What’s in a name?
Whether you pronounce it “fro-litch,” “fro-lick” or “fray-lick,” the early history and the connection of the name to Deere is the same. In 1892, John Froelich used a Van Duzen engine and Robinson running gear to build the first gas tractor capable of propelling itself forward and backward. That summer, the tractor threshed over 72,000 bushels of small grains. Buoyed by his success, Froelich went on with several others to found the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Traction Company. However, a tractor built in 1896 and another in 1897 were both returned by dissatisfied customers. With that in mind, the word “traction” was removed from the company name and the focus turned toward stationary engines. Froelich, whose interest was in tractors, withdrew from the company.
Link to the past
Of course, when Deere and Company purchased the Waterloo company in 1918, they had once again started building tractors and they were not about to let it be forgotten that their lineage now extended back to this “first” tractor. So in the late 1930s, when Deere was about to celebrate their centennial, it was decided that a replica of this tractor should be built.
Deere illustration of the original tractor.
Or was it?
While it is generally assumed that the Froelich replica was built for the Deere centennial, it didn’t actually appear in a John Deere Day movie until 1940. That movie was produced by a major Hollywood studio, which didn’t care if the tractor would run or not, because they felt they could pull it with cables during the filming.
One of the few photographs of the original tractor during its threshing run.
At any rate, sometime in the 1930s, a Deere employee (who two weeks earlier had been laid off and unfortunately whose name seems to be lost to history) got a call from Al Randall, a sales manager, asking him if he would like a job with the engineering department. The laid off worker had to give it some thought because he had recently gotten a job at a Standard Oil filling station and had even spent money buying his uniforms. His initial job was to run the test tractors at night and at one point also tested a one cylinder horizontal engine that used a model “D” tractor’s 6-1/2 inch piston and rod. Was Deere thinking of offering a one cylinder horizontal power unit based on the “D”? When he was eventually asked to work on the Froelich tractor replica, our hero remembered that engine and wondered if it was still around.
Was lost but now found
The engine was found in the basement of the engineering building, standing in water and badly rusted, but when taken apart and cleaned, it ran. The next step was to make the horizontal engine into a vertical. The Deere factory was busy building tractors and not interested in helping out on the project, so Woodring and Wise, a local machine shop, was hired to do much of the work. They had quite a few problems to solve, because somewhere along the line it was decided that the engine was actually going to run. Suitable flywheels were found in one of the old Galloway buildings. Galloway had been a manufacturer of engines and other farm equipment and had gone out of business. The flywheels had a large counterbalance on them and when the day finally came to start the tractor, it danced across the floor. Senior Engineer Wayne Worthington was called; he said that he was just about to leave to run an errand and he would stop by. Worthington took a few measurements and did some figuring on a piece of paper . He then asked for a piece of chalk and marked a big section of the counterbalance to be removed and said he would be back at noon.
The flywheels were removed, the sections cut out and when reinstalled and started, the big engine ran so smooth, a nail sitting on its head could be balanced on the tractor. Perhaps there’s a good reason Wayne Worthington is a famous engineer. The bosses at Deere were called and told that a tractor was ready, pulled with cables and the flywheels turned by an electric motor. However, when they assembled at the Cattle Congress grounds where the tractor had been hauled, they were shocked to see it moving on its own power.
Right side of the Froelich Replica as it currently sits at the Deere Waterloo Museum. You can clearly see the section removed from the flywheel as suggested by legendary engineer Wayne Worthington.
Froelich goes Hollywood
and back to its roots
Now the tractor was ready so it was sent to California for the filming of the John Deere Day movie and our anonymous chronicler went with it. After shooting had completed, it was loaded in a boxcar to be shipped back to Waterloo. It was scheduled to arrive on a Tuesday but as of Thursday, it had yet to arrive. This was of great concern because the tractor was supposed to be a special guest at the dedication of a plaque honoring its developer in the town of Froelich, Iowa on Sunday. Late Friday, it was learned that the tractor was in St. Louis where the boxcar had been sitting because of a burned-out wheel bearing. Trucking from St. Louis to Waterloo was arranged and the tractor arrived at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning.
Our principal character was called and he headed to the plant immediately. He was shocked when he opened the doors of the truck and saw that the head, pushrods and other parts had been removed because the tractor was too tall to fit into the truck. He called his wife to bring him his tools and the tractor and parts were all loaded onto a truck that had been hired to haul the tractor to Froelich and our guy put the tractor back together en route. After arrival, the gas tank was filled and the tractor fulfilled its ceremonial duties without a problem, proudly driving by the reviewing stand on which stood John Froelich’s son.
The Froelich was trucked back to Waterloo and stored in a building at the plant. During World War II, a parade was being planned and the local war bond chairman asked what Deere could do that was different. The tractor was mentioned so a team was dispatched to go take a look at its current condition.
It was eventually found on the bank of Black Hawk Creek, along with a dozen other experimental tractors that “had no value.” Perhaps we should pause here and wait for everyone’s blood pressure to go back down. A worker from engineering had already begun cutting up the tractor, having been ordered to get everything unnecessary into the war effort.
If you look at the tractor today as it sits at the Deere museum in Waterloo, you can see where it has been cut and then welded back together. Unfortunately, whether the Froelich drove through, was hauled through or sat out the parade was not recorded. If it was driven, by all accounts it was the last time it moved under its own power.
This photo of the replica was used by Deere on a postcard. It was probably taken in the late 1980s.
And just for the record
Most people around the Iowa town named for the family of the tractor’s inventor pronounce it “fray-lick.”
Thanks to Neil Dahlstrom at the Deere Archives for information used in this article, especially the letter by the anonymous man who wrote all this down, so that the younger guys could one day learn it and the old guys could remember it again.