“Y” Did the Deere Replace the Horse?

Yes, that is right—the 1936 John Deere model “Y” was the prototype for the Deere that replaced the workhorse (aka Old Dobbin) and it started as a notion being mulled over in the mind of a man named Edward F. Gast. Gast was the owner and operator from 1929 to 1971 of what was known as Baroda Hardware. Baroda Hardware was located in a small town called Baroda, Michigan in the county of Berrien. He grew this business from a small hardware store into the largest hardware store and John Deere dealership in southwest Michigan.  The business sold contracting supplies, appliances, general hardware, and John Deere parts and equipment. He started thinking of his idea which led to the development of the model “Y” as early as the late 1920s.

His idea was simple—that a small, inexpensive tractor could be built to replace the two-horse team on the small fruit and vegetable farms (less than 10 to 40 acres) of Michigan’s great southwest. The general-purpose tractors offered by John Deere and other manufacturers at the time were simply too bulky, low to the ground, and had poor maneuverability for cultivating. The row crop type with wheel(s) in the tricycle configuration was not suitable for one-row cultivation because it would run over and destroy crops. In addition, the new John Deere “A” and “B,” which entered production in 1935 were simply too big and expensive for the majority of producers in areas such as southwest Michigan. Gast would discuss his idea over the years with John Deere salesmen and representatives when they would visit his store in hopes that word would get back to the main office in Moline, Illinois that there was a need for a tractor that would suit the majority of farms in his area.

John Deere Wyman, president of Deere and Company, heard of Gast’s idea and decided to find out more about it. In 1936, President Wyman, along with other John Deere officials, drove to the Whitcomb Hotel in St. Joseph, Michigan, and met with Gast and his friend, Frank Sommer, who was the operator of the Eau Claire Fruit Exchange of Eau Claire, Michigan. Wyman and his associates were shown the unique growing conditions in Gast’s area and discussed the potential of developing the tractor. According to an article found in the Herald Press (a local southwest Michigan newspaper) dated Dec. 31, 1941, Gast came up with five major features that he thought would best serve producers in his area and they are listed as follows:

  • The tractor must be a small compact riding tractor suitable for a wide variety of jobs.
  • It must have rubber tires.
  • The machine should be relatively cheap, about $495.
  • It must have rear-wheel brakes and a short turning radius to increase the flexibility of use such as cultivating small fruit and vegetables.
  • It must have the power of two horses.

How small was it? Like its successors, the models 62 and “L,” it had a much narrower gauge tire than the popular John Deere “A” and “B” models to better fit down and over rows and not over plants. The tractor had to fit in buildings previously designed for horses. It also needed to be small enough to drive through rows of crops such as brambles and grapes that tend to branch over into their eight to 10-foot row spacing.

President Wyman agreed that a tractor could be built to meet those needs. Gast told Wyman that he could sell 50 such tractors a year at his dealership. Sales were low in 1937, but by 1938 sales were near the 50-unit mark. Gast sold about 200 units of models “Y” through “L.” By 1939, other manufacturers had brought their own versions to market after seeing the demand and success of Gast’s vision which became a reality. Increased competition of course offset Deere’s sales, but Gast’s idea revolutionized and mechanized farming in his area and throughout many parts of the country, especially New York state, and regions found in southern states.

When the first version of the machine known as the model “Y” appeared at his dealership in the spring of 1936, he thought that the unit looked somewhat questionable as to whether it would and could do what he envisioned it doing. After taking a secret test drive, he felt assured that the small tractor would do what he knew the hundreds of small fruit and vegetable producers in his area would need it to do. After Gast was relieved of his fears, he offered the tractor for sale and it was purchased by Harry Klug of Baroda, Michigan. Klug reported that his primary complaint was that there weren’t proper implements available for this unit. The only equipment available for the tractor was that which was designed to be pulled by horses, such as the disk which can be seen in the photographs of Walter Phillippi and his family. Although numerous implements and attachments were developed for the “Y’s” descendant, the “L,” the only implements designed specifically for the “Y” were a garden cultivator and garden planter. Due to the “L’s” drawbar design, it was adaptable to both horse-drawn equipment and equipment designed for that particular model.

One disadvantage of the “Y” that may be seen by operators today is that it had no hydraulic power. All attachments were raised and lowered by hand; however, operators were accustomed to this because horse-drawn equipment of the day was operated in the same fashion.

