Learn about Life in the 1920s

Chapter 14: The Fordson Tractor and Power Farming

It is not generally known that our tractor, which we call the "Fordson," was put into production about a year before we had intended, because of the Allies' war-time food emergency, and that all of our early production (aside, of course, from the trial and experimental machines) went directly to England. We sent in all five thousand tractors across the sea in the critical 1917-18 period when the submarines were busiest. Every one of them arrived safely, and officers of the British Government have been good enough to say that without their aid England could scarcely have met its food crisis.

It was these tractors, run mostly by women, that ploughed up the old estates and golf courses and let all England be planted and cultivated without taking away from the fighting man power or crippling the forces in the munitions factories.

It came about in this way: The English food administration, about the time that we entered the war in 1917, saw that, with the German submarines torpedoing a freighter almost every day, the already low supply of shipping was going to be totally inadequate to carry the American troops across the seas, to carry the essential munitions for these troops and the Allies, to carry the food for the fighting forces, and at the same time carry enough food for the home population of England. It was then that they began shipping out of England the wives and families of the colonials and made plans for the growing of crops at home. The situation was a grave one. There were not enough draft animals in all England to plough and cultivate land to raise crops in sufficient volume to make even a dent in the food imports. Power farming was scarcely known, for the English farms were not, before the war, big enough to warrant the purchase of heavy, expensive farm machinery, and especially with agricultural labour so cheap and plentiful. Various concerns in England made tractors, but they were heavy affairs and mostly run by steam. There were not enough of them to go around. More could not easily be made, for all the factories were working on munitions, and even if they had been made they were too big and clumsy for the average field and in addition required the management of engineers. We had put together several tractors at our Manchester plant for demonstration purposes. They had been made in the United States and merely assembled in England. The Board of Agriculture requested the Royal Agricultural Society to make a test of these tractors and report. This is what they reported:

At the request of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, we have
examined two Ford tractors, rated at 25 h. p., at work ploughing:
First, cross-ploughing a fallow of strong land in a dirty condition, and
subsequently in a field of lighter land which had seeded itself down
into rough grass, and which afforded every opportunity of testing the
motor on the level and on a steep hill.
In the first trial, a 2-furrow Oliver plough was used, ploughing on an
average 5 inches deep with a 16-inch wide furrow; a 3-furrow Cockshutt
plough was also used at the same depth with the breast pitched 10
In the second trial, the 3-furrow plough was used, ploughing an average
of 6 inches deep.
In both cases the motor did its work with ease, and on a measured acre
the time occupied was I hour 30 minutes, with a consumption of 2 gallons
of paraffin per acre.
These results we consider very satisfactory.
The ploughs were not quite suitable to the land, and the tractors,
consequently, were working at some disadvantage.
The total weight of the tractor fully loaded with fuel and water, as
weighed by us, was 23 1/4 cwts.
The tractor is light for its power, and, consequently, light on the
land, is easily handled, turns in a small circle, and leaves a very
narrow headland.
The motor is quickly started up from cold on a small supply of petrol.
After these trials we proceeded to Messrs. Ford's works at Trafford
Park, Manchester, where one of the motors had been sent to be dismantled
and inspected in detail.
We find the design of ample strength, and the work of first-rate
quality. We consider the driving-wheels rather light, and we understand
that a new and stronger pattern is to be supplied in future.
The tractor is designed purely for working on the land, and the wheels,
which are fitted with spuds, should be provided with some protection to
enable them to travel on the road when moving from farm to farm.
Bearing the above points in mind, we recommend, under existing
circumstances, that steps be taken to construct immediately as many of
these tractors as possible.
The report was signed by Prof. W. E. Dalby and F. S. Courtney, engineering; R. N. Greaves, engineering and agriculture; Robert W. Hobbs and Henry Overman, agriculture; Gilbert Greenall, honorary directors, and John E. Cross, steward.

Almost immediately after the filing of that report we received the following wire:

Have not received anything definite concerning shipment necessary steel
and plant for Cork factory. Under best circumstances however Cork
factory production could not be available before next spring. The need
for food production in England is imperative and large quantity of
tractors must be available at earliest possible date for purpose
breaking up existing grass land and ploughing for Fall wheat. Am
requested by high authorities to appeal to Mr. Ford for help. Would you
be willing to send Sorensen and others with drawings of everything
necessary, loaning them to British Government so that parts can be
manufactured over here and assembled in Government factories under
Sorensen's guidance? Can assure you positively this suggestion is made
in national interest and if carried out will be done by the Government
for the people with no manufacturing or capitalist interest invested and
no profit being made by any interests whatever. The matter is very
urgent. Impossible to ship anything adequate from America because many
thousand tractors must be provided. Ford Tractor considered best and
only suitable design. Consequently national necessity entirely dependent
Mr. Ford's design. My work prevents me coming America to present the
proposal personally. Urge favorable consideration and immediate decision
because every day is of vital importance. You may rely on manufacturing
facility for production here under strictest impartial Government
control. Would welcome Sorensen and any and every other assistance and
guidance you can furnish from America. Cable reply, Perry, Care of
Harding "Prodome," London.
I understand that its sending was directed by the British Cabinet. We at once cabled our entire willingness to lend the drawings, the benefit of what experience we had to date, and whatever men might be necessary to get production under way, and on the next ship sent Charles E. Sorensen with full drawings. Mr. Sorensen had opened the Manchester plant and was familiar with English conditions. He was in charge of the manufacture of tractors in this country.

