Orange Obsession: Allis-Chalmers Museum Boasts Largest Collection

"Washington AC" houses more than 200 machines and several rare items, including WWII-era AC jet engine
Deb Hadachek
March 2004

More than 100 Allis-Chalmers tractors stand tire to tire in the facility that Ernest and Loretta Nutsch built in Washington, Kan., to house their AC collection. Ernest estimates that he owns at least 100 more Allis implements stored elsewhere.
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Henry Nutsch purchased four new Allis-Chalmers Co. tractors in his lifetime.

His son, Ernest, owns more than 200 Allis-made machines – not one purchased off the showroom floor. Like other old-iron collectors, Ernest’s herd of tractors never seems to stop growing. “The tractors just keep finding me,” he says.

People passionate about Persian orange machines can find Ernest and the implements he’s collected in a machine shed in Washington, Kan. While Washington, D.C., is the nation’s capital, Ernest and his wife, Loretta, have dubbed their hometown museum “Washington AC” – the self-proclaimed home of the world’s largest collection of Allis-Chalmers tractors.

“There’s a couple other people in North America who claim to have a larger Allis-Chalmers collection,” Ernest declares. “But those are collections of all things Allis. I don’t think anyone owns more (Allis-made) tractors than we do.”

Like dear old Dad

Henry Nutsch’s first newly purchased AC tractor – a now-rusty 1928 Model 20-35E – occupies a place of honor in the collection. The Model 20-35E was shipped from Milwaukee, Wis., in 1928, and Henry greeted the new machine in person when it rolled off a rail car in Cuba, Kan.

Henry was accustomed to farming with horses, Ernest says, so the farmer removed the tractor’s seat so he could stand while guiding it across a field. Henry used the tractor for 35 years, Ernest adds, and then parked it in the trees for another 35 years.

When Ernest finished the museum building in 1997, they wanted to add the tractor to the indoor collection. Henry and Ernest simply put water and gas in the tractor, fired it up for the first time in more than three decades (although the tractor’s crank had been turned every so often without firing the engine to ensure the crank shaft remained free-moving) and drove it into the building. The tractor never ran on anything but steel wheels, Ernest says, and is always driven to destinations under its own power – never hauled on a trailer.

“We debated about restoring it, but Dad figured if he didn’t like it, it would take another 70 years to get it back looking like this,” Ernest recalls. “You can take any old tractor and make it look new. It takes years of work to make them look used.” Henry died in 1999 at 95 years old, but his legacy remains.

Rare and unrestored

Ernest’s tractor restoration philosophy – leave the tractors unrestored – extends to a large portion of the collection. That’s the way most visitors like it, Ernest says. The tractors are clean and in good repair, but many show the weathered patina of an implement that’s worked long hours – just like the farmers who operated them.

“We take people through and point out the rare and unusual tractors we have,” Loretta Nutsch says. “But they always want to see if we have a more common model like they remember from their farms.”

The Nutsches haven’t merely created an AC shrine, but also a tribute to the fascinating history and diversity of farming around the world. The display includes everything from a flour mill manufactured by E.P. Allis in 1880, to an AC jet engine manufactured under military secrecy by the company during World War II. Only three of the seven jet engines built are known to exist, and engines with serial no. 1 and 6 are housed at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. The Nutsches own the engine stamped serial no. 5.

Allis-Chalmers introduced many tractor innovations through the years, Ernest says. “Take this model, for instance,” he says, patting a long, narrow green implement with large steel wheels in front and tiny wheels behind. “Allis hooked two of these tractors together in the 1920s, one facing each way, and made one of the first four-wheel drive tractors, called a Duplex.”

Ernest clearly knows his AC facts, and names other Allis inventions as he paces up and down the neat lines of tractors and implements stored in his shed. For instance, he says, the AC Model U was the first tractor with rubber tires as a standard feature. To convince farmers that rubber tires would work better than steel wheels, Ernest adds, the company even staged tractor races. Endurance racer David “Ab” Jenkins drove the Model U in 1933 to a record-setting 68.7 mph on Utah’s salt flats – a record that still stands for vintage tractors.

Allis-Chalmers introduced V-belts and power take-off technology decades before other companies, Ernest claims. The company even built a hydrogen fuel cell engine for a tractor in 1953, he says as he points to an old newspaper clipping about the innovation.

Not to make trouble, Ernest says, but AC tractors were painted green long before a certain brand less “Deere” to his heart. “Allises were green before John Deere was even building tractors,” he says. In fact, the company switched to today’s familiar pumpkin-colored orange paint in the 1930s.

The tractors in the Nutches’ collection include unique and rare machines. They own five 1936 Model A tractors, including the second and third examples ever manufactured. In 1937, AC introduced the Model WF tractor, and Ernest’s shed houses two 1937 Model WF tractors that bear consecutive serial numbers – 137 and 138, respectively.

Some implements featured in the collection were made for special purposes, such as the 1937 Model U orchard tractor. It’s a narrow-front, steel-wheeled tractor produced for fruit growers.

The Model C’s adjustable, wide front end is one of a few produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as is the adjustable front 1950s Model B, which was built for peanut farming.

One special machine is the 1959 Model D17 LP Wheatland propane-burning tractor that carries serial no. 28097 – one of five Wheatlands known to exist. The Wheatland came with a wider platform, wide swinging drawbar and crown fenders to keep the dust off the farmer in the driver’s seat when used in dusty wheat country. The tractor is particularly special, Ernest says, because it’s the only existing Wheatland propane model, while the four others burn gas or diesel.

Asking Ernest to pick a favorite tractor is akin to asking a parent to name a favorite child. After some prodding, he finally admits that he holds a soft spot for a tractor that’s just a baby compared to the old-timers in his collection: An AC Model 170 that he bought in the 1970s with only 440 hours on the engine.

“Well,” Ernest chuckles, “it’s the newest tractor I’ve ever owned.”

Always Allis-Chalmers

Visitors can also see the family’s special-ordered orange International pick up bought in 1974 after their “orange obsession” began. In those years, Ernest and Loretta loaded their four children into the truck and toured the country, meeting other Allis aficionados along the way. The Nutsches still attend AC-oriented “Gathering of the Orange” events around the country, but now they arrive in a new orange-and-white Dodge pickup, pulling their special camper trailer designed to allow them to bring a tractor along.

In 2000, the international celebration was staged in Washington. Tourists from 38 states and five foreign countries packed the rural farming community for three days for the chance to view 338 AC tractors and other equipment. The event included tours through the nearby Washington City Power Plant, where Allis engines still crank out electricity for city customers.

Washington residents and the Nutsch family will host a show featuring AC machines in 2006, unaffiliated with the national Gathering of the Orange event. Rest assured there’ll be plenty of Persian orange on hand, thanks to Ernest’s AC obsession. FC


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