Big Fun at a Small Tractor Show

A southern Wisconsin tractor show is packed with vintage iron treasures.

John Walleser

John Walleser with his Massey-Harris Pony diesel, the “pride and joy” of his collection.

Photo by Larry Scheckel

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Southern Wisconsin is home to several premium antique tractor shows, including the Badger Steam & Gas Show, Baraboo, and the Rock River Thresheree, Edgerton. But it’s also home to at least one outstanding small show. The Coulee Antique Engine Club, based at show grounds a few miles north of Westby in Vernon, Wisconsin, offers a fine all-volunteer show.

Show is a family affair

Held the final weekend of July in 2015, the three-day show – the club’s 44th annual show – is truly a family affair. The Kyle Semke family is in charge of the threshing. Kyle is club president. The Arnie and Linda Klinkner family have taken on major duties. Their son, Dan, is vice president and runs the food stand. Arnie helps manage the office, and Linda directs the first aid and first responders, if needed. Norbert Burch is in charge of the gate, taking in $5 for a button, good for the entire three-day show. Jerry Marks, Jerry Johnson and Norbert prepare the grounds for the show.

In addition to working in the kitchen, Linda also presides over of the sawdust pile, a popular attraction for children. “I throw in about $70 of coins during the show,” she says. “I scatter some in every two hours or so. The kids mine the sawdust pile for coins and it really keeps them busy.” The club owns a bounce house and volunteers bring in slides and swing sets, sand boxes, pedal tractors and puzzles.

John Wangen takes care of gas engines, signage, benches and the club headquarters in the La Crosse Plow building. His son, Anthony Wangen, is responsible for the tractor pull, camping, the bounce house and grounds.

Strong membership base

The Coulee Antique Engine Club started in 1972, when a group of enthusiasts met in the Dahl Drugstore parking lot in nearby Viroqua. Three charter members – Pastor Tom Olson, Ellsworth Olson and Wilmer Homestead – remain active participants.

In 2003, the club purchased 40 acres of land and erected a $30,000 exhibition building (the building was paid off in five years). Lifetime memberships are sold for $50. Today, some 300 members bring displays to shows. Using a club-owned grain drill, volunteers plant winter wheat on the club-owned ground. They use a Minnesota grain binder to cut and shock the wheat for threshing demonstrations. Club members also plant corn for shredding demonstrations at the following year’s show.

During the show, volunteers demonstrate a Case 22-37 threshing machine powered by Farmall Super MTA, shred corn with a 4-roll Rosenthal, saw logs with a (mostly) Frick sawmill and demonstrate a W&M dynamometer. An antique tractor pull is held on Friday night and parades are held on two afternoons. There is plenty to see and do.

A passion for Massey

The Coulee club has a major theme and minor theme each year. In 2015 the themes were Massey-Harris, Massey Ferguson, Wallis and antique snowmobiles. The 2016 theme will be Minneapolis-Moline tractors and vintage motorcycles.

The Massey-Harris king of Vernon County is John Walleser, Viroqua. John and his wife, Karen, have a collection of 40 tractors. A 1929 Wallis was among the 12 they brought to the Coulee show. “This Wallis was made in Racine, Wisconsin, by the J.I. Case Plow Works,” John says. “The crankcase and transmission are housed in a U-shaped plate, a unique unit design that became a forerunner of the Massey-Harris line of tractors. Massey-Harris bought Case Plow Works in 1928 and took over production.”

A 1934 Massey-Harris GP is another early workhorse in the Walleser collection. “More than 3,000 of these tractors were made in Racine, Wisconsin, from 1931-1936,” John says. John and Karen have a Massey-Harris 30, 33, 44, 333, 444 LP, 555, Twin Power Challenger and Twin Power 101 Senior that replaced the Challenger.

The Challenger was the row-crop version of the Pacemaker. “These Twin Power tractors had a lever that could control the governor setting,” John says. “You could set the engine speed at 1,200 rpm for drawbar work or 1,400 rpm to get more horsepower for belt operations.”

John’s Massey-Harris 444 was built in 1954, the last year the model was produced. After a merger with Ferguson, the company was renamed Massey-Harris-Ferguson, Inc. In 1958, the name was shortened to Massey Ferguson. Today, Massey Ferguson is a subsidiary of AGCO and is the largest tractor manufacturer in the world.

A 1958 Pony diesel is John’s pride and joy. “It was built in France for vineyard work,” he says. “We know of only four in all of North America.” With a Massey Pacer, Pony and Mustang in his collection, he’s on the hunt for a Colt. “Then I would have the four horsemen,” he says.

1948 Corbitt tractor

A 1948 Corbitt tractor owned by Dan Korn, Cashton, Wisconsin, made an outstanding display at the 2015 show. Richard Corbitt, Henderson, North Carolina, established the company in 1913 as a builder of horse-drawn buggies. The company found later success building trucks, including many for the U.S. Army. Starting in the late 1940s, Corbitt built a series of farm tractors. Many Corbitt tractors were exported to South America. The company failed soon after Corbitt’s retirement in 1952.

