Before John Deere, Ford, and International Harvester became icons of American business, they were competitors in a forgotten battle for the farm. From 1908-1928, against the backdrop of a world war and economic depression, these brands were engaged in a race to introduce the tractor and revolutionize farming.
By the turn of the twentieth century, four million people had left rural America and moved to cities, leaving the nation’s farms shorthanded for the work of plowing, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and threshing. That’s why the introduction of the tractor is an innovation story as essential as man’s landing on the moon or the advent of the internet—after all, with the tractor, a shrinking farm population could still feed a growing world. But getting the tractor from the boardroom to the drafting table, then from factory and the farm, was a technological and competitive battle that until now, has never been fully told.
In Tractor Wars, Dahlstrom offers an insider’s view of a story that entwines a myriad of brands and characters, stakes and plots: the Reverend Daniel Hartsough, a pastor turned tractor designer; Alexander Legge, the eventual president of International Harvester, a former cowboy who took on Henry Ford; William Butterworth and the oft-at-odds leadership team at John Deere that partnered with the enigmatic Ford but planned for his ultimate failure. With all the bitterness and drama of the race between Ford, Dodge, and General Motors, Tractor Wars is the untold story of industry stalwarts and disruptors, inventors, and administrators racing to invent modern agriculture—a power farming revolution that would usher in a whole new world.
1) What led you to write Tractor Wars?
It started as I tried to answer a few frequently asked questions and dispel a few myths. I’m often asked why Deere was “late” to the tractor business, which they entered in 1918. I never like the premise of the question because it lacked context. I also didn’t know the context or the answer, and I wanted to find the answer. As I dug deeper, it led to Henry Ford and the Fordson tractor, then International Harvester, and then, the research drove the story. Soon, many brands, personalities, events and machines were all connected. I realized that I had the chance to offer readers a behind the scenes view this critical era of agricultural and business history.
2) How long did it take you to research & write it?
Five years total, but I also had a running head start with many years working in the John Deere Archives. I would often research and write for several months, then take a month or two off, then return to the work with fresh eyes.
3) What were the major challenges you faced & had to overcome to get it done?
There were many. One was the research itself. Finding primary sources, validating those sources, and doing so during COVID over the last two years was difficult with many archives and historical societies being closed. I relied heavily on remote services, and that sometimes took months. Fortunately, I was able to work with many great organizations. Another challenge is that I have a day job and a family, so I was always trying to find time to do the work. I prefer to work mornings, so I would often research and night, and write for several hours before going to work in the morning.
4) What's your personal connection to farming?
It’s really through a number of companies. My father and maternal grandfather both work on the assembly line at Case IH, building combines. My paternal grandparents met working at Minneapolis-Moline, and my great grandfather and great-aunt worked at John Deere. My wife and I both have family that farms in Illinois, so even though I did not grow up on the farm, my family has always been connected to farming.
5) Any thoughts on the challenges facing today's farmer?
At the end of the day, fewer farmers have to produce for a growing population. Farmers are simply not celebrated enough for what they do.
6) What do you do for fun?
Other than write books? I spend way too much time watching baseball, love a good road trip with my family, and spend time doing yard work. Did I mention watching baseball?
7) What's the luckiest thing that's ever happened to you?
Meeting my wife. And she didn’t make me say that. I say its lucky because of the randomness of how we met. I lived in Virginia, and took a job at Deere and moved to Illinois. I joined a company softball team, and my now wife of sixteen years had just been talked into joining the same team by an acquaintance of hers. Her acquittance was the brother of one of my best friends. A long series of coincidences and a lot of luck turned into a wonderful marriage and the blessing of our now eleven-year-old son.
8) What’s your favorite thing you own and why?
It’s not a material possession. My favorite thing is my time. It’s the only thing I control. How I spend it and who I spend it with are all up to me, and even though I have to remind myself of that, time is precious.
9) Best advice you've ever received?
Just do it, because you’ll be done by the time anyone understands what you’re doing!
10) What’s your favorite product or service that you use these days?
I love Amazon photos, specifically the cloud storage and the automatic tagging. I’m an archivist at heart, so I really appreciate automation of metadata. And like most people, we take a lot of photos!
11) Heard any good podcasts?
I listen to many podcasts, but my regular rotation includes Stuff You Should Know, Smartless, Mike Birbiglia’s Working it Out, Cubs Talk Podcast, Open Field Radio, Machinery Pete Podcast, and Agriculture Technology with RDO. And I’m always open to suggestions!
12) Seen anything good on TV, Netflix, Prime, YouTube or anywhere else?
I’ve been really into music documentaries lately. I just finished Long Strange Trip (again) about the Grateful Dead. My son has become a major hockey fan in the last year, so we watch hockey most nights.
13) Favorite sport or team?
I’m a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan. The 2016 World Series was the greatest! A month after the victory I was in line at 6am to see the trophy. It was ten-degrees out, I was second in line, and I waited five hours outside. And it was totally worth it to see the trophy for ten seconds—especially after my toes thawed out.
14) Favorite movies?
The Godfather and Gladiator.
15) Favorite music, group or artists?
Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead for sure.
16) What's your go-to dish when it's your turn to make dinner?
Tacos. Tacos. And more tacos.
17) What’s your favorite vehicle and why?
My 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle convertible. It’s a blast, is a little nostalgic (my first car was a 1968 Beetle sedan), and it even runs most of the time.
18) You have two slices of bread & an unlimited supply of ingredients. What do you put on your sandwich?
Braunschweiger, Swiss cheese, lingenberries. Perfection! Or as my family calls it, gross!
20) If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
I would just want more tolerance and less judgement. Not everything requires immediate attention all of the time, but we are led to feel that way.
Neil Dahlstrom is the author of Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture, and the manager of Branded Properties and Heritage at John Deere.