Tractor technology changed a lot during the 1920s

In August, 1917, a small tent city was erected in Fremont, Nebraska. Under the canvas, 48 tractor companies exhibited their wares. There were over 300 tractor models on display worth over $1.5 million. But that was only a fraction of the tractors being offered to farmers in the 1920s. The number of tractor manufacturer peaked in 1921 when there were 186 different firms trying to entice farmers to buy their tractors. The next decade saw amazing changes in the technology, and more and more farmers moving from farming with horses to farming with tractors.

There were good economic reasons for them to to make the move. Horses were expensive to buy and costly to feed and maintain. Farmers needed around five acres of land to grow the oats, hay and fodder that each horse needed for the year. In contrast, if a tractor didn’t work, it didn’t need fuel, let alone oats and hay. Land that had been reserved for supporting animals could now be plowed under for cash crops to help pay for the loan it took to buy the tractor. Tractors could be operated day and night, with little daily care, and were not affected by hot or cold, insects or pests. Also, tractors powered with gasoline or cheaper kerosene started up instantly, which was a lot faster than having to heat up a boiler to power the older steam tractors.

Nebraska Tractor Directories

In 1919 Nebraska passed a law that required all tractors sold in the state to be tested and rated. Since 1920 the testing lab set up by the state has tested more than 1,750 tractors.

View below to see illustrations and specifications of tractors from 1921 and 1929.

1929 Tractors

Some of the tractors tested by the Nebraska Tractor Testing Lab in 1929.

Many tractors still used in the 1920s were steam-driven.

Many tractors still used in the 1920s were steam-driven.

It took a farmer an hour and a half to till an acre of ground with five horses and a gang plow. With a 27-horsepower tractor and a moldboard plow, it took only a half-hour to plow an acre and only 15 minutes with a 35-horsepower tractor and a moldboard plow. Today, using a 154-horsepower tractor and a chisel plow, a farmer can till an acre in five minutes. In 1924 the introduction of the Farmall tractor from International Harvester revolutionized the industry. It featured high, rear drive wheels for maximum axle clearance and smaller, narrow front wheels designed to run between crop rows. The proud new owner could mount tools on both the front and the back. With two brake levers, the farmer could lock and pivot on either of the rear wheels, allowing the machine to turn in a radius of only eight feet. It also had a pulley for a belt and a new power takeoff mechanism that transferred power to other implements, like spraying, dusting and fertilizing equipment. All of these innovations — as well as enclosed transmissions, cooling systems, air cleaners, high tension magnetos, anti-friction bearings, grease gun fittings, and force-feed engine lubrication — have become standard features for tractors to this day.

However, there have been big changes in the power available to farmers in each tractor. In the 1920s, Nebraska state law required that every tractor model sold in the state be tested for power output and other parameters at the University of Nebraska. In the mid-20s, the most popular models had power ratings of between 15 and 30 horsepower. Today’s tractors top out at over 350 horsepower.

kenneth jackson“I think my dad bought a John Deere D tractor along about ’24 or ’25 and bought it to plow with…They raised wheat and had to do a lot of plowing with that. He bought a Case Model L tractor with a four cylinder [in 1928]. He got that to pull the threshing machine with. It also could plow and disc…The first one … run on kerosene, but it had a little tank that had gasoline in it that you started it with…You’d open the petcock over the valve … and you had the flywheel on the side and you’d turn the flywheel and then suck the gas in and the it would fire. And when it got to firing, you’d shut the little petcock off. And then as soon as it warmed up a little, you’d … turn it from gasoline over to kerosene and then as long as it was warm it would run good on kerosene. Then the Case tractor had the crank in front … but you just cranked it like a Ford Model T [car]…With the horses you raised your own feed, raised oats and alfalfa to feed them … and then you went to tractors … you had to buy your fuel. So you’d have to use your cropland to raise the money to buy tractor fuel… So might be better off with just horses.” — Kenneth Jackson

Written by Claudia Reinhardt and Bill Ganzel.

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