Dan says his Corbitt is one of eight known to exist. It has a 4-cylinder LeRoi gasoline engine and is rated at 48 hp on the belt. When he bought it, the tractor was in rough shape. “It had no front end, no wheels and no tires,” he says, “and the sheet metal was missing.”

During the show, club members give daily demonstrations of the M&W dynamometer used to test engine power. The M&W was built in Gibson City, Illinois. The machine is owned by Dan Korn. His brother, Bill, gave me a primer on how it works. “This dynamometer is an oil pump hooked to your tractor’s PTO,” he says. “The brake hand wheel is a precision valve that allows you to restrict the output of the oil pump and read out the restriction in horsepower.”

They dynamometer is a remarkably rugged, stable and repeatable instrument, he adds, if it is used and maintained as directed in the manual. The dynamometer applies a load, and the horsepower needed to pull that load is read on the gauge. “Most older tractors were rated at 540 rpm,” Bill says, “so you crank it up wide open and then pull the rpm down to 540. You then read the horsepower directly on the gauge. There’s nothing to adjust, nothing to calculate. You are pulling a specific number of horsepower at 540 rpm.” 

Preserving local history

A huge 1929 Fairbanks, Morse & Co. 140 hp 2-cycle diesel engine drew a lot of attention at the show. For 50 years, until it was retired in 1979, it powered a 90-kilowatt electrical generator for the town of Merrillan, Wisconsin. Operator Jake Thompson gets the 6-ton flywheel into correct position using a 6-foot iron bar inserted into holes on the flywheel. Compressed air is used to push on piston number 1 for starting. Fairbanks-Morse built more than 9,000 of these behemoths.

“It came to us in pieces in 2009,” Jake says. “It weighs 17 tons. It was outside for a few years until we put down a cement slab, moved the pieces onto the slab, assembled the diesel engine and built the building around it. We got it running in 2012.” Each piston measures 14 inches wide. The engine has a 17-inch stroke and runs at 300 rpm. It uses 3 gallons of diesel fuel per hour when idling, and 43 gallons per hour with a full load on the generator.

Round barns in miniature

Vernon County has the highest concentration of round barns in the world, 17 to be exact. Jay Hankee, who lives between Viroqua and Westby, has meticulously constructed miniatures of seven of them.

Round barns were promoted as being easy to build, more efficient and better able to withstand the fierce windstorms that occasionally swept across southwest Wisconsin. Jay makes careful measurements of the barns and scales his miniatures accordingly. “I strive for accuracy,” he says, “but sometimes I have to rely on photographs.” (For more on Jay Hankee’s scale models, see the September 2015 issue of Farm Collector.)

Many of the historic round barns of Vernon County were built by a group headed by Algie Shivers, the son of an African-American slave who came to Wisconsin via the underground railroad. Shivers studied engineering in Missouri, served in France in World War I and eventually returned to Wisconsin, where he built more than 15 barns. He is featured in a booklet and self-guided tour produced by the Viroqua Chamber of Commerce.

Small wonders, working

Loren Olson, a retired farmer from Westby, Wisconsin, is the master of miniature machinery at the show. In the club’s exhibit building, Loren demonstrated a working threshing machine, baler, sawmill and steam engine – all built to scale. His 1935 John Deere thresher and John Deere tractor are both 1/8-scale models.

Loren uses a small turning lathe and milling machine to build his miniatures. He is a stickler for detail. “I make careful measurements of the actual machinery,” he says. He’s equally careful about safety. At shows, he operates his miniatures with compressed air.

In demonstrating his baler, he uses half-dried grass to produce 3-inch bales. The small bales are in high demand as table decorations at weddings, banquets and holiday decorations.

Parade of power

Parades are held Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Announcer Mike Kvale gives a brief run-down on each tractor as it passes. Most of the spectators know most of the drivers. Friendly greetings ring out. This is rural Wisconsin.

The parade is a follow-up to the club’s annual tractor road parade held on Father’s Day weekend. At that event, more than 50 antique tractors cover a 50- to 70-mile route at a maximum speed of 10 mph.

See what I mean about one of the beauties of a small show? There’s a Corbitt tractor (one of eight in the world), a Massey-Harris diesel Pony (one of four known of in North America), a precision sawmill cobbled together from parts, a 100-year-old, 17-ton diesel engine with exhaust pipes exiting the roof and a parade where the tractor drivers and spectators are all neighbors.

So don’t overlook the rare treasures, vintage machines and passion and enthusiasm of small shows. They can be fantastic! FC

For information on the Coulee Antique Engine Club’s 2016 show, contact Kyle Semke, E3307 Brinkman Ridge Rd., Coon Valley, WI 54623-8321  (608) 386-7507; kyle_semke@yahoo.com.


Larry Scheckel grew up on a family farm in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin and is the author of Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers. He and his wife, Ann, live in Tomah, Wisconsin. Contact him at 1113 Parkview Dr., Tomah, WI 54660; (608) 372-3362; email: lscheckel@charter.net; online at www.larryscheckel.com.