Tracked Equipment Rolls Over Baraboo

2008 Badger Steam & Gas Engine Club show featured endless tracks

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A 1932 wide-gauge Caterpillar Fifteen, owned by Bob Stewart.

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The parade of tractors at last summer’s Badger Steam & Gas Engine Club show had a decidedly unique tone. “It sounds,” said onlooker Wade Opperman, Baraboo, Wis., “like a division of Panzers.”

The parade’s throaty rumble emanated from the show’s feature: endless tracks. And endless it seemed, with more than 75 pieces of tracked equipment on display. The feature was marked by all the variety of a good potluck supper: Displays ranged from very big to very small, very old to comparatively young, familiar brands to the nearly unknown, immaculately restored to working clothes.

Cat collector
Bob Stewart, Walworth, Wis., showed off part of a very serious Caterpillar collection. Like many, his collection began innocently enough. “I really didn’t know what I was buying,” he says. “But then I met my demise: I bought a book. And that was the beginning of the end.” He’s since pared his collection of Cat, Holt and Best classics from 100 to about 60 and is full of new-found resolve. “I’m not buying any more common tractors,” he says. “I’m only looking at rare tractors now.” Some of those were on display at the Badger show.

“There were six tractors Cat built fewer than 100 of,” he notes. “I have four of them and two of those are here: a 5E Series R2 (just 83 were built, and Bob’s is No. 70), and a 1932 high-clearance Fifteen. It’s No. 4 of 95 built.”
Bob bought the Fifteen from the Charlie Gaus estate in central Illinois. “It was partly disassembled,” he says. “They thought it was just a parts tractor.” An immaculate restoration includes a nod to Bob’s friend: A decal on the back end reads “In Memory of Charlie Gaus.”

Another Fifteen, a 1932 “big” Fifteen wide-gauge, is also a sentimental favorite of Bob’s. “It once belonged to Dave Smith, Woodburn, Ore., one of the founders of the Antique Caterpillar Machinery Owners Club,” he says. “It’s pretty special.” The tractor is original, and Bob plans to leave it that way – including words scrawled on the fender (and now protected by a sheet of Plexiglas) by Dave when he sold the piece: “Take good care of my rusty friend.”

Bob’s display was a mix of bright primary colors and the patina of age. A 1932 Caterpillar Fifteen 7C Series (known as the “small” Fifteen) with a high-clearance conversion was already a showstopper. Then Bob painted it bright orange. “It’s an after-market conversion,” he says. “I put orange paint on it so nobody thinks I’m trying to pass it off as anything else.” One of 307 Cat Fifteens built, this is the only one Bob’s seen with the conversion. 

TLC for TracTracTor
Herb Miller’s 1936 T-20 TracTracTor is a rare tractor in its own right. But what really makes it stand out from the crowd is the tender loving care Herb, Portage, Wis., poured into its restoration. “It was in such bad shape that I spent two years restoring it,” he says. “I had to make fenders, rebuild the hood and make all new rollers.” He completely overhauled the engine and rebuilt the frame and seat. “It took three donors,” he admits. “I had to make almost everything. But I have a milling machine and a lathe, so I could do that work.”

In the end, he has a showpiece. “There weren’t too many of these made,” he says. “It’s kind of rare.” Built for farm work, the unit was known for having a poor track arrangement and less-than-ideal seals. Today it runs like a top, and is a good companion piece for the 1942 International T-6 Herb also owns.

A McCormick-Deering enthusiast (he has the complete McCormick-Deering tractor line in his collection), Herb is retired from a career in road construction. “I started as an operator in 1949,” he says. “I just always liked the way you could handle that equipment, dozers and cranes, the way they run. You could dig a ditch or plow snow or do anything.” Next up: a 1929 International crawler. “It’s very unusual,” he says. “It has high sprockets in back. But it’s in bad shape. I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to get that one done!”

Army issue
Bob Zimmerly, Baraboo, Wis., had a varied display, ranging from a horse-drawn Oliver chilled plow once used in Indiana vineyards to a crawler developed for U.S. Army use during World War II. His 1948 USTRAC with blade was equipped with a 4-cylinder Jeep engine. Designed and produced for the U.S. Corps of Engineers Airborne Equipment by U.S. Tractor Corp., Warren, Ohio, most of the line’s output was airdropped on South Pacific islands. Parachute lines were attached to metal loops on each corner of the crawler.

“They used these to clear the jungle, to build airstrips,” Bob says. “I found this one outside Lake Geneva, Wis. It was running when I got it, but not very well. It has no reverse, but has forward and reverse in all gears: The clutch goes in both directions.”

