The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Froelich, John
(November 24, 1849–May 5, 1933)

–tractor innovator—was born in the small hamlet of Giard, in Clayton County, Iowa. During his early years, he resided in the nearby rural community of Froelich. As a young man he supervised an elevator and a feed mill, where his inventive mind was continually exposed to farming's many challenges. His tenure as manager of a mobile threshing operation provided him with the opportunity to travel throughout South Dakota and Iowa. While laboring on the Great Plains, Froelich experienced difficulty procuring coal for his steam-powered tractor. In 1892 he solved his dilemma by attaching a Vanduzen engine on top of a Robinson steam engine frame. Although onlookers initially responded to Froelich's contraption with a mix of doubt and curiosity, his detractors were silenced when he successfully employed his gasoline-powered tractor in his threshing operation throughout that year's harvest season. His creation was the first machine of its kind that could be moved in both forward and reverse.

    Seeking to capitalize on his invention's success, Froelich, along with several investors (including the company's eventual president, George Miller, a prominent Waterloo, Iowa, entrepreneur), established the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company in the bustling city of Waterloo, an important manufacturing and food processing center. The company sold several tractors during its first few years; unfortunately, that handful of customers was generally dissatisfied with their machines. Froelich's business partners asked him to abandon his tractor ambitions and instead focus on the more lucrative endeavor of producing transportable or fixed gasoline motors. In 1895 the company's leaders symbolized this new goal by changing the company's name to the Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company. Froelich, however, removed himself from the venture in order to continue to pursue his tractor experimentations.

    Following his departure, he relocated first to Dubuque, before settling in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he worked as a financial adviser. He had four children with his wife, Kathryn Bickel, and died in relative obscurity in 1933. Despite his passion for invention, he appears to have made little future contribution to agricultural machinery innovations.

    Despite Froelich's exit from the Waterloo-based company, the business prospered and eventually attained significant achievements in farm tractor advancements. The company's success is evidenced by the expanding sales figures of its engines, which totaled 268 in 1906 and rose dramatically to 13,019 a mere four years later.

    The company also made contributions to tractor design. The Waterloo Boy line of tractors represented a particularly notable improvement that resulted in significant sales during the century's second decade. In 1918 Deere and Company executives, seeking a way to improve their odds of succeeding in the tractor business, and impressed both by the company's product line and its significant manufacturing potential, purchased the company for $2,350,000.

    Although Froelich is generally credited with assembling the first gasoline-powered tractor in 1892, his invention possessed several failings: it was unwieldy and did not have enough horsepower to drag a plow. Farmers would have to wait until the Hart-Parr Company's tractor designers made the necessary innovations for a more fully functional gasoline-powered tractor manufactured on a mass scale.

    Perhaps Froelich's relatively brief time as a tractor innovator or the numerous competing tractor-related innovators and inventions during the late 19th and early 20th centuries explain the paucity of literature about his life and achievements. Nonetheless, Froelich's gasoline-powered tractor will always occupy a place in the story of tractor development. The decision by the state's farmer to adopt the future progeny of such early tractors would have a profound impact on the state's landscape and population. Farmers' acquisition of this technology resulted in different crop practices and increased productivity and also contributed to the increasing size of farms. Thus Froelich's tractor appears quaint and even amusing in retrospect, but symbolizes one stage of a series of rapid technological changes that would forever change the way of life of the state's citizens.
Sources on Froelich include Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley, Iowans Who Made a Difference: 150 Years of Agricultural Progress (1996); Randy Leffingwell, John Deere Farm Tractors: A History of the John Deere Tractor (1993); Don Macmillan and Russell Jones, John Deere Tractors and Equipment (1988–1991); and Des Moines Register, 5/12/2002.
Contributor: Derek Oden