Nursery machine

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Lester Landrum's Holder tractor

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Lester Landrum of Ft. Myers, Fla., first set eyes on his vintage, 2-cylinder 1950s Holder garden tractor eight years ago, abandoned in the woods. Years earlier, a bearing had gone bad in it, and when the owners couldn't find a replacement, they junked the whole tractor. Lester made his own new bearing and got the Holder running again. 'It's German,' he says, 'and it's almost identical to the VW.'

Although this Holder came from a small Florida farm, Lester said the little tractors found great favor among commercial garden and nursery operators, in part because of their center pivot (or articulated) steering, which offers the tightest possible turning radius. Also, they have four-wheel drive, which is especially useful in Florida's sandy soil.

Lester's tractor is missing its tag, which showed the model number, but by comparing it to a photo in operating instructions a friend helped him acquire from Germany, the tractor appears to be an A12. It has a Sachs 2-cycle, air-cooled diesel engine, also made in Germany.

Lester got the tractor running again about four years ago. 'I bet it sat at my place three or four years until I figured out how to fix the clutch.' The previous owners had pulled it apart just enough to get the bearing out, and when they couldn't find a new one, left the machine disassembled.

After studying it for some time, Lester figured out that the Holder's bearing looked just like those on Volkswagen cars - except it was smaller. After that, he was able to easily repair the tractor.

Finding tires proved a bit of a challenge, too. The tractor uses 5.50-16 Michelin tires, which are hard to find in the United States, so Lester substituted some slightly larger 7.00s. Recently, he turned up some 6.00s, which he expects to eventually put on the tractor.

Someday, he says he hopes to do a complete restoration. The tractor needs a wiring harness, original headlights and turn signals -' little things like that,' he says, and some body work. In Germany, Holders are driven on highways just like automobiles, so they have a number of highway-type options. The original colors are dark forest green with yellow trim.

Even without a new paint job, Lester's Holder is an eyecatcher. He likes to take it to area shows, including Pioneer Park Days in Zolfo Springs and the Florida Flywheelers' Antique Engine Show at LaBelle, Fla., both held in early spring. One of his favorite showtime activities is to drive the Holder around the grounds with a cart attached, from which his old dog Junior gravely takes in the sights.

Since Lester has had his Holder, he's discovered only three U.S. locations where they were sold in the 1950s and '60s -Jacksonville, Fla., Tacoma, Wash., and somewhere in Maine. He hasn't been able to trace any of them and thinks none remain in operation today.

He has turned up a few other vintage Holders in Florida, though. The count includes three 2-cylinders, which are water cooled, and another 1-cylinder. Supposedly, a 3-cylinder model, very much like the 2-cylinders, also was made, but he hasn't found any of those yet.

He's also tracked down a bit of printed Holder literature, including the operating instructions that picture his model and some additional materials shared by one of the other Holder owners he's met.

The Holder Company dates to 1888, according to that firm's Web site. It remains in business in Metzingen, Germany, making and selling a new generation of lawn and garden machinery. There also is a North American office in Ontario, Canada, called Holder of North America.

Lester says he started collecting farm machinery in 1986 and today has 'a little bit of everything.' Along with the Holder, he showed a brake tester for railroad cars and a lighted Bendix sign at his Zolfo Springs booth this year.

The brake tester worked with pressure, Lester explains, which forced the brakes off as a way to check their reliability. Today, he says, the modern version of these rail car brake testers weighs about 8 pounds.

Reportedly, the old iron tester was used on rail cars belonging to the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, which wintered in the Venice and Sarasota, Fla., area north along the coast from Ft. Myers. Lester says he noticed the machine about six months ago in a Ft. Myers yard but couldn't catch anyone at home. When he finally made contact, the man told him the machine had belonged to a friend, Charlie Smith of Nokomis, Fla., who had been train master for Ringling Brothers for 39 years. Lester's vintage neon Bendix sign came from Reaves and Sons, the long-time Bendix appliance store in Ft. Myers. 'Reaves was about the only appliance store down there in the 1950s,' Lester recalls. Irvin Reaves opened the store in October 1932, and later his sons, Herb and Alvin, joined him.

'That sign hung out in front,' Lester says. When the bank bought the building about 1957, the sign was taken down and stored in an old barn on the Reaves' home place.' After the store closed for good in 1995, Lester got the sign.

What makes the sign so amusing to him, Lester says, is that he and his wife, Jo, moved into a new house in 1962 that had a Bendix washer. That washer broke in the late 1960s or early '70s, so Lester threw it out and bought one of those 'better' Maytags. Today, he says, 'I wish I had that Bendix now.' FC

- For more information on Lester's collection, contact him at 3904 Belmont St., Ft. Myers, FL 33916, (239) 694-1715.
- The address for the Holder Company's German Web site, which has a number of photographs, is: www.holderfreunde.de