Mr. Sorensen started at work with the British officials to the end of having the parts made and assembled in England. Many of the materials which we used were special and could not be obtained in England. All of their factories equipped for doing casting and machine work were filled with munition orders. It proved to be exceedingly difficult for the Ministry to get tenders of any kind. Then came June and a series of destructive air raids on London. There was a crisis. Something had to be done, and finally, after passing to and fro among half the factories of England, our men succeeded in getting the tenders lodged with the Ministry.

Lord Milner exhibited these tenders to Mr. Sorensen. Taking the best of them the price per tractor came to about $1,500 without any guarantee of delivery.

"That price is out of all reason," said Mr. Sorensen,
"These should not cost more than $700 apiece."
"Can you make five thousand at that price?" asked Lord Milner.
"Yes," answered Mr. Sorensen.
"How long will it take you to deliver them?"
"We will start shipping within sixty days."
They signed a contract on the spot, which, among other things, provided for an advance payment of 25 per cent. of the total sum. Mr. Sorensen cabled us what he had done and took the next boat home. The 25 five per cent. payment was, by the way, not touched by us until after the entire contract was completed: we deposited it in a kind of trust fund.

The tractor works was not ready to go into production. The Highland Park plant might have been adapted, but every machine in it was going day and night on essential war work. There was only one thing to do. We ran up an emergency extension to our plant at Dearborn, equipped it with machinery that was ordered by telegraph and mostly came by express, and in less than sixty days the first tractors were on the docks in New York in the hands of the British authorities. They delayed in getting cargo space, but on December 6, 1917, we received this cable:

London, December 5, 1917.
Fordson, F. R. Dearborn.
First tractors arrived, when will Smith and others leave? Cable.
The entire shipment of five thousand tractors went through within three months and that is why the tractors were being used in England long before they were really known in the United States.

The planning of the tractor really antedated that of the motor car. Out on the farm my first experiments were with tractors, and it will be remembered that I was employed for some time by a manufacturer of steam tractors--the big heavy road and thresher engines. But I did not see any future for the large tractors. They were too expensive for the small farm, required too much skill to operate, and were much too heavy as compared with the pull they exerted. And anyway, the public was more interested in being carried than in being pulled; the horseless carriage made a greater appeal to the imagination. And so it was that I practically dropped work upon a tractor until the automobile was in production. With the automobile on the farms, the tractor became a necessity. For then the farmers had been introduced to power.

The farmer does not stand so much in need of new tools as of power to run the tools that he has. I have followed many a weary mile behind a plough and I know all the drudgery of it. What a waste it is for a human being to spend hours and days behind a slowly moving team of horses when in the same time a tractor could do six times as much work! It is no wonder that, doing everything slowly and by hand, the average farmer has not been able to earn more than a bare living while farm products are never as plentiful and cheap as they ought to be.

As in the automobile, we wanted power--not weight. The weight idea was firmly fixed in the minds of tractor makers. It was thought that excess weight meant excess pulling power--that the machine could not grip unless it were heavy. And this in spite of the fact that a cat has not much weight and is a pretty good climber. I have already set out my ideas on weight. The only kind of tractor that I thought worth working on was one that would be light, strong, and so simple that any one could run it. Also it had to be so cheap that any one could buy it. With these ends in view, we worked for nearly fifteen years on a design and spent some millions of dollars in experiments. We followed exactly the same course as with the automobile. Each part had to be as strong as it was possible to make it, the parts had to be few in number, and the whole had to admit of quantity production. We had some thought that perhaps the automobile engine might be used and we conducted a few experiments with it. But finally we became convinced that the kind of tractor we wanted and the automobile had practically nothing in common. It was the intention from the beginning that the tractor should be made as a separate undertaking from the automobile and in a distinct plant. No plant is big enough to make two articles.

The automobile is designed to carry; the tractor is designed to pull--to climb. And that difference in function made all the difference in the world in construction. The hard problem was to get bearings that would stand up against the heavy pull. We finally got them and a construction which seems to give the best average performance under all conditions. We fixed upon a four-cylinder engine that is started by gasoline but runs thereafter on kerosene. The lightest weight that we could attain with strength was 2,425 pounds. The grip is in the lugs on the driving wheels--as in the claws of the cat.