Gast sent word of the complaints about the lack of implements and attachments from Harry Klug and other friends and relatives who tried the “Y” to Deere. V.F. Bozeman, a company official, soon began the development of implements for the small tractor. Gast’s idea cut down farming costs and saved time for the small producer who was also working part-time in a factory. In conclusion, these tractors were successfully designed to cultivate the most diverse array of crops the world has ever seen in one area with a temperate climate in modern times. This area is known as Berrien County, Michigan.

My great grandfather, Walter Phillippi, and his family lived in Weesaw Township in Berrien County, Michigan. As mentioned, Berrien County is the heart of Michigan’s fruit belt. The “Y” was the first John Deere tractor produced and targeted at small acreage fruit and vegetable truck farms like the one he owned and operated. Walter can be seen taking turns with his family riding the 1936 model “Y” in the photographs in this article. He most likely had the opportunity to borrow and test the tractor from his neighbor, August Klug, the brother of Harry Klug, before it was recalled. Walter was one of the few in his area to test this brand new prototype not only as a potential replacement for a two-horse team but because it was fun, affordable and gasoline-powered vehicles were relatively new and exciting! He and his family, like hundreds of others in southwest Michigan, raised fruit and vegetables to sell at roadside markets and at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market. The original main function of the Benton Harbor Fruit Market was to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to the large hungry city of Chicago, Illinois. The Benton Harbor Fruit Market is still the largest cash to grower wholesale market in the world. As mentioned, no other agricultural region in the world with a temperate climate produces the diversity of horticultural products that can be grown in Berrien County, Michigan. More than 100 different types of horticulture-related products (field crops, fruit, vegetables, and much more) can be grown in this region due to Lake Michigan’s warming effect, which helps protect the buds from freezing on the many vines, trees, and bushes that produce southwest Michigan’s fruit.

Although my family has owned tractors of many colors over the years, my grandfather and great grandfather always chose John Deere as their primary brand. This was a direct result of the philosophy and sound business principles of people like Ed Gast and Deere and Company. Ed Gast and Deere, like any good business people, knew if you want to sell a product, you have to know what your customers want and need and find a way to make it happen even in difficult economic times such as people had around the time of the Great Depression and as we have today during the Great Recession. The best way to find out what your customers want and need is to ask them and that is what Deere and Gast did. Ed’s son, Aaron E. Gast, said, “Ed was a devoted Christian man and he was never too busy to talk with someone who wished to see him and people across the years waited for hours to speak with him or to seek a special favor; they knew he would listen and invariably would help to meet their needs.”

This philosophy led to the model “Y” being the first tractor produced by John Deere’s Moline Wagon Works in Moline, Illinois, formerly known as the Velie Motors Corporation. It was also the first line of the new one-row small tractor projects. When the “Y” was built, John Deere was suffering from difficult economic times and had a very small budget for its first new small tractor program. Deere made it through the Great Depression in good financial shape, but there was no money available for experimentation for the new small tractor project. All research money was to be allocated for the Waterloo and Harvester Works projects. Production space at the Waterloo, Iowa plant was also limited due to the production of Deere’s popular “A” and “B” models. However, there was room for production in Moline where wooden wagons (whose demand was on the decline) were built along with steel-framed wagons, neither of which required a lot of space for production. The small tractor project was turned over to Ira Maxon, chief engineer at the Wagon Works, who worked with Willard Nordenson, who was experienced with engines. Nordenson was asked to not only help come up with an engine for the project but also help oversee the whole project. With essentially no budget available, this tractor was built out of pre-existing parts by Deere and its vendors to save money. For example, the “Y” had pressed steel wheels, which came from a Deere manure spreader.

The “Y” was created by mounting an engine and transmission on a short frame consisting of two steel tubes that were close to parallel. The tubes were connected by a flat piece beneath the radiator. The tractor had what is known in engineering terms as an iron banjo housing, containing steel rings in two openings to provide a better weld for the pipes. The entire chassis was, basically, a one-piece unit, including the front frame and rear end/rear axle housing. The front wheels were located under the engine’s rear cylinder just under the flywheel for further shortening of the tractor. The short wheelbase of this tractor created greater maneuverability for cultivating.

