RUSTY IRON REVISITED
Farm Collector Staff
The 'Let's Talk Rusty Iron' column in the March 2004 issue of Farm Collector about Dale Hall's, Mt Washington, Ky., Chevrolet tractor brought a couple of responses that dear up some - but not all - of the mystery surrounding the origin of the tractor.
Steel White, Versailles, Ky., called Dale to pass along a few tidbits about the tractor. White, now 78 years old, said that Willie Lee Nutter Sr. owned a large farm south of Georgetown, Ky., where he raised expensive saddle horses. Mr. Nutter had one son, Willie Lee Nutter jr., who was born unable to speak, although it's unclear if he was deaf, as well. He never went to school, but was tutored at home and apparently was a self-taught mechanical genius.
White worked on the Nutter farm when he was 16 and was shown a tractor that Willie Jr. - who White remembers as being in his 20s at the time - had built in a fully equipped machine shop on the farm. The tractor had a Chevy engine and steel wheels. White also said the younger Nutter had built a grain binder and a stationary hay baler, both of which White used when he worked on the farm.
In 1944, White turned 18 and joined the Army. When he returned in 1946, he heard young Nutter had built another tractor, and General Motors Co. was involved in some capacity. White believes the local Chevy dealer had some connection with the project, which later fell through for some unknown reason. The Nutters used the tractor on their farm for years afterward.
Dale also talked to a couple of other local men, Herschel Wiley and Horace Gaines, both of whom knew the Nutter family. Herschel is pretty sure he remembers hearing about someone from GM coming to the Nutter farm to talk about the tractor, while Horace recalls the Nutter family tried to sell the tractor to GM.
Willie Lee Nutter Sr. died about 1960, and his son died just a few years later. At the time of his death, Willie Jr. was building plows in his shop for Brinly-Hardy, a garden tractor company in Louisville, Ky. The Nutter farm - now owned by some-one else - lies about 6 miles south of Georgetown, just north of the intersection of U.S. Route 62 and Interstate 64.
Bonnie Wynn from Georgetown e-mailed the author and said her brother, Jim Wynn, knew about the tractor. Jim said that his father, Freddie Wynn, raised tobacco on part of the farm owned by the Nutter family. Jim vaguely remembers the Nutter tractor and describes it as painted a dark color. Jim also carries the impression that Chevrolet was involved with the tractor's development in some way, but can't remember just how.
In the original article, I expressed doubt that GM was interested in getting into the tractor business after World War II. However, that assumption may be incorrect. That reassessment is based upon a remark in Colin Fraser's book, Tractor Pioneer: The Life of Harry Ferguson.
Most antique tractor buffs have heard of the famous 'handshake agreement' between Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson that launched the Ford tractor with Ferguson three-point hitch system in 1939. In late 1946, after almost 300,000 Ford-Ferguson tractors had been produced, Henry Ford II notified Ferguson that after June 1947 the Ford Motor Co. would no longer furnish tractors to the Ferguson Co. It was a severe blow to Ferguson. Even though the Ferguson Model TE-20 tractor was being manufactured in England by the Standard Motor Co., Ferguson desperately needed a U.S. manufacturer.
Fraser writes, '... the Ferguson management contacted almost every company in North America that might possibly be in a position to take on the manufacture. The list of companies reads like a who's who of American business, but ultimately the concerns showing genuine interest were whittled down to a very small handful, among them Willys, Overland, Kaiser-Frazer and General Motors.'
A meeting was arranged between Harry Ferguson and the executives of GM, including company President Charles Wilson, to discuss a possible deal between GM and Ferguson. During the meeting, Fraser writes, Mr. Ferguson was so argumentative and intractable that GM dropped the idea of building the Ferguson tractor.
The aborted Ferguson contract at least proves that GM was seriously thinking of manufacturing tractors during the mid-1940s and may've given some encouragement to Nutter's tractor-building dreams - although how they would've known about the rural Kentucky farmer and equipment designer is unclear.
It's likely that the Chevrolet dealer in Georgetown - where Nutter undoubtedly purchased parts - tipped off the home office that Nutter had built a tractor using Chevrolet components, and GM sent an engineer to Kentucky to evaluate the machine.
Unfortunately, the whole truth about Dale Hall's unusual 'Chevy' tractor may never be known. Like many mysteries surrounding farm equipment manufacturers of long ago, the more answers one gets, the more questions are raised.
- Sam Moore