Producer Interview: The Epic Battle in Tractor Wars

Tractor Wars is our latest documentary, tackling the fascinating battle to build the first all-purpose tractor in America. Watch it for free for a limited time on the PBS App, with Iowa PBS members getting unlimited access to stream on the app with an Iowa PBS Passport account. Hear from the documentary's producer, Peter Tubbs, on how this story came together and the behind-the-scenes work on making this masterpiece. 

Peter Tubbs, Producer

Well, everything's always harder than it looks. I think for a lot of people in this period, just like, well, how hard can it be to build a car? Well, it's not hard to build a car but it's hard to make money building a car. It wasn't hard to build a tractor but it was very hard to build a tractor that worked in the field that was dependable and could be manufactured at a price that you can make a living at. That was the hard part and very few companies solve that.

I'm Peter Tubbs. I am a producer of Tractor Wars at Iowa PBS. Tractor Wars tells a story of sort of the development process of what we now recognize as a farm tractor. It focuses specifically on the period between 1909 and 1929 because in that time, there were dozens of companies trying to figure out what track what form of tractor works on the farm and who how make money at it. In the first 20 years of the 20th century, there was a car manufacturer in almost every town.

Someone was trying to build a car and sell it locally. Most of them never achieved any kind of scale. Most of them never made any money but everybody was trying. The same thing happened to tractor business. Many manufacturers started in the in a small town and they would sell tractors in their neighborhood in their region and many of them just never quite could keep it going.

And it's just the the number and variety of vehicles that were attempted. Some of these look, they look a little odd to our to our modern eyes. No one knows for sure how many companies tried. At least 175 at one point marketed a tractor to farmers. The overwhelming majority of them ended up losing money and going bankrupt or getting out of the business.

By the end of our story there's probably 20 or 30 companies making tractors, but there's really only three that kind of emerge into the future and had at the time most of the market share. There was International Harvester, John Deere, and Ford Motor Company. Though they had, they were the three that by the late 20s were selling the majority of tractors and they're brands that we still recognize today. When you're trying to make something and you don't know what the form that's going to work is you try all these crazy things.

The other thing is, well the development of the tractor was both fast and slow. Like there's one point in the development of when Henry Ford was trying to build a tractor. They spent ten years trying to basically make an automotive plow. That something that looked like a car that would do the field work. It took them 10 years to figure out, no we gotta just make something completely different.

You need a different engine, need a different transmission, you need a different form and it now you would do that electronically in a computer and do all these sort of testing and you'd figure out in a few months. No, it can't look like a car. It has to look like something else. Any time you wanted to test something, you had to build it from scratch and put all the pieces together and take it out somewhere and try it and figure out. Okay, it does this well, it doesn't do that well or it does this but it's really slow. It does this but it overheats. All these things had to be found out the hard way, one lesson at a time and it just it a lot of experimentation to get to what we eventually recognize as a tractor.

Any time you wanted to test something, you had to build it from scratch and put all the pieces together and take it out somewhere and try it and figure out. - Peter Tubbs, producer

We talked to Neil Dahlstrom who's the archivist at the John Deere company, so he understands everything as far as the Deere history side of this but then in researching the book he got into, he went to the Ford Archives, he went through the International Harvester Archives to really understand what was their thinking, what were their motivations, why were they making the decisions that they were making at the time?

I think it's probably surprising to people how small John Deere was as a company in 1915 in 1920 compared to International Harvester because in the early parts of the 20th century International Harvester was one of the four or five biggest corporations in America which meant also probably in the world, and they had worldwide sales, they had a worldwide supply chain. Like John Deere was like one 100th the size.

They were this tiny little company compared to International Harvester and we go fast forward 100 years and now Deere is much larger than International Harvester and kind of dominates the farm equipment business globally. At the time International Harvester could do a lot of experimenting and try things out and they were selling a lot of what sort of look like tractors.

We really wanted to do more than just the TV version of Neil's book. So, I did a lot of reading outside of just his book about the development of tractors that developed the industry at the time, the career of Henry Ford. One of the things interesting is that Henry Ford, at the same time he was developing the model T - building the early Ford cars developing the assembly line technique - he was also at the back of his mind trying to figure out how to make a tractor or to make something that in his words would "reduce the the drudgery of farm work."

I really enjoyed the research, finding all these nuggets and building this huge spreadsheet of all these things that might fit into the show. And that was part of, that was the hard part, of the writing was deciding okay, 80% of what I had found we don't have room for and really narrowing down all the possible things we could have talked about to what's the main thread of the story that we're telling here and just stick to that thread so that's both the fun part and the hard part.

This wouldn't have been possible if the Wisconsin Historical Society didn't have all of the materials from International Harvester and the reason so many materials is that McCormick company and then International Harvester was very paranoid because almost from the day that the patent was issued for the reaper that Cyrus McCormick's name is on, there have been other branches of the family suing like no, no, no this person actually invented it, not Cyrus, and others claiming no, no I had the reaper first.

So from the first day of business they felt that they had to keep every scrap of paper because it might come up in litigation later, and so they sort of kind of literally kept every scrap of paper for 140 years. So when they were purchased by Case in the 1980s, Case looked at this mountain of paperwork and went yeah we don't need this and they gave it to the Wisconsin Historical Society to to be the caretaker of, so if they hadn't done that, a lot of the story would have been lost or would have been a lot harder to document. So it's wonderful that it's there and it exists and they actually were hoarding all these things that we're now taking advantage of.