The area known as the Tri Cities in the early 1900’s played host to a number of massive farm corporations. One of these was the Moline Plow Company, at one time billed as the 5th largest implement manufacturer in the world and possessing the largest dedicated tractor manufacturing plant in the world. The company at its peak would employ thousands of workers, a sales force that spanned the world, over 20 branch houses and millions of dollars in sales.
The Moline Plow Company was originally formed by Henry Candee and R. K. Swan in 1865. Associated with them were L. E. Hemingway (a relation to Ernest Hemingway), J. B. Wyckoff and others. Early on, the new company under the Candee, Swan & Co name produced fanning mills and hay-racks, and shortly after Andrew Friburg (a former Deere man) associated himself with the company the manufacture of Moline Plows was taken up. A year later in 1866 George Stephens added enough capital to the business to make him an equal partner with the others. George Stephens was in charge of the woodworking department; Friberg headed the blacksmith shop and iron work; Swan handled the business and sales; and Candee was the accountant. The business proved a profitable one, and in 1870 the company was incorporated as the “Moline Plow Company” with an authorized capital of $400,000, about $300,000 of which was paid up. Several other individuals became involved as stockholders in the concern, prominent among them being Captain Good, A. L. Carson, S.W.Wheelock and A. R. Bryant. The “Moline Plow Company” name was brought about by a court victory over John Deere and the use of the Moline name, that although Deere could make claims for improvements on the plow, the form and function was not new exclusively to him, nor was the Moline name. Deere’s former partner and close friend, Robert Tate of the rival Rock Island plow company of Buford & Tate, then retired, was a key witness against Deere. In 1870 Tate was called upon to testify in the appeal of the 1867 case of John Deere vs Candee, Swan & Co. over their infringement of John Deere’s plow design and the use of “Moline Plow”.
“Mr Tate the former partner of Deere and we should judge from his testimony a man of observation some mechanical skill and well informed generally and particularly upon the subject of plows says the history of this plow goes back to 1841. A person by the name of Hitchcock commenced what he called the Diamond plow in Princeton Bureau county. Afterwards May of Galesburg manufactured a plow in shape nearly the form that is manufactured now. This is the earliest he recollects of seeing a steel mould board. The share and mould board were combined at that time and May was the first man who laid any claim to the improved steel plow. There is no improvement on the May steel plow as made in 1843 or later perhaps up to this time. The plows afterwards made at Palestine in Lee county by a person named Doan afterwards at Grand De Tour by W Denney and Deere and Andrews afterwards in Moline by Deere Tate and Gould in the fall of 1848 afterwards by Buford and Tate in 1856 the working models are all copied strictly after the May plows. While at Grand De Tour we borrowed the May plow and copied its improvements in 1847. I essentially consider May the sole constructor in form of the Western steel plow. Connected with the Moline plow there is nothing original. The beam and handle are essentially the beam and handle used by Ruggles Nourse & Mason. The cast block intended to give form to the mould board we copied from the Evans plow of Galena. The clevis we purchased as made in the east by Warner for Ruggles Nourse & Mason and others. We introduced then what we called the muley share which we copied from the Occidental, a plow brought to Moline. We applied the muley share to one plow in Moline in the spring of 1850” – excerpt from the decision by the Illinois supreme court 1870 Candee, Swan & Co vs Deere & Co
From the actual deposition: Interrogatory #24 (objected):What is the character and knowledge of John Deere as a machinist, and in what is his chief ability? What is his inventive ability?
