For the John Deere enthusiast, the Kalamazoo Valley Antique Engine & Machinery Club show in June was about as good as it gets. With nearly 800 exhibits (including more than 600 tractors), the club’s John Deere feature hit the ball out of the park. Rare tractors, common tractors; restored, unrestored, original; combines, wagons, implements, pedal tractors, toys, models, memorabilia, gas engines, you name it, if it was green and yellow, it was there.
Actually, if it wasn’t green and yellow, it was probably there too. The show attracted a lively mix of categories, including tractors, gas engines and garden tractors. Held at the Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, Mich., the show had an unusually interesting backdrop. Eight restored historic barns house one of the nation’s finest collections of automotive history, including 200 rare and immaculately restored vehicles. The complex also includes a 1930s-vintage service station, a small town train station and a 1941 diner. A recreated 1929 Ford dealership, collections of pedal cars, motorcycles and more are among the highlights of the beautifully landscaped facility.
More than three miles of paved roads wind through the complex. During the Kalamazoo Valley show, they flowed with a happy mix of classic automobiles, trucks and tractors. Among the standouts:
“If it runs good, leave it be”
There are restored tractors in Jack Beck’s collection, but their allure has faded a bit lately. “I’ve really gravitated to originals,” he says. “They only look this way once.” Jack, who lives in Omaha, showed two John Deere classics at Kalamazoo: a 1928 GP and a 1930 GP. The pair held their own in a flood of John Deere green paint. “They attract attention,” Jack says. “People either love original or hate it.”
Roaming through the field full of tractors, Joe Huey, Skaneateles, N.Y., gave Jack’s GPs a long appreciative look. “When you find a tractor like this,” he says, “if it runs good, leave it be.”
“Well it ain’t going to get painted on my watch,” Jack says with a broad smile. But neither will it be parked in a back corner of the shed. “I’m not afraid to use these tractors,” he says. “I’ve been a mechanic all my life. I don’t think I can break it so bad I can’t fix it. I’ve worked on a lot of things more complicated than John Deere tractors.”
Motivated by the memory of his granddad’s 1929 GP, Jack threw out the net for an equally early model. In Nebraska he found a 1928 GP, a basket case that he bought with a parts donor. “It was warehoused two months into the production run,” he says. “I bought it because it was early and it had a lot of original features.”
He found the 1930 John Deere GP in Canton, Mich. “I was looking for an original,” he says, “and I wanted a GP-mounted mower.” The GP Power Mower is like a needle in a haystack but Jack didn’t give up. “I like implements as well as I do the tractors,” he says. “And this one’s special: This was the first time the farmer was hooked to anything but a horse.”
He uses it to mow an acre near his shop. “It works pretty well, considering that this is the first tractor-driven mower made by John Deere,” he says. There’s a Model D exhaust valve in the implement hitch, a sentimental nod to another generation. “Dad wasn’t going to go buy a locking drawbar pin!”
Life in the woods
Carl Ballard’s dad, George, was equally frugal. In about 1911, he spent six months — including the winter — working with his brother, clearing land and cutting firewood near Grand Rapids, Mich. George bought a slightly used 1904 Olds gas engine (a 4-1/2 hp Type A No. 3) to power the buzz saw. At night, he went home to his wife and infant son — in a wall tent pitched nearby. Carl’s mother put the Olds to work too: She was known to cook meat and vegetables in the engine’s hopper during that winter in the wall tent. “They were just trying to survive,” Carl says, “just trying to get through the winter.”
With time, the family’s fortunes improved. Later, George owned a farm and the Olds got only an occasional workout. Then the engine was abandoned to the elements for perhaps half a century. Fifteen years ago, the Olds passed to Carl, who lives in Caledonia, Mich. It was rusty but complete when his son, Doug, took it on as his first gas engine restoration project.
The engine is probably one of the most common models from an uncommon line, Doug says. “Olds engines are pretty rare,” he notes. “People like that this one has the original cast iron muffler and exhaust. Very few Olds engines have those pieces left; they tended to break off. It’s really unique to have them.” The Ballard Olds also has its original tag, also a rarity. “In the old days,” Doug explains, “a lot of guys with Olds engines threw off the crank cover that had the tag on it.”
More than a century later, the Olds is a family heirloom. The Ballards also have the original manual that came with the engine, a photo of the wall tent and other mementoes. “That’s what makes it so neat,” Doug says. “We have the history on it.”
Hamilton Halford’s collection is also firmly rooted in the past. “When I was a kid, Daddy put me on a 620 John Deere orchard tractor and I had to mow the pecan orchard,” he recalls. Twenty-five years later, the Perry, Ga., man found a 620 Orchard of his own and had it restored.
