Q&A: Neil Dahlstrom, John Deere archivist and historian
As the branded properties and heritage manager at Deere & Co., Neil Dahlstrom oversees the vast archives that have been amassed during the company’s 185 years. In that position, Dahlstrom has a unique opportunity to reveal the rich history of one of the nation’s older companies and its impact on agriculture.
Dahlstrom recently released a book offering a compelling historical look at a crucial time not only in John Deere’s history but also in the development of the tractor. Tractor Wars: John Deere, Henry Ford, International Harvester, and the Birth of Modern Agriculture reveals the dynamic interactions that took place among these companies, providing an insider’s view of a story that weaves together characters, plots, and secret plans.
You can order Tractor Wars for $17.95 from amazon.com.
SF: Describe Tractor Wars in a nutshell.
ND: Tractor Wars is an origins story, a behind-the-scenes view into the people, machines, companies, strategies, and decisions that introduced power farming in the early 20th century and ushered in a new era of agriculture.
SF: Did serving as chief archivist at Deere & Co. give you a unique perspective to write the book?
ND: Certainly. I’ve had the chance to research many primary records over the years that I don’t think I would have uncovered elsewhere. Archives can be difficult to navigate, and it requires patience to work through records and follow leads. Working in the archives allowed me to go back and check something without having to make an appointment several months in advance like I had to do elsewhere. Research is iterative, and sometimes you learn something new that requires you to go back into something you’ve already reviewed, so that was a great luxury.
SF: Was there one particular incident that you reported in the book that most surprised you?
ND: This is difficult because there are so many incredible stories, but one that stood out to me was a conversation between Henry Ford and Deere engineer Theo Brown. The two sat on a railroad track and talked as if they were old friends. Each was frustrated at their partnership, but saw no way forward. Ford asked for a relic from John Deere, and Brown tried to work up the courage to ask for an autographed copy of Ford’s autobiography. Nothing important came of the discussion, but it personalized the era for me and reminded me that decisions and machines are made by people who are all trying to do what they believe to be right. It’s my favorite scene in the book.
SF: There appears to be a great deal of drama during this period of the development of the tractor. Was this one of the crucial make-or-break times in John Deere’s history?
ND: Definitely! Deere was one of many companies trying to get the tractor question right. A good comparison is the Emerson-Brantingham Co., which acquired the Gas Traction Co. and its Big Four 30, a large prairie tractor. Deere focused instead on the emerging market for smaller tractors and then decided to stay with the two-cylinder engine while others were moving to four cylinders. Two decisions with two very different outcomes.
SF: Is there a particular item in the John Deere archives that most fascinates you?
ND: There’s so many that it’s hard to choose. But a recent acquisition is very interesting. Its a pair of horse rosettes featuring the Waterloo Boy tractor. It’s fascinating that a horse bridle was used to advertise a tractor, which was developed to replace the horse!
SF: What is your next book project?
ND: Right now, I don’t have a specific project in mind. Tractor Wars ends just before the Great Depression, and that’s an era that I find fascinating, so I may continue the story. But I’m always looking for great stories, so we’ll see what develops.
SF: Have you ever sat at John Deere’s desk?
ND: Sadly, no. John Deere’s desk does not exist (to my knowledge at least). But our collection does include his night table, an Eastlake-style table with a marble top. It’s as close as I may get.
Dahlstrom has spent more than 20 years as the archivist and historian at Deere & Co. and is a member of the Kitchen Cabinet, the Food and Agriculture Advisory Board at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He earned his undergraduate degree from Monmouth College in Illinois and a master’s degree from Eastern Illinois University.
His research and speeches have taken him to historical societies and museums, to abandoned factories turned into coffee shops, and to state-of-the-art research centers across the country.