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Henry Ford - Hamilton Tractor Plant

"Mr. Ford has always wanted to advance the agricultural
conditions of the world so that they would keep pace
with those of manufacturing and transportation."
New York Times, 1918
Henry Ford envisioned Hamilton tractor plant as prototype for utilization of U.S. water power

This is the first in a series of columns on Henry Ford, the Hamilton Hydraulic and recent developments in hydro-electric power.

Contributed by Jim Blount

Ninety years ago, residents of the Hamilton area were 
anticipating the opening of a new industry, one that promised job opportunities and a major boost for the local economy, including increased demand for new housing. Intensifying the excitement was the familiar entrepreneur responsible for building the factory.

Henry Ford’s name was synonymous with the automobile in 1920. But his Hamilton venture – in cooperation with his son, Edsel Ford – wasn’t formed to build cars. It wasn’t a part of the Ford Motor Co. Itwas incorporated separately to produce gasoline-powered tractors.

When the plant on the north edge of Hamilton opened in April 1920, Henry Ford & Son Co. manufactured Fordson tractors. Priced at about $700 each, the Fordson was expected to become as popular amongfarmers as Ford’s model T was in the automotive market.

Henry Ford announced his intent to build the Hamilton plant July 12, 1918, four months before an armistice ended World War I in Europe. Construction began in May 1919 on a small part of the hundreds of acres Ford had purchased at the end of N. Fifth Street.

Ford also was known as an innovator, and that reputation was evident as he planned his Hamilton tractor factory.

August 16, 1918, a little more than a month after revealing he would build the local plant, the New York Times disclosed some of Ford’s vision for future developments, starting in Hamilton.

"Henry Ford is preparing to spend millions of dollars in developing the water power of the United States," the Times reported. "A $2 million tractor plant in Hamilton, Ohio, to be operated by water power, will be the first link in the big chain." (Allowing for inflation, $2 million in 1920 would exceed $20.5 million today.)

The unnamed writer said "before the plan is complete, Mr. Ford will have several tractor factories operated by water in various parts of the country. He believes that by establishing this method of manufacturing he will make it necessary for workingmen to come to the larger cities."

Ford’s interest in producing an affordable gas-powered tractor has been traced to his youth when he worked on his father’s farm in Michigan. He hated the hard work. A biographer said Ford wanted to bring "to the farms the power that could do away with the drudgery and perhaps make farming a congenial occupation."

Before entering the auto business, Ford spent about two years trying to develop a better steam-powered tractor. He concluded a boiler required such a large vehicle that an affordable tractor couldn’t be built using steam.

The 1918 Times article said "Mr. Ford has always wanted to advance the agricultural conditions of the world so that they would keep pace with those of manufacturing and transportation. He believes that he has made a step toward solving the problem of making the life of the farmer one that combines advantages of both country and city and making him industrious and contented during all seasons of the year."

Ford told the Times "it is our idea to develop the water power of small streams in the communities where they are located and not transmit the power over long distances." In Hamilton he hoped to utilize the Great Miami River "to operate a plant which will turn out 300 tractors a day."

"In the winter," Ford said, "when the water power is greatest, the plant will be run at full capacity, and during two or three months of the summer, when the streams dry up, some few employees will remain in the plant for melting steel by electricity. The greater number of employees, however, will be able to go back to their farms or help their neighbors with the harvests. It will give them a vacation that will be both healthful and beneficial."

It was obvious Ford intended to have farmers produce his tractors.

Before the Hamilton plant opened, a local newspaper said "it is the belief that with the farmer building the machine which does most of his work on the farm, that it will create a greater interest on the farm and thereby make better citizens."

Hamilton may have been the first Ford tractor plant using water power, but an auto parts factory was built at the same time in Northville, Michigan, utilizing the Rouge River. In the next 20 years, Ford built 30 hydro-powered facilities in Michigan, Ohio, New York and Mississippi.

A future column will take a second look at the Ford & Son Co. Hamilton plant.

Ford Timeline, 1863-1920

1863 -- Henry Ford was born July 30 in Greenfield Twp., Michigan, and raised on a prosperous family farm (now Dearborn, Michigan).

1879 -- At age 16, Ford left home to work as an apprentice machinist in Detroit.

1888 -- Married Clara Bryant; family moved to 80-acre farm (now Dearborn).

1896 -- Ford built his first automobile, the Quadricycle, in Detroit.

1899 -- Ford began devoting full time to automobile development.

1901 -- Ford organized an automotive company, but resigned in 1902 because of a dispute. The company later became the Cadillac Motor Car. Co.

1903 -- Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Co. and began production of the Model A.

1908 -- Ford began production of the Model T.

1920 -- Ford and son, Edsel, opened a Fordson tractor plant in Hamilton; factory switched to producing auto parts six months later.

Sources: Ford Motor Co. Web sites and Hamilton newspapers