Duane Bonifer  |  Published February 24, 2022

‘Tractor Wars’

Critically acclaimed book by Neil Dahlstrom ’98 looks back a century ago in agriculture.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the Midwest was an agricultural battleground.

During the century’s first three decades, American businesses fought to reign supreme on the farm by developing a reliable, affordable tractor. Monmouth College graduate Neil Dahlstrom ’98 tells that compelling story in a lively and engaging way in the critically acclaimed book Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture.

NEIL DAHLSTROM: Monmouth College history and classics major is the author of the critically accla... NEIL DAHLSTROM: Monmouth College history and classics major is the author of the critically acclaimed book "Tractor Wars."Published by Matt Holt in January 2022, Tractor Wars was praised in a review in the Wall Street Journal as “a superb history of the tractor and this long-forgotten period of capitalism in U.S. agriculture.”

An innocent beginning

A classics and history major at Monmouth, Dahlstrom said his third book “started very innocently.”

“It started with me doing my job, which is working in the corporate archives at John Deere,” said Dahlstrom, a 21-year veteran employee of the company who manages its archives and history. “In early 2016, I started preparing for the 100th anniversary of the John Deere tractor (in 2018), and while doing the research I just kept finding stories that I would put to the side and say, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I hadn’t read that before, I didn’t know that before.’ … So it started very innocently with no intention of writing a book.”

It wasn’t long before Dahlstrom’s research helped him realize “ there might be a story here.” The result is a fascinating book that spans 1908-28, when companies were racing to develop a tractor that would be reliable, affordable and could be mass produced. The book’s cast of characters includes risk-takers, innovators, quiet and steady leaders, and individuals who were prone to ballyhoo and exaggeration.

“I really got sucked into the history by Henry Ford and his entry into the tractor business. The relationship between Deere and Ford in the 1910s was one that I just didn’t know much about.” Neil Dahlstrom

Deere vs. Ford

Although the names John Deere and International Harvester are synonymous with tractors today, there was a time when Henry Ford’s tractor, the Fordson, dominated U.S. agriculture, owning as much as 75% of the market.

'TRACTOR WARS': Critically acclaimed work is author Neil Dahlstrom's third book. 'TRACTOR WARS': Critically acclaimed work is author Neil Dahlstrom's third book.“I really got sucked into the history by Henry Ford and his entry into the tractor business,” said Dahlstrom. “The relationship between Deere and Ford in the 1910s was one that I just didn’t know much about.”

In addition to meeting market demands to make agriculture more efficient and productive, the push to develop a dependable tractor was also driven by a growing labor shortage on U.S. farms. As Dahlstrom writes, by the turn of the 20th century, four million people had left rural America for its cities, leaving the nation’s farms shorthanded for the work of plowing, planting, cultivating, harvesting and threshing. U.S. involvement in World War I would only exacerbate the labor scarcity.

The typical U.S. farm in 1900 was also small compared to today, averaging less than 50 acres.

“But if you own 50 acres, you’re probably only farming eight or 10 acres of it because that’s all that you can accomplish,” said Dahlstrom.

In addition to Ford, International Harvester was an early major player in the tractor wars. The nation’s fourth largest corporation, International Harvester had a breakthrough in 1920 when adjustments and enhancements by its engineers made the company’s tractor competitive with Ford’s Fordson.

In the early 1900s, John Deere was known as the “world’s largest manufacturer of steel plows.” As Dahlstrom writes, Deere’s leader, William 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.” Butterworth’s leadership style during the tractor wars proved to be the foundation for a winning business strategy.

Green and yellow debut

Deere purchased the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. in 1918, which allowed the company to sell Waterloo Boy tractors until 1923. That’s when Deere’s iconic green-and-yellow John Deere Model D tractor made its debut.

Ford pulled out of the tractor market in 1928 to shore up his sagging automobile company, leaving Deere and International Harvester as the sole tractor pioneers to make it through the 20th century.

Although the tractor came to have a worldwide impact on food, labor and the economy, the tractor wars were fought primarily in the U.S. Midwest and on the Great Plains – including on fields in Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas and of course around the Quad Cities.

“It’s a local and regional story, and of course it has global implications,” said Dahlstrom. “But at its heart it’s a local history story (about the Quad Cities) in so many ways.”

“It’s a local and regional story, and of course it has global implications. But at its heart it’s a local history story (about the Quad Cities) in so many ways.” Neil Dahlstrom

Dahlstrom grew up in the Quad Cities, but “I knew almost nothing about John Deere when I joined the company.”

“I always had an interest in history, and that’s what I studied at Monmouth,” he said. “I worked in the College archives, so that was very much my start in the profession. I just fell in love with history because of that experience and my work with my professors.”

Although Dahlstrom was a bit surprised to find the genesis for a history book about the U.S. tractor, he said he would not be surprised if the Deere archives contains much more material for other books in its boxes, files and folders.

“We’ve not even begun to tap into all these stories,” he said. “They’re incredible, they’re so rich and the people behind products are just so interesting and fascinating.”

Listen Up …

Neil Dahlstrom discusses Tractor Wars on the 1853 Podcast.

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