New book by Deere heritage manager traces 100-year-old competition with Ford and others to create tractors

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Neil Dahlstrom, who has worked for John Deere since 2001, and the cover of his new book, “Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester and the Birth of Modern Agriculture.”

One hundred years before this month’s major high-tech presentation in Las Vegas, where John Deere announced its self-driving tractor, aiming to revolutionize farming, the Moline-based agricultural giant set its sights in a simpler tractor revolution.

In the new book, “Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester and the Birth of Modern Agriculture,” Neil Dahlstrom (Deere’s branded properties and heritage manager) meticulously tells a dramatic story of intense competition and invention, to not only produce new cars but tractors.

“Tractor Wars” focuses on the on the forgotten 20-year period that introduced power farming—the most fundamental change in world agriculture in hundreds of years. John Deere, Ford, and International Harvester became icons of American business, as they were competitors in a battle for the farm. From 1908 to 1928, these brands engaged in a race to introduce the tractor and revolutionize farming.

“I mean, there’s so many parallels to things going on today,” Dahlstrom said Monday of the 272-page book, his third. “I think especially when it comes to electric vehicles, I think the story is just kind of parallel to what’s happening today; it’s really fascinating.”

Henry Ford first started developing a farm tractor in 1908, the year his popular Model T was first produced.

On page 5, he wrote that Henry Ford met Thomas Edison in 1896 in New York City, and they discussed batteries for electric cars, while Ford was working on a gasoline-powered vehicle. Edison himself was developing an electrically powered car, but encouraged Ford, noting “Your car is self-contained — it carries its own power plant — no fire, no boiler, no smoke, no steam. You have the thing.”

“There was an electric car built in Moline in 1899. And the gentleman who built it said, I’m gonna be mass-producing these or at least producing them soon,” Dahlstrom said Monday. “And it’ll run on a charge for eight hours. None of which happened, but that’s kind of where a lot of the automobile production started, with batteries. And then it may have transitioned to the internal combustion engine.

“In the early 20th century, you can’t really separate automobile and tractor manufacturing,” he said. “There’s just so much overlap.” Electric cars never took off then, because of cost and other complications, Dahlstrom said.

“It was really a lot of the same problems being faced today, which is battery life. It’s infrastructure. How do you charge your battery?”

Willard Velie (1866-1928) was a grandson of John Deere, who formed his own car manufacturing company in Moline and worked for Deere as a vice president.

“And he’s really important to track towards the story because he was one of the main advocates of Deere pushing for the production of a farm tractor.”

“He was so interested in it that he started a side business and actually designed one and at one point had bought property in East Moline, to build a tractor factory,” Dahlstrom said.

In the historic year of 1908, Velie became Deere vice president (the year after Butterworth became president), and Velie incorporated the Velie Motor Vehicle Company. He kept his tractor line separate from the Deere line, but his automobiles were marketed through Deere’s branch houses.

A Deere general purpose tractor with corn picker and horse-drawn wagon, October 1928 (courtesy of John Deere).

Dahlstrom — who’s worked for John Deere since 2001 — said the intention of the book was, “I just wanted to dig deeper into the story. Typically, the focus is on is on the machines and I want to understand the people, the dynamics behind the machines, the business environment around it, the world environment — which included World War I and a global pandemic.”

On Dec. 29, 2021, the Wall Street Journal gave the book a glowing review, saying Dahlstrom “has written a superb history of the tractor and this long-forgotten period of capitalism in U.S. agriculture. We now know the whole story of when farming, business and the free-market economy diverged, divided and conquered.”

A new century, a new world

By the turn of the 20th century, four million people left rural America and moved to cities, leaving the nation’s farms shorthanded for the work of plowing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and threshing. That’s why the introduction of the tractor is an innovation story as essential as man’s landing on the moon or the advent of the internet, according to the “Tractor Wars” press release.

“But getting the tractor from the boardroom to the drafting table, then from factory and the farm, was a technological and competitive battle that until now, has never been fully told,” it says. Formerly Deere’s corporate archivist, Dahlstrom offers an insider’s view of a story that entwines a myriad of brands and characters, stakes and plots, featuring:

  • The disruptor, Henry Ford, an emerging automobile magnate fulfilling his lifelong dream of building a farm tractor;
  • Alexander Legge, a former cowboy with the most to lose as president of the world’s largest agricultural equipment manufacturer; and
  • William Butterworth, the visionary, underrated president of John Deere who partnered with the enigmatic Ford but planned for his ultimate failure.
William Butterworth (pictured around 1920) was Deere president from 1907 to 1928, then board chairman until his death in 1936.

1908 was a landmark year for Ford, when he introduced his affordable Model T car (which went on to sell 82,400 vehicles in 1912), and start development on his farm tractor. Dahlstrom said there were key differences in leadership style between Ford (1863-1947) and Butterworth (1864-1936).

“Ford was certainly visionary. He very much ran his business from the perspective of making products available to as many people as possible,” he said. “He also makes all the decisions himself — for better, for worse. Butterworth’s style was very different. He tended to be a listener. He tended to survey the marketplace. You took a very long-term view of things. And Deere was very methodical and the tractor story is a perfect example of where they outlined, how they would approach it.”

Butterworth was opposed to manufacturing tractors, but not opposed to Deere selling them, Dahlstrom said. The 1918 acquisition of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company (which made the Waterloo Boy tractor), for $2.25 million, fit perfectly with that philosophy.

A restored 1918 Deere tractor, at the John Deere Pavilion, Moline.

