The Nebraska Tractor Tests gave American farmers the opportunity to have better tractors for the farm.
Nebraska farmer Wilmot Crozier was perturbed. After wrestling with his conscience he made the momentous decision in 1916 to quit farming with horses and buy a newfangled tractor. Only problem was, his new tractor didn't do what the company said it would do. Nor did the second one he got. Nor the third.
Like many farmers of the era, he realized something had to be done to correct these failings. But what?
By the time Crozier bought his first machine — a brand-new Model B Ford made by the Ford Tractor Co. of Minneapolis — farmers had little recourse if something went wrong. Farm Implement News wrote, "It was not unusual for a farmer to buy a tractor one year from a traveler only to learn the next year, when he needed a repair part, that the firm was out of business." In Farm Tractors: A Living History, Randy Leffingwell writes, "Skullduggery was not uncommon in the first 20 years of gasoline tractor manufacturing. There were many . . . tractor makers organized solely for the purpose of making money, not tractors. One prototype would be produced, funds would be raised, and overnight the company was out of business, offices vacated, doors locked. The lone prototype had sold for cash to some unsuspecting victim."
There were other problems, said E.K. Greer in Gas Power in 1917. There were too many types of tractors. And many tractors were being made with parts not meant for tractors or were being made like automobiles, which made them inefficient for the work required of tractors on farms. If the tractor were needed on difficult ground, the farmer generally was out of luck.
"The average farmer feels that all of them are wrong," Greer wrote, "and that he had better wait until he can get something standard before he buys."
No Farm Tractor Standards
There were no standards, so Mr. Crozier was on his own when he purchased his tractor from the Minnesota Ford Tractor Co. He might have assumed it was related to the work of Henry Ford and his successful automobile, which was the Minnesota company's intent, but there was no connection. Regardless, Crozier plopped down $350 for his first-ever tractor, a new 8-16 hp Ford, touted to pull a pair of 14-inch plows.
Back in Nebraska, he discovered the Ford not only wouldn't pull two plows, but it was not mechanically sound and hardly worked. It didn't live up to the manufacturer's billing.
He convinced the company to trade his 1916 model for their new 1917 Model Ford. The result was similar. The 1917 model also had mechanical problems, and with Ford Tractor Co. in serious financial straits, Crozier soon was out $350, plus expenses, so he parked the non-working machine permanently in a corner of a field.
Oops! Tractors Once More
Going from bad to worse, Crozier bought a used Little Bull tractor, also advertised to pull two plows. Once more, the advertising hype had little basis in fact. Because the machine was low to the ground with its guts open to field dust, the Little Bull choked in dirt. Record numbers of them broke down, just as Crozier's did.
A lesser person than Crozier would have given up on tractors. Instead, in 1918 he bought a used Rumely OilPull tractor rated to pull three plows. As Professor C. W. Smith wrote in History of the Nebraska Law, "(Crozier) pulled five bottoms satisfactorily with this tractor, which gave him absolutely no trouble."
So Crozier asked himself what turned out to be a history-altering question: "If one manufacturer can build a dependable tractor why can't all tractors be dependable?"
For Crying Out Loud
For years farmers had been agitating for standardized ratings for tractors so everyone knew what they were getting. Farmers didn't yet know how to fix the relatively new internal combustion engines. So when things went wrong, they were at the mercy of tractor companies.
In 1915, farmers and some manufacturers asked the federal government to set up a standardized rating system and a national testing station. Unfortunately, nobody could agree whether the Bureau of Standards in the Department of Commerce or the Office of Farm Management under the Department of Agriculture was best suited for the job. So the concept was dropped.
The situation became ever more critical. The United States entered World War I, where at first the military refused to use tractors because they were deemed undependable, and took horses instead, which lowered the number of horses available for farmers, and increased pressure on them to buy a tractor. But how could they make an informed decision without a universal standardized testing system?
The Tractor Biggie
In 1919, with his tractor failures and one notable success behind him, Wilmot Crozier was elected to the Nebraska legislature. He introduced a bill that stated no tractor could be legally sold in Nebraska without a permit. No permit would be issued until the tractor performed as the company claimed in its advertising.
It became known as the "Nebraska Tractor Test Law." Farmers everywhere cheered. The first tractor ever tested in Nebraska — Test 01 starting on March 31, 1920 — was a Waterloo Boy Model N tractor manufactured by the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Co. of Waterloo, Iowa. The company had been bought by Deere & Co. in 1918.
Other than an erratic governor, the Waterloo Boy passed with flying colors. In quick order, several other tractors were tested successfully and the standardized test was off and running.
The Beginning of the End for Poor Tractor Manufacturing Standards
From that point on, tractors sold in Nebraska had to pass the stringent tests or could not be sold there. Within a few years, across the nation the entire tractor industry adopted the Nebraska Farm Tractor Tests as the gold standard. No longer could fly-by-nights or unscrupulous manufacturers and salesmen dupe unsuspecting farmers. Tractors had to do what they claimed they were able to do, or else they couldn't be sold. The Nebraska Tractor Tests had saved the American farmer.
Veteran writer Bill Vossler has written about the history of farm tractors and other diverse subjects for 170 magazines and 11 books. He lives with his writer wife in Minnesota.