere & Company. Already in existence for over 70 years, the company passed its leadership into the hands of its third president, William Butterworth, in 1907. Butterworth, who was married to founder John Deere’s granddaughter Katherine Deere, led the company through a series of acquisitions, rebuilding the organizational structure, integrating product lines, and creating, for all operational purposes, an entirely new business.

In all, company sales grew from $5.3 million in 1909 to more than $30 million in 1913. During this time, Deere also entered the harvesting business with a new factory, the John Deere Harvester Works, in East Moline, Illinois.

The C.H. Melvin tractor design, based on a Hackney Motor Plow.

The realization of a “full line” seemed complete, but another emerging technology was being watched closely.

In the summer of 1911, Deere & Company board member Willard Velie told the company’s Executive Committee they “had better consider the matter of securing selling alliances with manufacturers of tractors.” Soon, thoughts of distribution of the Big Four “30” tractor, built by the Gas Traction Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, would turn to discussion of acquisition and manufacturing. While a risky business proposition, the potential impacts of mechanized farming and the role of what many in the industry were now calling a “tractor,” could not be denied.

Deere considered several acquisition opportunities, as well as joint ventures with two existing suppliers. Ultimately, leadership decided to pursue internal development, with the Board of Directors passing a resolution to fund the research and development of a new “tractor plow” on March 5, 1912.

Deere Vice President and tractor designer Joseph Dain poses with a piston rod.

After several months of field work identifying best-in-class tractors from multiple categories, designer Charles Melvin was allocated $6,000 and a room at the John Deere Plow Works in Moline to begin the design and construction of an experimental tractor plow. The first tractor was based loosely on the design of an existing Hackney Motor Plow. Field trials, however, were disappointing, and by early 1914 the Melvin design was abandoned.

Over the next four years, a series of concepts were designed, built, and tested. In 1914, Vice President Joseph Dain began work on his concept for an all-wheel-drive tractor. Concurrently, head engineer Max Sklovsky began work on a smaller tractor called the A-2. The Sklovsky A-2 plowed its first field on November 20, 1915, at the John Deere Malleable Works in East Moline, the site that would serve as the tractor “skunkworks,” or experimental facility, during this testing period.

Sklovsky’s second design, the B-2, was described as a “small edition of the Dain machine.” It included a pivot-axle, automobile-type steering, and a four-cylinder Northway engine. The B-2 was tested for eight weeks during the summer of 1916. Leadership was pleased with the progress, but wasn’t convinced that customers wanted a four-cylinder tractor that burned gasoline. At the time, the United States had not yet entered World War I, but if that happened, the price of gasoline and steel would surely spike, they felt. In addition, the rapid growth of the automobile over the next decade provided a blueprint for other customer requirements.

All-Wheel-Drive, #1, early 1915. Located at the John Deere Marseilles Works in East Moline, Illinois.

The All-Wheel-Drive Tractor

While Sklovsky continued development, Joseph Dain was appropriated funds in late 1914 to build his own prototype. Despite a variety of flaws, Dain was pleased overall, noting that “as it is entirely different from any other tractor on the market, we did not have anyone’s previous experience to guide us.”

In 1916, another $25,000 was allocated for new machinery, patterns, and tools. By the end of the summer, five more tractors had been built. The progress was notable enough to cancel further development of Sklovsky’s design.

At the outset of 1917, Deere’s future seemed bright. Revenues were on pace to reach record levels. Tractor development was nearing completion, and Deere would soon have its first tractor on the market. Meanwhile, the United States’ entry into World War I was drawing labor away from the farm, creating a manpower shortage. That shortage, combined with increased pressures to produce more food, spiked tractor sales – from 14,000 units in 1914, to 63,000 units in 1917.

Sadly, Deere’s tractor development program was dealt a severe blow by the unexpected deaths of both Charles Melvin and Joseph Dain in 1917. Less than three weeks after Dain’s death, the board of directors gave its approval for “the manufacture of 100 tractors of the Dain type, as are available, and such outside assistance as it is advisable to obtain…”

It is going to be a sort of evolution until we reach a standard. I do not think there are any of the tractors that are entirely satisfactory now as they should be or will be.” —William Morgan, former manager of the John Deere Harvester Works

While the Dain All-Wheel-Drive tractor was approved for production, it did not meet all of the requirements Deere established, including the burning of kerosene, low purchase price, ease of maintenance, and durability. These requirements were important, as tractor companies were failing just as quickly as they were forming. William Morgan, manager of the John Deere Harvester Works, encouraged the company not to waste any more time figuring out what type of tractor to build.

Indeed, the tractor industry, still in its earliest formative years, had changed dramatically since Deere’s first experimental work began in 1912. Ultimately, that work would lead to the acquisition of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in March 1918.

Max Sklovsky testing his B-2 tractor.

Today, you can see the only intact All-Wheel-Drive Tractor at the John Deere Tractor and Engine Museum, in Waterloo, Iowa. In late March, it will be featured at Gathering of the Green, a bi-annual collector event in Davenport, Iowa. It will then be moved to the John Deere Pavilion, in Moline, Illinois, an important reminder of the six years of tractor development that led to the company’s entry into the tractor business.

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Before the Waterloo Boy: Origins of the John Deere Tractor, 1912-1917

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