In the critical five-year stretch prior to John Deere entering the tractor business, there were two key issues the company needed answered.
First, what did farmers really want from a machine that would soon make the horse obsolete? Salesmen, territory and branch managers, as well as Deere’s top leadership, scoured the country to understand what customers desired.
And, second, how to make that product durable enough to stand up to daily farming giving it value beyond all other manufacturers in the market.
This was 1912-1917, and Deere had considered every imaginable idea.
The company had developed one, two and four-cylinder concept tractors. Some ran on gasoline. Some ran on kerosene. Some had all-wheel drive and “auto steer.” Others had front wheel drive. Even other concepts included line steering, which was meant to replicate horse reins as the steering mechanism in an effort to ease farmers into power farming.
A motorized cultivator, what Deere called a “Tractivator,” was brought to market by several competitors, but Deere determined it did not provide any cost savings compared to horses. Deere’s development mirrored the fragmented nature of the yet-unproven new form of machine power – the tractor.
In a letter to company president William Butterworth in 1915, Deere’s superintendent of factories George Mixter noted that tractors offered by competitors up to that point “have not been built with the proper spirit behind the design and manufacture to insure their durability in the hands of the farmers.” But if Deere could “build a small tractor that will really stand up for five or more years’ work on the farm, I believe they will be a permanent requirement of the American farmer,” Mixter wrote.
John Deere ultimately found the solution with the Waterloo Boy tractor and acquired the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company in Waterloo, Iowa, on March 14, 1918. Although anxious to start selling the Waterloo Boy, Deere dealers had to wait while Deere honored existing contracts, which did not expire until Dec. 31, 1918.
Deere put its money where its instincts were. Over the next year – and with a plan in place – the company spent more than one-third of its advertising budget touting the tractor.
John Deere Waterloo Boy Makes Its Debut
One way to get the company’s new product out in front of customers was to take it on the road – literally.
The National Tractor Demonstrations started to become more mainstream after being introduced in the United States in 1913. An eight-city, eight-week tour schedule was the perfect opportunity to unveil Deere’s Waterloo Boy. In August 1918, Salina, Kansas, served as the backdrop. It was the nation’s largest demonstration.
John Deere had participated in tractor demonstrations since the original Winnipeg Agricultural Motor Competitions in Manitoba, Canada, in 1908 – but not with a tractor. Instead, Deere had paired its plows with leading tractor manufacturers. That changed with the Waterloo Boy, now part of the Deere family.
At Salina, Deere spared no expense, showcasing 12 Waterloo Boy tractors as the centerpiece of a display that included John Deere signs, Waterloo Boy signs, and even a copper leaping deer statue (like those that can be seen at many Deere facilities today). All of this display stored neatly in an 80 x 120-foot tent.
There were two stars during this week of 100-degree days – “ice water on tap” and the Waterloo Boy Model “N” tractor.
The Model “N” demonstrated its merits by pulling tractor plows, disc harrows, and grain drills. Visitors were shuttled in three John Deere farm wagons pulled by Waterloo Boy tractors.
By all accounts, the debut was a success.
“The award for the most elaborate, largest and most artistic exhibit tent at the Salina tractor show will undoubtedly go to the John Deere Plow company of Kansas City,” wrote the editors of a Kansas City newspaper.
The next month, the advertising program of the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company was doubled for the following year. The Waterloo Boy tractor was advertised as the “best and most efficient tractor” on the market for farmers inclined to buy a tractor.
In October 1918, readers of The Furrow saw an advertisement for the line of Waterloo Boy tractors and stationary engines. In January 1919, with tractors now available through John Deere dealers, Deere’s first print ad for the trade press appeared in The Farm Implement News. It featured two areas of emphasis: “A Good Tractor Backed by a Permanent Organization.”
After six years of development, John Deere customers and John Deere dealers had their John Deere tractor.
It took longer than the company expected, but a determination to do it right instead of doing it fast now brought the John Deere tractor to market. As a result, customers got “the assurance of more tractor work per dollar of fuel cost; longer tractor life with less repair cost; accessibility of parts that makes caring for the tractor simple and easy; and dependable power for all farm work.”
The tractor era had officially arrived.