A: I don’t presume that John Deere has any pretensions to being a machinist. He may be a good judge of a plow, did not know anything of it; as an original he does not posses the element of faculty; John Deere may be and is a good judge of a plow; as to the fundamental structure of the plow, he is deficient, never having applied himself practically while I have known him.- Tates testimony from the appeal, Illinois supreme court 1870 Candee, Swan & Co vs Deere & Co
In 1884 the Moline Plow Company introduced the Flying Dutch-man sulky plow, which claimed to revolutionize the sulky plow business the world over. Previous to that time sulky plows had been of the two wheels variety and so it was claimed, “all others of this design are followers of the world-famous Flying Dutch-man”. The sale of this plow did a great deal towards the building up of the business and making the line manufactured by the Moline Plow Company popular with the farming community. In 1886 the Moline Champion corn planter was bought out to great success and soon followed on with a full line of plows, planters, disks, cultivators and all manner of other equipment as well as acting as jobbers for other manufacturers in their branch houses. A number of buggies and wagons were sold under their name manufactured by the Mandt Wagon Company at Stoughton, Wisconsin, and the Henney Buggy Company, of Freeport, Illinois. The result was that the area now called the Quad Cities at the turn of the century had three of the largest implement manufacturers in the world calling the area home in John Deere, Rock Island Plow and Moline Plow. Moline Plow itself was said in 1908 to have 14 branch houses and employed 2000 factory workers. Two other companies would soon be added to Moline: the Monitor Drill Co., Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1909; Adriance, Platt & Co. in 1913, and the Independent Harvestor Company of Plano (factory, but not product) in 1920.
By the mid teens, the Moline Plow Co was also looking to enter the powered equipment business and began selling Alamo gas engines under the Moline “Flying Dutchman” name. The Alamo line was built in Hillsdale Michigan, and for a period the Alamo engines were only sold under other companies trade names. Likely the largest seller of Alamo gas engines during this time was local rival Rock Island Plow Company. Each company badged and tagged their engines with their own options, and while Rock Island chose a fairly drab brown, Moline matched their implement colors in red. In 1913, the Moline Plow Co. was also looking to get into the tractor business, and tested a design that had been built for them by IHC. This machine proved unsatisfactory, so in November of 1915, Moline Plow Co. bought the rights to Universal Tractor Company of Columbus’s motor cultivator for $150,000. Moline had already been providing a plow built specifically for the Universal since it was introduced in 1914, making this a tractor the Moline Plow Co was familiar with. Sales by the Columbus Company were sparse, there is no record of how many tractors may have been built and sold but a few survivors still exist today.
The initial 2 cylinder Columbus built Universal model was quickly replaced in 1916 by a larger 6-12 model built solely by Moline, along with special implements for use with the tractor, such as a two-row cultivator, two-bottom plow, disc/harrows, grain drills, a corn planter and a 10-foot grain binder. This model B featured an Ohio built Reliable 2 cylinder 4.75 x 6 opposed engine, Dixie magneto and Holly carburetor. Within a year, the Reliable engine would be replaced with Molines own version along with some other minor improvements to make the model C. To build the tractors, a new factory was built near the Moline/Rock Island city borders; the plant itself actually sat in Rock Island. At the time, it was the largest tractor factory in the world.
The Universal was redesigned for 1918 with a four-cylinder Root & Van Dervoort engine built in East Moline; and standard equipment included an electric governor, starter and lights, all firsts in the tractor industry. The 3.5×5 engine developed 27.45 belt and 17.4 drawbar horsepower at Nebraska though it was advertised as a 9-18. The machine cost $1,325 in 1920, and weighed 3,380 pounds, including the concrete ballast inside the drive wheels. This ballast was added at the factory in order to lower the tractor’s center of gravity, since the machine was notorious for upsets due to the placement off center of the engine and high center of gravity for its wheel width. Another drawback was the difficulty in backing up: the hinge point between tractor and implement tended to buckle upward when the heavy front started pushing a lighter implement to the rear.
In 1918, the Stephans family announced the sale of the majority of their Moline Plow Company common stock to John N Willys for $150 per share and will receive in therefor stocks paying 7 cumulative preferred dividends quarterly in following proportions of the following companies: Willys Overland 55%, Electric Auto Lite Corp (Willys Corp) 30%, Curtiss & Motor Corp 15%. The Stephens family also arranged for the offer to be open for any holder of Moline Plow common stock to make the same exchange. The end result was Wilys-Overland now had 82% of the common stock for the Moline Plow Company. Although this doesn’t appear to have changed the tractor operations significantly, it may have had an impact of the Stephans automobiles.
In 1919, George N. Peek, one of the major players on the Deere board in the ultimate decision for Deere to enter the tractor business, resigned his position as vice president at Deere and took over as president of the Moline Plow Company. Peek had been a strong proponent of mechanized farming during his years at Deere, and along with Velie and Mixter had been instrumental in
overcoming William Butterworths reluctance to enter the tractor market. Peek was well respected in the ag manufacturing sector and his hire attracted others to Moline. In his later years, Peek would go on to later serve Franklin D Roosevelt as Administrator of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration and then as president of the Import-Export Bank, where in both positions he clashed with other politicians in a series of brutal political fights.
