Mythbusting local Burr Ridge history: The Famous Farmall, inventing an icon in plain sight

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"See Farmall history up close at Burr Ridge Park District Harvester Park. A real Farmall and a snapshot history of it and Burr Ridge are a pleasant surprise in a natural and playful setting." | Submitted (Flagg Creek Heritage Society)

Each week, we will be taking a look back at the fascinating history of Burr Ridge and separating fact from fiction. This week, we bring you the first part of a two part series on how the Farmall tractor changed our town, and the country.

Unlike neighboring towns like LaGrange, Hinsdale, or Western Springs, Burr Ridge was still farm country in recent living memory. We still hear stories at the Heritage Society about childhoods “on the farm on Wolf Rd.” and “fishing in the pond down Madison St.” Old-timers gesture over coffee mugs and breakfasts, recalling sledding down local hills that became golf courses or that time when instead of hunting squirrels they captured them for a Mother’s Day “gift”. It’s what we do: tell stories. Granted, some may grow in the telling. But one is no exaggeration: the fame of the Farmall.

Back in 1902, International Harvester Company (now Case International Harvester or CNH) was formed by Cyrus McCormick, Jr (including farm equipment manufacturer Deering). It quickly came to dominate the market at a time of tremendous growth in both assembly-line production (e.g., Ford), population and urban economies.

International Harvester purchased 414 acres of land in 1917 from community farming families for its research facility that included a working experimental farm to test new tractors and other farming equipment. Today when we drive down Plainfield Road between County Line and Madison, look south: that stretch that is now homes and light industry was the birthplace of the one, the only, the McCormick-Deering Farmall tractor. 

That may not (at first) sound exciting to you and I nowadays, but it was “the world’s first all-purpose, row-crop tractor” according to CNH. The research facility building was built in 1959, becoming the hub of farm equipment engineering for the world (CNH Engineering is still there, just south of Burr Ridge Park District’s Harvester Park that features a snapshot history of our farm engineering fame). The Farmall was such an engineering advancement, that the site was dedicated in 1980 as an Agricultural Engineering Historic Landmark.  

So, what’s all this Farmall fuss about?

The Farmall was invented by Bert R. Benjamin to solve a very real problem in food production. The nation and world had been shifting from being an agricultural to industrial society; but our farming methods still depended on animal-driven power, which was inefficient and not meeting demand. Enter the Farmall. In 1923, right here at the Burr Ridge facility, the first row crop tractor was tested on the acres of corn and grains. Its wide tricycle shape, higher ground clearance, superior power-to-weight ratio, low-cost and multi-function (plowing, cultivating, and harvesting depending on matching implements) made it a new standard. 

In fact, when we think “farm tractor”, children and adults alike still picture a red tractor with big wheels in the back, a seat and little front: why? It’s likely because the Farmall, or “Big Red,” was painted red for safety reasons early in its history. Harvester Red #50 (1936 and revised over the years) was about all you’d see across America’s bread basket fields. A 1943 version of it is even in the Smithsonian. 

Those of us who grew up here can still recall going to the research farm to see the new equipment tested: watching those machines “eat up” crops on a late summer afternoon is a fond memory, but isn’t a unique story for these parts. 

What is rare?  Growing up on the research farm! One lucky boy, Jim Martin—all grown up—is returning to the area to share his memories, pictures and stories about actually living on the International Harvester Experimental Farm, where his dad worked from 1940-1967. So many residents from the original Harvester town worked for International Harvester; but fewer lived right there to witness the rise of the iconic Farmall.

Join us, won’t you, to swap stories with or hear anew from former resident Jim Martin as he takes us on a journey through a key piece of Burr Ridge history.

“Farmalls Were Tested Here!”

When: 7 p.m., April 15, 2014

Where:  Pleasantdale Park District Recreation Center

This content was submitted by a member of the community. We’d like to hear from you, too! To share stories, photos, video or events for our calendar, please email Community News Manager Michael Cronin at michael.cronin@wrapports.com or use the online submission tool.

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