Smithsonian, John Deere Celebrate 100 Years of the Tractor

Mar 6, 2018

The Smithsonian has declared 2018 "The Year of the Tractor." It's been 100 years since John Deere bought the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company. And now, a 1918 Waterloo Boy Tractor is featured in an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Michelle O'Neill reports tractors ushered in a new era of farming.

At this winter's farm show at the QCCA Expo Center in Rock Island, Rollo Searl from Port Byron helped people and answered questions at the Antique Tractor and Engine booth.

Rollo Searl and his son collect tractors manufactured by the Rock Island Plow Company. Rollo is standing in front of the Antique Tractor & Engine Association booth at the 2018 Quad Cities Farm Show at the QCCA Expo Center, Rock Island, IL.
Credit Michelle O'Neill / WVIK News

Searl says when tractors started to sell in the early 1900s, Deere and Company had already been in business for about 80 years. He says board members tried to talk other Deere officials into developing a tractor, but they didn't want to.

Then a group of directors took a trip west of the Quad Cities to find out what farm equipment dealers thought of the market. Searl says the dealers were selling packages of equipment, and said if Deere didn't sell a tractor they'd have to find a company that did. So John Deere bought the Waterloo Boy company.

Four models of tractors, from the oldest at the bottom to the latest at the top, on the display floor at Deere World Headquarters in Moline, IL
Credit Michelle O'Neill / WVIK News

Peter Liebhold is a curator at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. He says at first hundreds of companies made and sold tractors, including Ford. At one point, Ford captured 75% of the market.

Liebhold says the business of farming was also becoming much more important. And that's a big reason the Waterloo Boy welcomes guests at the entrance of the Smithsonian's "Year of the Tractor" exhibit.

Another guy with stories to tell is Neil Dahlstrom. He manages Deere and Company's Corporate Archives and History at world headquarters in Moline. He says Deere started developing its own tractor in 1912. But six years later, it didn't meet the criteria the company had set. 

"Deere spent $50,000 on tractor advertising in the year following its debut of the Waterloo Boy."
Credit / John Deere Journal

He says Deere officials found out through a third party that the Waterloo Gas Engine Company, which made the Waterloo Boy, was available to buy. One day, the Waterloo company officials said they'd take the deal off the table if Deere didn't make a decision the next day.

Dahlstrom says Deere executives decided to do it and signed a check for $2.15 million. And the company started selling them by advertising the Waterloo Boy as, "A good tractor backed by a permanent organization."

Museums closer to home will also celebrate the "Year of the Tractor," including the John Deere Tractor & Engine Museum in Waterloo, Deere Visitors Pavilion and World Headquarters in Moline, National Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, and State Historical Museum of Iowa in Des Moines. The John Deere Forum in Mannheim, Germany will also display iconic tractors.