One of the most useful farm machines, the tractor, was developed prior to World War I. Probably the first big demonstration of gasoline tractors in the United States was held at Omaha in 1911. Beginning in 1913, shows were held annually at Fremont for several years. The University of Nebraska Tractor Testing Laboratory, the first in the world, was established in 1919 to inform buyers of the relative merits of tractors.
One of the well-known early tractors was the Hart-Parr, manufactured at Charles City, Iowa. During World War I it was not uncommon for these big tractors to run day and night. America’s allies had bought up large numbers of horses for military use, and thousands of farm boys had entered the American military service, leaving a shortage of manpower and horsepower. Into this vacuum in 1917 stepped Henry Ford with his tractor, the Fordson. It was a light, general-purpose farm machine which was favorably received as a product of the firm which had made the nation’s leading inexpensive car. Not only was it revolutionary in conception and design, but it sold at the low price of $397. From 1921 to 1925 the Fordson outsold all other tractors combined. Numerous other firms came out with new machines about this time, and the number of tractors increased tremendously during the period immediately after the war.
A tractor of special interest to Nebraskans was the Square Turn Tractor, which came out the same year as the Fordson and was manufactured at Norfolk, Nebraska. In addition to maneuverability, it offered a power lift. But in the face of Fordson’s tremendous popularity, this machine, like a score of others, disappeared from the scene within a few years. So great was the interest in this decade, however, that tractor manufacturing companies increased from 15 to 160.
Arguments in favor of tractors included the fact that they did not consume fuel during the winter months while standing idle as did horses. They moved faster, hence did more work per man hour, and they pulled a heavier load, making it possible for one man to do as much plowing in a day as two men with horses. It was furthermore argued that tractors would keep the boys on the farm. However, it was not until the 1930s that tractors began to be generally used for farm work and power other than plowing.