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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Steam-powered equipment
(23388.75.145.7, Chisholm Trail Historical Museum Collection, OHS).

Tractor near Boise City, 1931
(19589.11.7, Alvin Rucker Collection, OHS).


Many advancements in farming techniques and tools have been manifested since agriculture's beginnings thousands of years ago. The greatest strides have occurred in the last three hundred years. A substantial contribution to Oklahoma agriculture has been the escalation from manual and stock-animal labor to steam- and then gas-powered implements. Although steel plows, mowers, mechanical reapers, seed drills, and threshers contributed to the development of agriculture in the Great Plains and the West, tractors enabled the western farmer to sow and harvest large acreages with less manpower.

Steam-powered equipment and tractors were available in time for the white settlement of Oklahoma Territory in 1889, but most Oklahoma farmers did not invest, at least individually, in the machinery until World War I. Many large farmers used their outdated tools and horse power for everyday farm work and only depended on steam-powered and, later, gas-powered equipment and harvesting crews to bring in the crop. Entrepreneurs would buy combines and other equipment, hire themselves out to farmers, and follow the harvest from south to north. Many wheat-threshing crews began in southwestern Oklahoma and followed an annual path along the plains to Canada. This ritual continued throughout the twentieth century. Another option for early-day farmers in a region was to invest in self-powered equipment as a group and have a large community harvest. The Great Plains wheat farmer did not lose his distrust of combines and tractors and depart from his trusted headers, binders, and threshers until grain prices rose and labor became scarce during the "war to end all wars," World War I. Agricultural historian R. Douglas Hurt asserts that only 30 percent of American farmers owned a tractor in 1945 and that tractors did not outnumber draft animals until 1955.

By 1920 only 3 percent of Oklahoma farmers had obtained tractors. Nationally, the wheat and grain growers of the Great Plains needed this large equipment more than did the cash-crop cotton, sugar cane, and tobacco growers of the South. In Dixie most farms were too small to make mechanization feasible, and machinery capable of harvesting cotton and tobacco did not develop until the mid-twentieth century. Large farms in the South had access to an abundance of cheap labor, and the tenant/sharecropping system was widespread, reducing the need to invest in automated implements.

Mapping the geographical distribution of tractors and major crops in Oklahoma's counties in the 1920s and 1930s draws out a general pattern. Two regions emerge, divided by a diagonal line from northeast to southwest Oklahoma, or from just below Tulsa County through Cleveland County and below Comanche County. South and southeast of the line, the soil and topography were suitable for growing cotton. There most residents participated in Southern culture. A larger population, compared to the total acreage under cultivation, provided more manpower. Farms were smaller, and a tenant-based system existed by the twentieth century. In the counties northwest of the line, the opposite prevailed: soil and topography suited wheat, the people were generally Midwesterners, most land was worked by owners, the population was sparse and scattered, compared to the total acreage under cultivation, and farms were larger.

Viewing the early distribution of tractors against this backdrop reveals that the northwest adopted agricultural mechanization earlier and in larger measure. For example, in 1928 Grant County had as many tractors (1,296) as all the counties southeast of the dividing line. Eleven years later, a 1939 survey showed a 34 percent increase in tractors for Grant County (1,969). However, the survey also revealed a very large increase in most southern counties where mechanization had recently been adopted. Love County, for instance, had eight tractors in 1928 and 150 in 1939. The increase was repeated in most southeastern counties, with only two exceptions, Pushmataha (4 in 1928 to 2 in 1939) and Latimer (6 to 3) in the Ouachita Mountains region.

The overall pattern shows a steady but small increase in northern and northwestern counties, but a relatively large jump in the numbers of tractors in southern counties from 1928 to 1939. The most dramatic change came in Tillman (363 to 1,485) and Kiowa (591 to 1,859) counties. Statewide, the total number of registered tractors in 1928 was 18,260, and by 1939 the number had risen to 46,800. By 1944 the number had grown to 64,835, with the largest percentage of gain again coming in the southern counties. The greater percentage increase in southeastern counties is exemplified by the statistics for Le Flore (29 to 178), Pittsburg (88 to 314), and Haskell (53 to 170). The change to mechanized equipment may be the result of farm consolidation and "tractoring" tenant farmers off the land during the Great Depression or of agricultural extension agents' educational efforts before and during World War II.

After World War I the Agricultural Extension Service strongly advocated the purchase of tractors and farm implements, causing farmers to accumulate loans. The debt of many farmers increased after agricultural prices dropped and markets constricted. This led to increased tenancy and a poorer rural population. By the early 1930s agricultural prices had dropped more than 60 percent, while industry prices for implements and gas-powered machinery had dropped less than 20 percent. With the failure of many farmers, the size of farms increased as holdings were consolidated. New Deal incentives (plowing under crops to reduce the surpluses in the market and a program to increase the ability of farmers to buy tractors) benefited the large farmer and crippled the already-suffering small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers. Many of these became the stream of Okies, Arkies, and other refugees to the California fruit fields.

Over time, at least six Oklahoma companies manufactured tractors. These firms included the Farm Engineering Company in Sand Springs, the Oklahoma Auto Manufacturing Company in Muskogee, the Oklahoma Motor Plow Company in Muskogee, the Patch Brothers Tractor Company in Sand Springs, the Western Tractor Company in Tulsa, and the Wood, Knight, Hawk Plow Company in Oklahoma City. None of these enterprises lasted into the late twentieth century.

Another consequence of the mechanization of agriculture is the preponderance of truck farming from the 1920s and afterward. The truck's increasing popularity, coupled with the development of better roads, led farmers to sell their own produce in farmer's markets and along highways. The mechanical spindle pickers that became popular with Oklahoma cotton producers after World War II eased the reliance on workers and beginning in the 1950s imperiled another labor force. The use of airplanes to spread pesticides indicated that most technology could be modified and applied to the farm. The air-conditioned tractor cab is an example. Although mechanization has increased the output of agriculturalists and lessened the hard labor involved, it has also hastened the decline in the number of farmers and contributed to the increase of large and corporate farms in Oklahoma.

Larry O'Dell

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Learn More

Gilbert C. Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865–1980 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1984).

Gilbert C. Fite, "Recent Progress in the Mechanization of Cotton Production in the United States," Agricultural History 24 (January 1950).

Donald E. Green, ed., Rural Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977).

R. Douglas Hurt, Agricultural Technology in the Twentieth Century (Manhattan, Kans.: Sunflower University Press, 1991).

R. Douglas Hurt, American Farm Tools: From Hand-Power to Steam Power (Manhattan, Kans.: Sunflower University Press, 1982).

Thomas Isern, Custom Combining on the Great Plains: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981).

Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, Mechanization, Land Use, and Ownership: Oklahoma in the Early Twentieth Century (Madison: Land Tenure Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1996).

Related Resources

Donald E. Green, ed., Rural Oklahoma (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 1977), The Gateway to Oklahoma History


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Agricultural Mechanization,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=AG005.

Published January 15, 2010
Last updated August 8, 2018

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