History Nebraska Blog

Tractor vs. Horses

Tractor in Ogallala, Neb., 1918. NSHS RG0716-34-5

At left is a tractor in Ogallala, Neb., 1918. NSHS RG0716-34-5

Which is more economical for a farmer, a tractor or a team of horses? In the early years of tractors, the answer wasn’t obvious to everyone. A series of tractor shows in the Midwest from 1913 to 1919 encouraged the growth of power farming in the United States. Reynold M. Wik writes about it in a 1983 Nebraska History article.

The earliest tractors used steam power…

NSHS RG3358-355

At left is a Buffalo-Pitts steam tractor and water wagon. The photo is undated, but the Buffalo-Pitts company (of Buffalo, N.Y.) sold their first steam traction engine in 1882.

The big steam engines were too expensive for most farmers. Use of tractors expanded as gasoline engines became more powerful and affordable. Tractor manufacturers competed against horses for many years, as shown by this 1932 Farmall brochure:


NSHS RG3358AM-4-8 At right.

“Farmall Tractors Plowed at Less Than Half the Cost of Plowing with Horses,” reads the headline on the back side of the brochure. Here’s a detail that breaks down the costs:


And here’s a photo of the tractor in the brochure, location unknown (bottom right):


–David Bristow, Associate Director for Research and PublicationsNSHS RG 3358-4-8

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