Dennis StewartDennis Stewart at the helm of his IH 544 Hydro
Dennis Stewart is no stranger to hydraulic systems. He worked with them at a crane manufacturing company in Kansas, and now writes specifications for hydraulic boom trucks and other vehicles for a large southern California utility company. While Dennis enjoys working on machinery, he never could've predicted that he'd haul home the rough and very incomplete remains of an International Harvester Farmall 544 Hydro in August 2001.
The adventure began when Dennis' friend spotted an old two-cylinder John Deere tractor for sale while the pair visited the Antique Gas and Steam Engine Museum in Vista, Calif. As his friend negotiated to buy the tractor, Dennis wandered around the museum and found a tangled pile of junk that instantly intrigued him. Hidden within was the engine and transaxle for a 1970 IH Farmall 544 Hydro diesel. The hood and grille were also there, but not much else ... except a fascinating story.
In 1970, the Frazee family - known mostly for development and marketing of Ranunculus flower varieties and the establishment of the flower farming business, the Flower Fields®, of Carlsbad, Calif. - ran a large-scale flower and bulb cultivation business in San Diego County. In a quest to make the operation more labor efficient, the Frazees designed and built a bulb-harvesting machine that moved workers easily through the fields to save labor. The machine holds up to eight people, and bulbs could be dug, sorted and boxed with relative ease with so many workers atop the device. To power and control the giant bulb harvester, the Frazees purchased the Farmall 544 Hydro and installed the big tractor atop the bulb harvester. The prototype harvester worked for about 250 hours before it was dismantled, but its use laid the groundwork for production of two new harvesters powered by components taken from IH Farmall 656 Hydro tractors. After the Frazees sold their business in 1993, the remains of that 544 Hydro ended up in the Vista museum where Dennis discovered the forgotten heap.
Dennis and his wife, Margaret, finished an extensive two-year restoration of their house in Norco, Calif, in the spring of 2001. Burned out by home repair, Dennis says he was 'ready for a project of a different sort.' Memories of that pile of unidentified tractor 'junk' he'd seen at the museum haunted him. He was most fascinated by its hydrostatic transmission and the fact that this IH 544 was never actually used as a traditional tractor. The possibility of rebuilding it was just the challenge he needed. Within days of first seeing the 544 at the museum, Dennis managed to negotiate a price and purchased the disassembled machine. So began a 13-month journey of discovery and renewal for Dennis and the Farmall.
Inventory and assess
The real work began in late August 2001, after a large boom truck delivered the tractor's remains to Dennis' home. When he placed the tractor body on blocks in his driveway, even the neighborhood children were fascinated by the sight. In the months that followed, Dennis says he came to know the tractor's soul as he painstakingly deconstructed the machine.
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