‘Tractor Wars’ brings early years of 20th century farming alive – Agweek

The target audience for Neil Dahlstrom’s book “Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester and the Birth of Modern Agriculture” is self-explanatory.

I’m not part of it.

During my six-decade association with agriculture, which included growing up on a crop and livestock farm that used tractors with a range of horsepower, depending on the task, I drove the machines infrequently. I much preferred being on the back of one four-legged horsepower than behind the steering wheel of one with double or triple digits.

However, my disinterest in farm machinery didn’t equate to indifference to “Tractor Wars.” The book, which covers the 20-year period of the 20th century when tractors were introduced into US agriculture, contained enough interesting characters and companies, backstage intrigue and agricultural history to keep me turning the pages until the end.

Some of the names of the entrepreneurs of the tractor industry, such as Henry Ford, Cyrus McCormick and John Deere were familiar to me. Others were not, including, Rev. Daniel Hartsough, a pastor who moved from Minneapolis to Barnes County, North Dakota, to start a tractor company, Joseph Dain, the owner of a Meadville, Missouri, furniture business, and Leslie S. and William J. Hackney, owners of the Hackney Manufacturing company.

Though those men and the many others in the book came from widely different backgrounds and locations, they shared a fascination with agriculture, a desire to improve farming methods and a vision of how to best accomplish their goals.

Even for someone like me, who isn’t a tractor aficionado, learning about the personalities — some of them quite eccentric — of the early tractor inventors, their sometimes companies’ unique engineering plans and the cut-throat competition between them, was interesting.

Another aspect of the book I enjoyed was how, though like any historical book Dahlstrom’s “Tractor Wars” has a lot of dates in it, they don’t seem overwhelming because he matches many of them with events, such as World War I, to put them in context. Dahlstrom also explains what influence those events had on the men and companies producing the tractors.

Dahltsrom also includes several descriptions of early tractor demonstrations throughout the Midwest, which engaged me and started me musing about either of my great-grandfathers traveled to places like Winnipeg, Manitoba; Fremont, Nebraska; or the Minnesota State Fair in St. Louis. Paul to watch the new-fangled farm machine strut its stuff in the field. I wondered about whether they were skeptical of tractors and never thought it would replace the horses who worked in their fields or if they were anxious to buy one.

What made the book the most relevant to me, and which I most enjoyed, was its explanation of what compelled people like Ford to invent tractors. Besides the potential for financial gain, he and others believed that it would help keep young people on the farm instead of leaving them for factory jobs in the city that were less physically demanding.

The tractors’ inventors also envisioned a future in which farms could produce a larger amount of food for a growing population.

On this side of history, sometimes it’s easy to look back nostalgically, longing for a simpler time when life was less hectic. “Tractor Wars” points out to readers that farming before tractors required exceptionally hard work and that it wasn’t all we might crack it up to have been. At the same time, it demonstrates how innovation, willingness to go against the grain, and perseverance can revolutionize an industry, and reminds readers that people who lived a century ago put into motion the technology that we continue to advance in farming today.

“Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture” by Neil Dahlstrom, manager of archives and history at John Deere.


304 pages, including a bibliography, index and notes.

Price: $25, US, $34, Canada

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