There has been some confusion as to how many of the model “Y” cultivating type tractors were produced.  The debate seems to be whether there were 24 or 26 model “Y” units built. According to Deere shipping records, 26 model “Y” units were shipped between July 1936 and April 1937. All 26 of these tractors were assembled by hand. In addition, 20 Hercules 3 by 4-inch bore stroke, with about eight horsepower, NXA gasoline engines were ordered from Canton, Ohio by Deere, specifically for the use in the model “Y.” This means only six contained the two-cylinder Novo C-66 gasoline engine, which was produced in Lansing, Michigan. To cut down costs, Maxon and Nordenson decided to go with a purchased engine instead of building their own. The first six of the eight horsepower Novo engines used were designed for stationary use. The Novo was replaced by the Hercules engine because it did not perform well due to its one-quart oil holding capacity which deprived the engine of oil when driving up inclines or hills. This resulted in failures of the crankshaft and main bearing. The majority of these prototypes, therefore, were built with a Hercules NXA two-cylinder side valve engine (an existing four-cylinder engine was cut in half).

The model 62 became available in the early part of March 1937, which was quickly followed by the model “L” in the latter portion of September 1937. Production of the 62 quickly ceased, because that model was too costly to build; therefore, it was replaced with the improved and more economical “L.” According to Herman Klug, son of Harry Klug, his father’s model “Y” was recalled after about a year of ownership and replaced by a model “L.” All model “Ys,” with the possible exception of one, were recalled and destroyed. All were built in 1936.

The Hercules brand engine was used from 1936 to 1938 in models “Y” through “L.” However, in August of 1938, the “L” became styled and the Hercules NXA engine was replaced by the approximately 10 horsepower NXB. A model “LW” (“L” wide) was also developed in 1938. This was a row crop version with an adjustable rear track that never made it to market due to limited demand. Only one “LW” was built and it was destroyed by Deere in 1956. The 1941 “LA,” with 14 horsepower, was not a replacement for the “L.” It was simply an addition to the line. Unlike its brother, the “L,” the “LA” engine was built and designed by Deere. The “LI” (“L” industrial) also became available in 1941. The “L,” “LA” and “LI” were produced until 1946.

The engines were not horizontally mounted; instead, they were mounted vertically to decrease the width of the tractor. To better allow the driver to look forward, the crankshaft was pointed directly ahead of the driver. The “Y” was not started by grabbing hold of a flywheel and turning the flywheel over by hand, like other tractors of its day, because of the vertical mounting of the engine. The “Y” was started like modern automobiles of this period. The “Y” was started with a hand crank in the front of the tractor. It had a Ford Model “A” automobile transmission and steering gear. In addition, the gearshift followed the standard H pattern, also familiar to any automobile operator of the day, which was one of its selling points. Its similarity to the automobile made it easier for the whole family to learn how to drive it.

Other distinguishing features of the model “Y” included a padded seat and backrest. Its descendants had a hard metal non-cushioned pan type implement seat, which was more common with tractors of the period. The “Y” had full fenders that extended over the tops of the rear tires. The fenders were simply flat on the inside and abruptly bent at a 90-degree angle to cover the tops of the tires. On the 62, the tires were also covered by full fenders, but without an abrupt bend. They had a gentler curve. The steering wheel of the “Y” had four spokes while the steering wheel of the 62 had three spokes. As mentioned, the “Y” had pressed steel wheels. Another difference was that the transmission of the “Y” was attached to the rear of the engine whereas the transmission of the 62 was attached directly in front of the rear axle housing.

In conclusion, Deere’s new small tractor division that followed the birth of the “Y” helped the company recover from the difficult financial times that resulted from the Great Depression, one producer’s purchase for his small farm at a time! The small tractor line aided in the survival of John Deere to become one of the most famous brands in history that are still in existence today.

In summation, the 1936 John Deere model “Y” experimental prototype was one of the most important and influential tractors John Deere ever built. It was not only influential to Deere itself but to thousands of small farmers across the country through its descendants. Each helped mechanize agriculture, which saved time and money, and it also served as an inspiration to its competitors. We may never know why “Y” was used in the letter series to name this model. However, I believe “Y” is for a diverse unique function, “Y” is for asking producers and consumers what they want and need and finding a way to make it happen even in difficult economic times like our country is suffering from today and finally, “Y” because John Deere old iron was, and is, just plain fun!

Co-researched by: Craig A. Strauss and Carl A. Harris of the Michiana Two-Cylinder Club; written by Craig A. Strauss.