“The decision came down to, they liked the product. It met all their criteria,” Dahlstrom said. “It was economical to run. They took a distribution system in place. They had trained mechanics in place, and it just had a really good reputation across the country and even overseas. So it kind of checked all the boxes for Deere, and they moved incredibly quick to make that acquisition.”

The story of “Tractor Wars” is bookended between 1908 – when Ford announced that he was working on building a farm tractor – and 1928, when he exited production of the tractor. It took until 1918 when Ford introduced his tractor domestically, after selling it in England as part of the war effort.

“You really see this acceleration of just the development of the industry itself,” Dahlstrom said. “I think something that’s often overlooked is, the development of the tractor also drives a complete rebirth, redesign of every implement because now you’re designing for tractors versus horses.”

Ford got out of the tractor business because of the fierce competition, the cost and the lack of profits, he said.

“It took a lot of resources, and Ford also never made any money off of the tractor in his life,” Dahlstrom said. “They lost $100 on the sale of every tractor.”

Henry Ford sits atop an early experimental tractor made from automobile and farm equipment parts, 1908.

“General Motors lost over thirty million dollars in three years, trying to trying to sell farm tractors,” he added. In 1917 alone, there were 124 companies in the business of tractor manufacturing. Only 33 American tractor makers remained in 1929, after mergers, consolidations and bankruptcies, the book says.

In the late 1920s, half of Deere profits came from businesses and product lines that didn’t exist in 1911.

“You have to continue to reinvent yourself in order to survive, to be successful, and thrive,” Dahlstrom said recently. “And that’s what I think this book is about. It’s about reinvention. It’s about innovation and transformation.”

Dahlstrom really developed a soft spot in his heart for Butterworth. Moline’s Butterworth Center, at 1105 8th St., was originally built in 1892 by Charles Deere (John Deere’s son) as a wedding gift for his youngest daughter Katherine and her husband William Butterworth. Over the years, the Butterworths tripled the size of their home, which they named Hillcrest.

Butterworth Center, built in 1892 at 1105 8th St., Moline, was the home of William and Katherine Butterworth.

“Because even when he was named CEO, there was a lot of speculation that that he wasn’t the right person for the job,” Dahlstrom said. “He was called indecisive. The reality is, he was an attorney, he was the company treasurer, he understood money. So he was very much kind of looking at things from that perspective. How do you build something that’s sustainable.”

Dahlstrom credits Butterworth for being “incredibly visionary and down-to-earth at the same time.” He was deliberate and collaborative in decision-making, something very different coming out of the brash, domineering robber-baron era, he said.

How did Dahlstrom get to Deere?

Dahlstrom is the author of “The John Deere Story: A Biography of Plowmakers John and Charles Deere” (Northern Illinois University Press, 2005), and co-author of “Lincoln’s Wrath: Fierce Mobs, Brilliant Scoundrels, and a President’s Mission to Destroy the Press” (Sourcebooks, 2005).

Since the release of these two books, he’s built a career in corporate archives, agricultural and brand history. Today, Dahlstrom is the branded properties and heritage manager at John Deere, where he oversees the John Deere Pavilion, John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum, John Deere Historic Site, and the corporate Archives and Library, among other areas.

Neil Dahlstrom at the John Deere Pavilion, 1400 River Drive, Moline (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Dahlstrom has appeared on The History Channel, NatGEO, PBS, and Book TV. He’s a member of the Kitchen Cabinet, the Food and Agriculture Advisory Board of The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and was recently chair of the Society of American Archivists Business Archives Section and the Illinois State Historical Records Advisory Board.

A 45-year-old East Moline native, he doesn’t come from a farming family, but his paternal grandparents met at Minneapolis-Moline; his father and maternal grandfather both worked for Case-IH, building combines in East Moline, and his great-grandfather and great aunt both worked for Deere.

Dahlstrom earned his bachelor’s degree at Monmouth College (history and classics) and master’s at Eastern Illinois University (historical administration), and never planned to work for Deere. When he was hired in 2001, he was living in Alexandria, Virginia, working in an archive documenting the history of the commercial space industry. Dahlstrom had a friend in the QC who worked at Deere, notifying of the opening in the archives.

“I’ve always had an interest in 19th and early 20th-century American history and what attracted me to the position in the first place was, just working for a company that’s been around since 1837,” Dahlstrom said Monday. “There’s just so much there, and that just kind of interested me. I’ve always had an interest in people and places. And that had really drawn me to a lot of the personalities in the stories at John Deere, which I just continue to find fascinating to this day.”

Dahlstrom, 45, seen at the John Deere Pavilion, spent five years researching and writing his new book (photo by Jonathan Turner).

He spent five years working on “Tractor Wars,” which last week was selected by Amazon.com as an Editors Pick for history for the month of January.

“When I started, it wasn’t to write a book. It was because I was interested in the story,” he said. “As I got further and further into it I think that’s one of the interesting things about a book is — I didn’t start and say, well I’m writing a book on Deere, Ford, International Harvester. I was about three years in before I said, those are those are the three that really I think were going to drive this.”

Working for years in the Deere archives was a huge help in doing research, as Dahlstrom had direct access to lots of relevant industry publications.

The book gets into the relationships between key players, which are very interesting, the author said.

“I think what’s interesting is to find that the world in many ways has not changed a whole lot,” Dahlstrom said, noting the electric cars, global pandemic, and emphasis on the latest technology today. “People are still fascinated by new technology, and a lot of decision-making and everything is kind of a race for what’s next.”

“Tractor Wars” was published by Matt Holt Books, an imprint of BenBella Books, and is available for $25.

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