By the time the 1919 Tractor Show opened in Walla Walla, it’s likely farmers here were on the edge of their non-tractor seats.

These machines, some of them enormous, had the potential to change farming forever — tractors were the biggest technological innovation in the first half of the 20th century, according to researcher Walter White in writing for the Economic History Association.

The movement toward mechanized farming had begun decades before with steam-powered wheat threshers. While an improvement in getting grain from field to table, those were heavy and bulky, threatening to tip over and set fire to the grain and stubble in the fields. Or just outright explode. 

In the Midwest, land of flat ground and where inventor John Froelich lived, that was a problem.

In 1892 Froelich decided he could do better by using gasoline, according to the history presented by the Froelich Foundation in Iowa.

Froelich and a blacksmith designed a vertical, one-cylinder engine mounted on the running gear of a steam traction engine — a hybrid of their own making. They engineered parts to make it all fit together and headed back to the broad fields of South Dakota with the tractor prototype and a new threshing machine. That fall they threshed 72,000 bushels of small grain, the foundation reported.

Tractors began as little more than engines on wheels, but what they lacked in maneuverability and speed, they made up for in size. The first tractors to hit the market at the turn of the 20th century were “hulking masses of steel,” noted the Smithsonian Institution.

The mechanized monsters weighed in at 40,000 to 60,000 pounds, a serious issue in all but sun-baked soils.

Tractors are born

Stationary internal combustion engines changed everything in homes, farms and businesses in the early 1900s. Making use of them in farming sparked a race among manufacturers to create tractors that farmers could use in all kinds of harsh conditions, Smithsonian writers said.

The first commercial machines were sold in 1902 and quickly became known as “tractors.”

Automobile inventor, engineer and businessman Henry Ford saw the potential of tractors early on, said longtime Walla Walla wheat rancher, Robert McKinney.

At the end of 1908, Ford’s Model T automobile was headed toward mass production, giving the entrepreneur time to begin considering what was needed on farms, McKinney said. 

“He was looking for something suited to all kinds of ground, with more torque.”

By 1917 Ford had figured out how create tractors in much the same way his autos were being made on assembly lines, and the machines captured the public’s attention, online sources say.

The new tractors — Ford called his line “Fordsons” — were greatly reduced in weight, down to 2,000-6,000 pounds, priced at less than $1,000, according to Economic History Association writer William White.

Although the still-substantial weight and low clearance continued to be a problem for crops such as corn and cotton, Fordsons and similar models from International Harvester, Case and Hart-Parr “proved to be excellent at plowing and were quite capable of driving mowers and reapers,” White wrote in Economic History of Tractors in the United States.

With the increased competition, prices for tractors dropped again. Ford eventually reduced his price to $395 by 1922.

Tractors on the ground

Still, farmers here needed to see proof the new tractors could do their job in the area’s multiple soil types and on the Walla Walla Valley hillsides, McKinney said.

“And the Tractor Show brought the proof to this Valley.”

The machines were instantly popular across America, and Walla Walla farmowners likely had to preorder and then wait, he said.

Wheat was the cream of the crops, no question, although row farms in low lying areas like College Place produced fruits, berries, vegetables and the onions that would grow to fame.

Wheat claimed every other acre of farmable land, and those fields kissed the city’s boundaries at about Third Avenue at that time, McKinney said. Unlike a row crop, making a living off the grain in 1919 required a minimum of 160 acres, McKinney explained.

While the Walla Walla area contained plenty of tillable land, there was a general shortage of manual labor. America had entered World War I in 1917, more than two years after it began. In the summer of 1918, the United States sent 10,000 to the main battle lines, the Western Front.

The war also needed those new tractors for their pulling capability. Early in the war effort, the Holt Caterpillar Company sold tractors to Britain and France for help hauling equipment and occasionally troops. After the U.S. joined World War, the company pursued a contract to supply tractors for the U.S. military. The company’s website says its records show a response from the government to build as many tractors as possible. And Holt did so.

Horses to horsepower

Holt Caterpillar also participated in the 1919 expo here, no doubt prompting most farmers here to consider replacing horses with horsepower.

In 1920, America had more than 25 million mules and horses.

Most were being used for transportation and farm work, but once tractors began turning the soil, pulling loads and speeding up harvest time, those numbers dropped. Since the 1960s, the population of work animals has settled at about one-tenth of the level seen in 1920, according to Voices of America.

“Yet even the demand for tractors has its limits. Tractors reached their highest-demand numbers around 1982. Their numbers have slowly been decreasing,” due to the efficiencies of new technologies, reports Gwen Outen for VOA.

Some of those animals displaced by their mechanized counterparts changed careers to logging, some went to the South’s cotton fields — horses beat out tractors in making tight turns and navigating corners, McKinney said, recalling farmers recounting family stories of what a sad day it was to watch respected work companions going down the road in another man’s truck.

Reaping the benefits

Upgrading to tractors, and other mechanized machinery, meant doing more farming in less time, planting more ground and increasing incomes.

“It produces more food more cheaply, and we all benefit,” McKinney said.

By 1922, International Harvester had significantly improved tractors with mechanics that allowed implements to be directly driven by the tractor’s engine. In 1925, the same company introduced the Farmall tractor. The Farmall’s high ground clearance, small front wheels and minimal weight aided cultivating, as well as plowing and cutting. The rush was on for every tractor company to produce a “general-purpose” tractor, the Economic History Association reported.

Over the decades, each change in tractor design has intended to increase practicality and use. Rubber tires were introduced in 1938, and had largely replaced steel tires just six years later. Innovations were quickly adopted by competitors. Even the Great Depression of the 1930s didn’t much dent tractor sales.

This spot on earth has reaped the harvest of technology, to be sure, McKinney said.

“I think the Walla Walla Valley became more successful. We had more land, and we were more efficient with tractors. So, by sheer volume, yes. Certainly without machinery we would not have the pea industry.”

Industry estimates say about 2 million tractors are sold every year around the world. Their impact on farming continues to roll out.

“Farms have grown larger as one proprietor can manage to cultivate the land several families would have worked in 1990,” said White in the Economic History Association’s report, while acknowledging the losses to communities with the changes.

“On the balance, however, the tractor has had a markedly positive economic impact. Horses and mules, while providing farm power, ate up more than 20 percent of the food they helped farmers grow!”

White’s research found that America would be poorer now without the invention of the tractor — the machine allowed farmers to grow more while reducing costs and passing those savings on to food buyers. That new farming model meant millions of farm workers could contribute elsewhere in the labor market, he wrote.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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