In 1920, the R&V Company underwent drastic changes due to founder and president William H Van Dervoort health and major changes in the engine market. As part of the changes, the new management moved to split the R&V Company into a commercial motor division and an automobile division. The commercial motor division was soon announced to be a joint partnership with the Moline Plow Company, with each company having a 50% stake operating under the Moline Engine Company name. The Root and Van Dervoort Engineering Company would become a holding company for the R&V share of the Moline Engine Company and the new R&V Motor Company that the automobile division would become. Moline Plow, in addition to tractor engines, was also one of the largest buyers of R&V engines for their Stephans automobiles. Soon after Van Dervoorts death in 1921, Root and other shareholders and the banks began to liquidate R&V’s company assets. The Moline Plow Company, facing its own losses and rising debt, backed out of the Moline Engine Company leaving R&V the owners again. A deal in September of 1921 resulted in the Moline Plow Company purchasing the poppet valve engine machinery from the company in exchange for Moline Plow stock. This effectively ended the Moline Engine Company’s existence. In May 1923, R&V liquidated its Moline Plow Company stock.
At the time, it was not uncommon for semi pro and pro teams to have the name of prominent local companies as sponsors. On Oct 3 1920 The Decatur Staleys of the newly formed AFPA (what would become the NFL) played their first game at Staley Field in Decatur, Illinois on October 3, 1920 against the Moline Universal Tractors. The Staley’s won 20-0, starting off one of the oldest NFL franchises, now known as the Chicago Bears. In 2015, a group of Quad City Players formed the Quad Cities Vintage Football League and began playing a yearly game between the Moline Universal Tractors and the Rock Island Independents. Although contemporary AFPA pro teams, the teams never played against each other originally.
In early April of 1922, it was announced that Wilys-Overland, who at this time owned 85% of the common shares of the Moline Plow Company, had failed to pass a restructuring plan for the plow company. By mid-May it was announced the Moline Plow Company had re-incorporated in a sweeping financial overhaul that Wilys-Overland had agreed to, and would result in a reduced stake by Wilys-Overland. $25,000,000 in debt had been restructured into $12,500,000 of 20 year bonds and a like number of preferred stock. The $7,500,000 in original preferred stock had been converted to second preferred stock. Assets had been written down to the bare minimum according to president George N. Peak, to a barebones $16,000,000. In addition, the dealer network was consolidated with an eye towards efficiency and larger shipments. Called “The Moline Plan”, it called for fewer salesmen, larger territories, reduce small sellers, less credit and less “free” service (free meaning it was priced into the cost of the machine). By July 1922, it was announced the price of the Moline universal D was slashed; from $1325 in 1920, to $990 in 1921 to only $650 in 1922. In addition, the branch houses that had each been their own individual corporation, would now be united as one company under the name “The New Moline Plow Company”, while the main company was still the “Moline Plow Company”.
The Moline Plow Company struggled in the post-war depression of the early ’20s, and stopped much of its production in 1923 including the Universal. After dropping the Universal, the company created a subsidiary in 1923 called the Moline Implement Co that took control of the Moline properties and business. In December 1925, the Moline Plow Company officially dissolved and its assets were merged into the Moline Implement Company. In 1926, the International Harvester Corporation purchased the now defunct tractor plant, where it began producing Farmall tractors. This would be the IHC Rock Island Farmall works, which continued to produce tractors until May 1985 and the plant would officially close in June of 1986 for the last time.
After several years of declining sales, a merger was worked out with Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company of Minneapolis, Minn (Makers of the Twin City tractors which became the basis of the new company’s tractors) and the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Company of Hopkins, Minn. This merger, in March 1929, resulted in the Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Company, which was once again a full line company. Alone, none of the companies had still manufactured a complete line, although all had at one time built tractors. One of the first acts of the new company was to sell off all remaining Moline Plow properties. Minneapolis-Moline went on to become one of the major farm equipment companies in the country; producing a full line of machinery until being bought by the White Motor Company in 1963.