Amazingly, Bob’s fellow Badger club member Don Giebel, Reedsburg, Wis., has a related piece, a World War II-vintage tiller, also built by U.S. Tractor Corp. for the Corps of Engineers. “We used it on my dad’s farm with an M Farmall,” he says. Similar pieces, he says, were airdropped in the South Pacific. His was originally painted olive drab; later it was painted industrial yellow. Don plans a complete and faithful restoration.

Family ties
The collection put together by Allen Steele, Lake Delton, Wis., is hard to make sense of – it includes a 1947 crane, a horse-drawn scraper and vintage crawlers – until you learn his motivation. “The emphasis is on things my dad or I had,” he explains.

His 1949 International TD-9 is a classic example. “When I graduated from high school, my first job was to run a tractor like this,” he says. “I thought it was pretty neat.” The 50 hp TD-9 is outfitted with a 9-foot Bucyrus Erie dozer blade. “In that era, manufacturers didn’t make attachments for their equipment,” he adds. The tractor starts on gas and runs on diesel.

A collector since 2002, Allen has gathered up more than 60 crawlers. Among them: a John Deere 1010 like the one he started business with and a 1935 Allis-Chalmers like one his dad once had. “It took three tractors to make that one,” he says. Another major project: Restoration of a 1944 Chevrolet truck and a 1949 Quick-Way crane. Over the course of three years, both were taken down to the bare frame.

Cletrac cousins
Bob Anderson, Verona, Wis., has never seen another crawler like his 1918 Cletrac H. “It came out of a Saskatchewan farm,” he says. “I don’t think it was ever used: There’s no wear on the tracks.” The H was Cletrac’s second model, following the R it launched the line with in 1916.

The 12 hp Model H sports a steering wheel (“easier to use in some respects but touchy,” Bob says), starts on gas and runs on distillate. “When I got it, it ran but not very well,” Bob says. “I rebuilt the carburetor and magneto.” The tractor was well made, he says. “I can’t find anything on it that’s been welded. Everything was put together with bolts.”

Elmer Knapper, Eldridge, Iowa, found his 68-inch gauge 1946 Oliver Cletrac Model HG at an auction. It had been used on a farm with a homemade loader. “It wasn’t in pretty shape when I got it,” he recalls. “It didn’t have enough power to pull itself up on the trailer.” The crawler escaped the fate common to such tractors. “If they had a loader on them, most of those tractors’ frames were cracked,” Elmer says. “Luckily this one wasn’t.”

Elmer overhauled the engine (the cylinders were scored), and had to hunt for a steering wheel, toolbox and seat. Now completely restored, the crawler has pulled a 2-bottom plow and, equipped with rubber pads, is a crowd pleaser at parades.

Traveling on tracks
In the north, tracks were not limited to farm and construction equipment. In an era when the automobile became increasingly common, but before the days when snow was routinely plowed from streets and roads, track kits for cars were a boon for those who had to get out, no matter the weather.

“They were used by doctors who had to deliver babies and mailmen delivering the mail,” explains Mickie Parr, LaValle, Wis. “They were common in Michigan, Wisconsin, Vermont and New Hampshire; anywhere they got a lot of snow.”

Mickie and her husband, Jerry, are Ford Model A collectors, and Mickie long had her eye on a snowmobile kit. “I always wanted one of these,” she says. “I just love them. But we were living in Illinois, and my husband said we didn’t get enough snow to use it.” A move to Wisconsin gave Mickie the opening she needed; soon after, she found a Snow Bird for sale. The unit was mounted on another antique car but she didn’t bat an eye. “She winched it up onto the trailer herself,” Jerry recalls, “at high noon on the hottest day of the summer.”

The couple dates their Snow Bird kit, built by Arps Corp., New Holstein, Wis., to about 1937. They’ve mounted it on a 1930 Ford Model A restored by their son. In a 1937 ad, Arps claimed more than 13,000 Snow Birds were in use nationwide. “It will take you over roads you cannot drive with horses,” the company claimed, and, when installed with Arps overdrive and Super Power gears, at speeds of up to 70 mph. Snow Bird production was suspended during World War II; after the war, the company never resumed production of the tracked units. Like so many relics of the past, the Snow Bird’s era had passed.

“It works really well on snow-packed roads,” Mickie says, “but snow-packed roads are pretty hard to find these days.”  FC

For more information: Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club, Bill Klemm, P.O. Box 255, Baraboo, WI 53913; (608) 522-4905; e-mail:  bsgec@yahoo.com ;  www.badgersteamandgas.com .