Froelich Tractor History

In 1892 in the tiny village in Northeast Iowa, John Froelich (1849 -1933) invented the first successful gasoline-powered engine that could be driven backwards and forwards. The word “tractor” wasn’t used in those days, but that’s what it was.

At that time, steam-powered engines were used to thresh wheat. John Froelich was familiar with such equipment. In fact, every fall he took a crew of men to Langford, South Dakota to work the fields.

He was frustrated with the problems associated with steam engines; they were heavy and bulky, hard to maneuver. They were always threatening to set fire to the grain and stubble in the fields – and on a flat prairie, with a wind blowing, that was serious.

Gasoline Power

Froelich decided he could invent a better way to power the engine. The solution was gasoline. Froelich and his blacksmith Will Mann came up a vertical, one-cylinder engine mounted on the running gear of a steam traction engine – a hybrid of their own making. They designed many new parts to make it all fit together, but it finally was done.

A few weeks later Froelich and his crew started for the broad fields of South Dakota with the “tractor” and a new threshing machine. That fall they threshed 72,000 bushels of small grain. It was a success!

The Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company

Later that fall John Froelich shipped his “tractor” to Waterloo, Iowa to show some businessmen. Immediately, the men formed a company to manufacture the “Froelich Tractor.” They named the company The Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company and made John the president.

Unfortunately, efforts to sell the practical gasoline-powered tractor failed. Two were sold and shortly returned. The company then decided to manufacture stationary gas engines to provide income while tractor experiments continued.

Incorporated

In 1895 the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company was incorporated – but Froelich, whose interest was in tractors, not stationary engines, chose to withdraw from the company. The Waterloo Company continued to build stationary engines while trying to improve the tractor and in 1913 the model “L-A” was made.

In 1914 the first Waterloo Boy Tractor, the Model “R” single-speed tractor, was introduced. Farmers liked it and within a year sales reached 118. When the Model “N” Waterloo Boy with two forward speeds was introduced, that was also successful.

During World War I with the rise of farm prices and the demand for dependable mechanical farm power, the concept of the tractor became so popular that in a matter of months many tractor manufacturers sprung up.

Deere and Company in Moline, Illinois, manufacturer of a full line of John Deere implements, had been watching the progress of the Waterloo Engine Company and the increasing quality of its products.

Since Deere was looking for an established farm tractor to round out its line, it was decided that here was an organization with many years experience – a company that knew what farmers wanted – what it took to build a good tractor.

Purchased by John Deere

So in 1918, the Waterloo Company was purchased and the plant and facilities and employees were brought into the House of Deere. With the birth of John Froelich’s “hybrid,” through many years of trial, the Waterloo Tractor Works has grown steadily. Today it is one of the largest tractor-producing plants in the nation.

From Waterloo each day stream tractors for farmers all over the world… tractors of various types and sizes… tractors that make farming easier, more profitable. For this contribution, John Froelich will always be remembered and the village of Froelich, Iowa boasts the name “Tractor Town U.S.A.”

Come to Froelich, Iowa. See our scale model of the original “Froelich Tractor” made from the original blueprints on display in the General Store. The image to the left represents a replica that is on display in the Blacksmith shop. Read the dedication on the monument erected in 1939. Stroll through the village being restored to 1800 culture: the 1886 one-room Froelich school #5, the 1891 General Store museum, the 1800s shipping warehouse and more. Step back in time and enjoy!

Museum hours are from 11 AM to 5 PM daily, except Wednesdays when we are closed. Season opens Memorial Day weekend and run through Labor Day. The last weekend in September is our annual celebration “Fall-der-all.” That weekend tractors (from the Froelich to the Waterloo Boy to the newest John Deere) are on display on the Froelich grounds. A flea market is set up. There’s food and music.

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