Butterworth Made “Steady Forward Progress” an “Ingenious” Business Model for Tractor Success

(p. A15) The story of Ford’s dream of perfecting an affordable, all-purpose tractor—or, as Ford later imagined it, a gasoline-powered “automobile plow”—is seldom told. Neil Dahlstrom’s “Tractor Wars” tells it well.

. . .

By 1918 there were many competitors in America’s great tractor pull. Most were small or mid-sized firms, including the Gas Traction Co. of Minneapolis, and the Moline (Ill.) Plow Co. and the Waterloo (Iowa) Gasoline Engine Co. Two ultimately broke out of the pack with loud, gas-guzzling chugs.

. . .

Early attempts by International Harvester to develop a gas-powered tractor were only moderately successful, but in 1920 its engineers made a breakthrough, converting the two front wheels into “traction wheels,” moving the engine from the rear to the middle, and adding three reverse speeds. All of this, plus enhancements to compatible cultivating attachments, made Harvester’s Farmall tractor competitive with the Fordson.

Ford’s other chief rival was the John Deere Co. Its earliest claim to fame was becoming the “world’s largest manufacturer of steel plows.” The company shifted course in 1907 when William Butterworth, the son-in-law of Charles Deere, took control. According to Mr. Dahlstrom, Butterworth was “cautious with the family money that still financed the company, pushing for long-term gains in a cyclical, low-margin, weather-dependent business.” While some outsiders “mistook Butterworth’s preference for steady forward progress as indecision,” his business model turned out to be ingenious.

. . .

Mr. Dahlstrom, to his credit, has written a superb history of the tractor and this long-forgotten period of capitalism in U.S. agriculture.

For the full review, see:

Michael Taube. “BOOKSHELF; American Power Pull.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, December 30, 2021): A15.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 29, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘Tractor Wars’ Review: American Power Pull.”)

The book under review is:

Dahlstrom, Neil. Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture. Dallas, TX: Matt Holt Books, 2022.

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