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What the Birdman Saw


When tractors were first introduced in the beginning of the twentieth century, farmers regarded them with healthy skepticism, but acceptance grew with the labor shortage of World War I. By 1915 there were 25,000 tractors on American farms. By 1920 that number had grown ten-fold, to 250,000. And by 1930, the number reached a million.

Farmers on the Northern Great Plains were quicker than most to embrace the new technology. In 1930 only 15% of American farms had a tractor, but on the Northern Great Plains the rate was 33%.

North Dakota was well-suited for tractors. The farms were larger than those in the East. The average here was 330 acres, but nationally, it was 140 acres. Great Plains farms were also fairly flat and relatively free of trees, ideal for power farming. A tractor increased the amount of land a farmer could prepare and harvest.

On this date in 1922, the Devils Lake World printed a column by George E. Fuller. While attending a Fargo farming demonstration, Fuller had the opportunity to evaluate tractors – from the air! During an exhilarating airplane ride, the pilot circled the demonstration fields. Fuller noticed that the horse-drawn outfits were still working their acreage long after the tractors plowed, disked, and harrowed 360 acres in a fraction of the time.

Fuller wondered how the horse could possibly compete. Then he noticed thousands of cars streaming in and out of the parking lot. He realized tractors would replace the horse in the fields just as cars had replaced the horse on the road.

Upon landing, the pilot eagerly asked, “What did you think of the Red River?” Fuller said he had not paid any attention to the river. The pilot replied, “Then what did you see?” Fuller responded, “I was looking at the future.”

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher.


Devils Lake World. “What the Birdman Saw.” 7 September, 1922.

Lew, Byron, and Bruce Carter. “Farm Mechanization on an Otherwise ‘Featureless’ Plain: Tractors on the Northern Great Plains and Immigration Policy of the 1920s.” Peterborough, Ontario: Trent University, 2014.