Like many John Deere collectors, Hamilton admits to a preference for low-production tractors. When he got an email pitching a 1960 John Deere 330U, his interest was piqued. After studying a photo of the tractor showing traces of orange paint, he didn’t waste any time. “I did some research,” he says. “Within 24 hours, that tractor was on my trailer.”
Hamilton thinks the 330 was used to mow highways in Indiana. Based on its dedicated “custom job” serial number, he believes it to have been painted orange at the factory. Amazingly, he stumbled onto another one while attending a John Deere show in Springfield, Ohio.
Elwood and Marjorie Vanek (since deceased), Pemberville, Ohio, were watching the parade at the Springfield show when they saw Hamilton drive by on his 330U. “I told my wife, ‘We’ve got one just like that!’ She said, ‘Let’s go talk to him,’” Elwood recalls. “It was just supposed to happen; the Lord wanted it that way.”
Elwood bought his 1959 330U 20 years ago. “The seller had a 72-inch lawn mower on it,” he says. “It was absolutely no good to mow a lawn with. They tried to trade it for a John Deere mower and the dealer wouldn’t take it. I wasn’t interested in a tractor that new, but I knew the 330U was rare, they wanted to get rid of it and I could afford it.”
Elwood has plans for a cosmetic restoration and a bit of mechanical work. “It still starts and runs good,” he says.
Better than cake
Ron Matthys, South Bend, Ind., always had it in mind to restore his 1953 Oliver OC-6 and sprayer, but he hesitated, suspecting he’d have more in it than the tractor was worth. So when he saw a restored OC-6 and sprayer on display at an Oliver show in South Bend in March, he kicked himself. “I thought, doggone it! Somebody beat me to it!”
Then he did a double-take. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he says. “When I got closer, I knew it was mine.” A 76th birthday surprise from his son, Steve, the restored rig was a show-stopper at Hickory Corners. “He had it sodium blasted and painted, had the tanks polished and put in all new pins and bushings in the tractor,” Ron says.
Originally Ron’s dad’s tractor, the Oliver remained on the job until about three years ago. “We used it strictly to spray onions, spearmint and peppermint,” Ron say. “With the crawler, we could get right out after a rain and there’d be no wheel tracks.” More family ties: The rig arrived in Hickory Corners in a 1937 Dodge that Ron’s dad bought new.
Ron says he was completely surprised by the restoration but his radar did register something a bit out of the ordinary. “I knew something was a little screwy when my wife wanted to go to a tractor show with me,” he says with a smile.
A custom Case
Herman Kruger, Morley, Mich., celebrated his retirement by rolling up his sleeves. His first project? A custom version of a Case orchard tractor — on a small scale. The roughly 1/3-scale tractor is built around a 3-cylinder Kubota engine with parts from seven or eight tractors. “I did the sheet metal work myself,” he says. “I bought a break and mocked up the tin with lightweight wheels off a manlift with a sport boom.”
At the Kalamazoo club show, he used his creation to pull a unique load. The first trailer carried a 1983 Case 220 garden tractor from the final year of production new off the showroom floor. “It’s never had gas in it,” Herman says. “It’s never been run.” Behind that trailer was another, hauling a 1983 220 — brand new, in the crate. “I heard about it when I first started collecting,” he says, “but I wasn’t interested because it was too new.”
Herman’s next project is a four-wheel drive/four-wheel steering model like the 1200 Case. “I really like building them,” he says, “but I like the hunt the best.”
Implements complete the display
Tom O’Connor, Swartz Creek, Mich., has a collection of John Deere 20 and 30 series tractors but he wasn’t prepared to rest on his laurels: He wanted to put implements with the tractors. A John Deere Model 42 combine he found in a barn in Gaylord, Mich., was a perfect fit – even if it wasn’t in perfect shape. “We had a lot of parts fabricated,” Tom says. “It has the grain tank on top and the wheel track is narrow enough to fit on standard semi trailer. I’ve used many like that.”
His next project — a John Deere auger wagon — was also a bit of a project. “That wagon needed a lot of attention,” Tom recalls. “It was a three and a half year project. The barrel of the auger had to be rebuilt. Really, every little part had to be fixed. As I look back, it was a fun project. But when we were in the middle of it, I wondered ‘what was I thinking?!?’”
Bringing five semi loads of tractors and implements to the show, Tom clearly understands the appeal of vintage tractors. “If you were a young man on a farm in the 1950s or ’60s and you were in position to buy a new tractor, the day it arrived was a very important and memorable day,” he says. “If you were a little kid, you would stand by the road and wait for the truck it was on to come down the road.” FC
For more information:
— Kalamazoo Valley Antique Engine & Machinery Club 35th annual show, June 27-29, 2014, at the Gilmore Car Museum, 6865 Hickory Rd., Hickory Corners, MI 49060.