In addition to its strictly pulling functions, the tractor, to be of the greatest service, had also to be designed for work as a stationary engine so that when it was not out on the road or in the fields it might be hitched up with a belt to run machinery. In short, it had to be a compact, versatile power plant. And that it has been. It has not only ploughed, harrowed, cultivated, and reaped, but it has also threshed, run grist mills, saw mills, and various other sorts of mills, pulled stumps, ploughed snow, and done about everything that a plant of moderate power could do from sheep-shearing to printing a newspaper. It has been fitted with heavy tires to haul on roads, with sledge runners for the woods and ice, and with rimmed wheels to run on rails. When the shops in Detroit were shut down by coal shortage, we got out the Dearborn Independent by sending a tractor to the electro-typing factory--stationing the tractor in the alley, sending up a belt four stories, and making the plates by tractor power. Its use in ninety-five distinct lines of service has been called to our attention, and probably we know only a fraction of the uses.

The mechanism of the tractor is even more simple than that of the automobile and it is manufactured in exactly the same fashion. Until the present year, the production has been held back by the lack of a suitable factory. The first tractors had been made in the plant at Dearborn which is now used as an experimental station. That was not large enough to affect the economies of large-scale production and it could not well be enlarged because the design was to make the tractors at the River Rouge plant, and that, until this year, was not in full operation.

Now that plant is completed for the making of tractors. The work flows exactly as with the automobiles. Each part is a separate departmental undertaking and each part as it is finished joins the conveyor system which leads it to its proper initial assembly and eventually into the final assembly. Everything moves and there is no skilled work. The capacity of the present plant is one million tractors a year. That is the number we expect to make--for the world needs inexpensive, general-utility power plants more now than ever before--and also it now knows enough about machinery to want such plants.

The first tractors, as I have said, went to England. They were first offered in the United States in 1918 at $750. In the next year, with the higher costs, the price had to be made $885; in the middle of the year it was possible again to make the introductory price of $750. In 1920 we charged $790; in the next year we were sufficiently familiar with the production to begin cutting. The price came down to $625 and then in 1922 with the River Rouge plant functioning we were able to cut to $395. All of which shows what getting into scientific production will do to a price. Just as I have no idea how cheaply the Ford automobile can eventually be made, I have no idea how cheaply the tractor can eventually be made.

It is important that it shall be cheap. Otherwise power will not go to all the farms. And they must all of them have power. Within a few years a farm depending solely on horse and hand power will be as much of a curiosity as a factory run by a treadmill. The farmer must either take up power or go out of business. The cost figures make this inevitable. During the war the Government made a test of a Fordson tractor to see how its costs compared with doing the work with horses. The figures on the tractor were taken at the high price plus freight. The depreciation and repair items are not so great as the report sets them forth, and even if they were, the prices are cut in halves which would therefore cut the depreciation and repair charge in halves. These are the figures:


3,840 acres at $880; depreciation per acre .221
Repairs for 3,840 acres, $100; per acre .026
Fuel cost, kerosene at 19 cents; 2 gal. per acre .38
1 gal. oil per 8 acres; per acre .075
Driver, $2 per day, 8 acres; per acre .25
Cost of ploughing with Fordson; per acre. .95
4,000 acres at $1,200, depreciation of horses, per acre. . . . 30
Feed per horse, 40 cents (100 working days) per acre . . . . . 40
Feed per horse, 10 cents a day (265 idle days) per acre. . . 2.65
Two drivers, two gang ploughs, at $2 each per day, per acre. . 50
Cost of ploughing with horses; per acre. . . . . . . . . . . 1.46
At present costs, an acre would run about 40 cents only two cents representing depreciation and repairs. But this does not take account of the time element. The ploughing is done in about one fourth the time, with only the physical energy used to steer the tractor. Ploughing has become a matter of motoring across a field.

Farming in the old style is rapidly fading into a picturesque memory. This does not mean that work is going to remove from the farm. Work cannot be removed from any life that is productive. But power-farming does mean this--drudgery is going to be removed from the farm. Power-farming is simply taking the burden from flesh and blood and putting it on steel. We are in the opening years of power-farming. The motor car wrought a revolution in modern farm life, not because it was a vehicle, but because it had power. Farming ought to be something more than a rural occupation. It ought to be the business of raising food. And when it does become a business the actual work of farming the average sort of farm can be done in twenty-four days a year. The other days can be given over to other kinds of business. Farming is too seasonal an occupation to engage all of a man's time.

As a food business, farming will justify itself as a business if it raises food in sufficient quantity and distributes it under such conditions as will enable every family to have enough food for its reasonable needs. There could not be a food trust if we were to raise such overwhelming quantities of all kinds of food as to make manipulation and exploitation impossible. The farmer who limits his planting plays into the hands of the speculators.

And then, perhaps, we shall witness a revival of the small flour-milling business. It was an evil day when the village flour mill disappeared. Cooperative farming will become so developed that we shall see associations of farmers with their own packing houses in which their own hogs will be turned into ham and bacon, and with their own flour mills in which their grain will be turned into commercial foodstuffs.

Why a steer raised in Texas should be brought to Chicago and then served in Boston is a question that cannot be answered as long as all the steers the city needs could be raised near Boston. The centralization of food manufacturing industries, entailing enormous costs for transportation and organization, is too wasteful long to continue in a developed community.

We shall have as great a development in farming during the next twenty years as we have had in manufacturing during the last twenty.

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