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Wisconsin’s Enduring Heritage in Tractor Production

Permission by CNH America LLC

A couple companies with a history of making agricultural equipment in Wisconsin will step forward in coming days.

Later this week, the John Deere plant in Horicon will celebrate 50 years of producing lawn and garden tractors. Then, you may spot the name Case IH at State Fair, starting next week. The company is sponsoring the coliseum.

Wisconsin was once a dominant force in manufacturing farm equipment. Some people here remain enthralled by the quintessential machine, the tractor. Guy Fay says tractor fascination is especially strong among people who grew up on a farm, as he did.

“When you’re a little kid, it’s what dad’s out on, it’s the toy, it’s the machine that says you’re an adult and you can farm. The power of tractors over farm kids has been around forever,” Fay says.

Fay says aficionados of all ages attend antique tractor shows around Wisconsin. He’s written books on the subject.

Inventors started tinkering in the 1800s. They wanted to make farm work easier and faster, by creating a motorized vehicle to pull the tools.

Lee Grady works for the Wisconsin Historical Society. He says five companies joined forces in 1902, to form International Harvester. One was Milwaukee Harvester. Within a few years, International Harvester developed a gas-powered tractor. When it sold, a factory in the Menomonee Valley began churning out the machines.

“That, according to my little notes here, was the third largest industrial employer in Milwaukee in 1948,” Grady says.

Dozens of other companies jumped on the tractor-making bandwagon. Author Guy Fay says at one time there were at least 80 in Wisconsin.

“One of the attractions to Wisconsin is the rail lines going out to the big bonanza farms were on the ‘right’ side of Chicago. You didn’t have to ship through Chicago. So if you had tractors or tractor parts starting out in Wisconsin, you could get them out to the Great Plains fairly quickly,” Fay says.

Fay says some companies had a short life span or dried up in the 1920s farm depression. Others, such as Allis-Chalmers and Case, survived. Yet they faced new challenges, a couple decades later.

“It was the second world war that really kind of sorted people out in the tractor manufacturing business,” says Sarah Pickett, who works for Case IH in Racine.

Credit Permission by CNH America LLC
The Case IH Magnum 380 tractor is built at the company’s plant in Racine today

“The U.S. government took over many people’s plants to make armaments and to make military vehicles, and the Case Corporation obviously joined in with that effort, but it cut their tractor production. It also cut into peoples’ R&D time as well, and really it was after the second world war, (that) people who recovered quickest carried on with the businesses,” Pickett says.

Pickett says Case had a hard time bouncing back, until Tenneco bought the company in the 1960s, and infused cash. The brand has since mixed with other manufacturers, yet continues operating in Racine. It’s the lone Wisconsin company still making farm tractors.

However, plenty of people here now ride and appreciate the smaller cousin: the riding mower. There are hundreds of makes and models, some made in Wisconsin.