Tractor Man Sold on Vintage Olivers
Al Mevissen at the wheel of his Oliver 77, which he uses to haul lawn tractors for his lawn care business.
Nicknames from childhood can be eerily prophetic.
Certainly Al Mevissen’s was: His friends tagged him “the tractor man” as a boy. “My friends used to make fun of me,” says the Anoka, Minn., man. “They’d be riding their bikes and I would be cruising around on a tractor.”
Al’s first cruise was an old Case VAC his dad, Merle Mevissen, bought him. A couple of years later, Merle replaced the Case with one that had a loader bucket. Finding he missed the VAC, Al saved his pennies and bought an Oliver 66 for $600.
The 66 provided plenty of entertainment for a teenage boy. One of his friends dared Al to drive it through the bank’s drive-up window. Standing to win a dinner out, Al didn’t look back. “I thought, ‘Well, heck, a free meal,’” he says, “and my bank was pretty secluded out in the country, so I did it. The gal who was at the window of the bank that day still talks about it.” Now in his mid-30s, Al still has a wild hair or two. “I’d like to drive the 66 into downtown Anoka one of these days and park it in front of the music store where I teach guitar lessons during the winter,” he says.
Adventures in tractordom
Al gained a working knowledge in old iron from a neighbor, Daryl Peterson. “Every morning I’d help him tear apart whatever he was working on,” Al says. “He got a junked Oliver 70, and we redid it: unstuck the motor and overhauled the engine, an early Continental.”
Daryl became Al’s mentor. “I learned how to rig stuff if you didn’t have the right part to fix it, making anything that you had work,” Al says. “He taught me about points and condensers, different ways to get motors unstuck, that kind of stuff.” Daryl also convinced Al to join the Nowthen (Minn.) Historical Power Assn. and attend the club’s annual threshing show. Merle followed suit and began buying “all kinds of tractors,” Al says with a laugh.
The Mevissen collection includes a pair of Oliver 88s, an Oliver 60 row crop, Massey-Harris 20 and 30, Case VAI and VAC, as well as an SC, a Farmall Cub, Farmall H and an industrial IH 2400 with a loader bucket.
The Oliver 60 row crop (dating to the mid-1940s) came from Scandia, Minn. A newspaper classified ad listed it as a 3-speed, but it was actually the model with two transmissions with two neutrals. “It was in original condition, all weathered and pretty ugly,” Al says. “It had been painted once, but it still looked bad, and the tires were shot. We put in new rings, bearings, seals, everything, and new tires, and then repainted it. That’s the last one Dad and I did together.”
Al bought the 1947 Case VAC from a relative. “They always say you miss your first love,” he says, “so I had to buy it since it was like the first one I had.” It’s been painted, but needs a new coat. “We used off-the-shelf paint and it looked good for about a week,” Al says. “I’m not a ‘pretty tractor’ guy. I like them to run good and, when I want to do anything with them, have them ready to work.” The VAI is pretty much the same as the VAC, he adds, except with a wide front end and high road gear, propelling the machine down the highway at 25 mph.
Partner in crime
When Merle retired, he and Al began to work together on old iron. Soon after, Merle asked Al if he wanted to go look at old tractors. “He must have been planning for his retirement, because that day we bought three,” Al says. “I ended up driving two of them home that day, and towing another on a trailer. We hid them in back of our house and tinkered with them from time to time.”
Later, Al’s nephews were helping in the shop. When the day grew chilly, Merle’s wife, Eileen, made a rare trip to the shop to bring out jackets. The collectors were busted. “Where did all these tractors come from?” she asked. The men endured a scolding. “But tractors look cool in the front yard when the neighbors drive by,” Al reasons. “And if you have to give directions to your house, all you have to say is to look for the house with the tractors in the front yard.”
One of the first tractors the pair restored was Al’s Oliver 66. “It didn’t need a whole lot of work,” Al says. “The motor and drive train were in real good shape, so we put on new tires, added a water pump and did some basic stuff like that; then painted it.” Then they were off and running. “Dad liked working on that stuff too, so he started painting and fixing them up,” Al says. “Together we restored seven tractors, although he can no longer do the work now.”
Meeting the challenge
One of the Mevissens’ most difficult projects was a 1941 or ’42 Case SC they bought from Al’s uncle, Melvin Mevissen. “That one sat on Melvin’s farm unused for about 25 years,” Al says. “When I was 10 years old I played on it. I thought it was a cool tractor then. I’d run into my uncle at family reunions, and ask what he was going to do with that thing. Eventually he said I could have it.”
By then, the engine was stuck tight. “We tried all kinds of stuff to free it,” Al says. “We tried putting a jack underneath, but the whole piston and sleeve came up. I’d never seen that before. I let it sit with transmission fluid in the cylinder for a couple of months, and then occasionally I’d go out and rap on it to try to loosen it. But I didn’t think we would get it unstuck without cracking a piston.” Finally it freed up, and the project moved forward.
Al gives his brother John credit for crucial bodywork done on some of the family’s Oliver tractors. “He’s not a body man, but his buddy owned a body shop so he learned a lot from him,” Al says. John and Merle teamed up to solve a problem common to many Olivers: holes in the hoods caused by on-the-farm installation of straight mufflers.
“Originally these Olivers had mufflers under the hood with the inlet coming in under the back side and the outlet on the other side out of the top, with a small hole in the hood,” Al explains. “But a lot of times it would get so hot with the side panels on that it would boil the gas out, so people would take off the side curtains in the summer and throw them in the junk pile. That’s why you can’t find them any more, and when you do, they’re really expensive.”
The hood patch is a time intensive process, but John has developed a technique that leaves the hood looking nearly new. “I’m always impressed when he gets one done,” Al says. “I wouldn’t be doing anything like that myself: I’d just be saying that it was good as it was.”
Sold on old iron
Al swears by the old Oliver tractors. “Dad used to farm with Olivers near Nowthen, just a couple of miles from where the yearly threshing show is held now,” he says. “Greenberg Implement in Nowthen started selling Olivers in 1948, and Grandpa (Ed Mevissen) bought our first new Oliver 77 in 1948.” The line was known for progressive technology, he notes. “They were so far ahead of their time,” he says. “They steered easier, had more forward speeds and plenty of horsepower. They became the tractor of choice around Nowthen. A ton of people in the area still use them.”
The Mevissen family keeps their hobby in perspective. “You’ve got to have the space to do it,” Al says. “Our garage isn’t that big, and if you bring in a tractor for winter it takes up a whole stall. Then if you haul the motor out and put it on a stand, you run out of space. We don’t have a sophisticated shop. In fact, we paint our tractors right outside during good weather, and a lot of paint guys would groan about that. But we still want to use these tractors if we need to. Plus, a lot of times they sit outside.”
Al appreciates the hobby for what it is. “I sure enjoy these old tractors,” he says. “They’re fun to tinker with. With old tractors you have to love them, because if you need to depend on them, you have to tinker with them first to get them to run just so you can use them.” FC For more information: Al Mevissen, 1921 1/2 2nd Ave. S., Anoka, MN 55303; (763) 421-6980.Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.