Iowa collector honors family heritage with restored traction ditcher

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Buckeye traction ditcher

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'Gentlemen: As you know, it was quite late in the season when we started to operate our machine. We had only 52 working days. Eighteen jobs were all that we could muster. Our net profits were $589.45. Enclosed please find a photograph of our machine. All the farmers around here stopped digging by hand as soon as they saw the machine work, and everybody wanted us at once, so we have to say that we are very well satisfied with our investment.'

- Early testimonial of customer satisfaction with the Buckeye traction ditcher from Schoenecker & Giesen, New Prague, Minn., Jan. 30, 1911.

Talk to Clarence 'Zip' Mettenburg about fancy new hybrid seed and state-of-the-art farm equipment, and he'll listen with interest. But then he's likely to mention an equally critical component in crop production in the upper Midwest.

'Even with hybrid seed corn and modern machines,' he says, 'if you don't have drainage, you won't maximize your yields.'

Zip hopes to preserve the history of underground agricultural drainage systems by restoring a 70-year-old Buckeye traction ditcher. His goal is to have a Buckeye Model 1 - perhaps even powered by the correct gas engine - in running condition at this year's Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (Sept. 2-6).

Zip is in the unique position of owning two similar Buckeyes, one of which he's shown at previous reunions in Mt. Pleasant. Since then, however, in Comer, Ontario, he found a single-cylinder, hit-and-miss 12-hp Garwood gas engine built specifically for use on Buckeye traction ditchers. His goal is to get the Garwood running and install it on one of his two Buckeyes. Then he'll make the unit fully functional with original equipment and put it to work.

'I don't know which one that will be yet,' Zip says. 'There are problems with both of them. But we'll have that engine running by this fall. It may not be able to dig, but we'll be able to demonstrate the motion and movement of the digging wheel.'

Eye-catching Buckeye

The Buckeye traction ditcher and tile layer is a unique attraction at the Old Threshers Reunion. In fact, Zip says, it would be unique at any show. 'It's a heritage item,' he explains. 'I don't know of another show that has a fully operating machine like this. It's a rare feature in an agricultural exhibit, and yet the ditcher was so important to crop yields.'

It's also important to Zip on a more personal level. During the Great Depression, Zip's father, Joe Mettenburg, supplemented farm income by running a tiling business using his own Buckeye Model 1 traction ditcher.

'He was a very progressive farmer,' Zip recalls. 'He was involved in Iowa State experimental farm studies on the use of phosphate and lime in the early 1940s. After seeing the benefit to farming, he got involved in the limestone business and operated a rock quarry near St. Paul, Iowa.'

Armed with that heritage, Zip began looking for a Buckeye Model 1 in 1995 - specifically, his dad's machine. Zip ran ads in area newspapers and publications specializing in antique iron, but made little headway. 'I even found the son of the man who bought the Buckeye from my dad, but he didn't know what had happened to it. We think it was scrapped during World War II.'

Ultimately, he got his hands on a Model 1 (with the optional apron track) last operated in the 1940s by the Anderson family in Agency, Iowa. The unit has no serial tag, but Zip believes it's a 1932 model.

'It was brought out of a mud hole west of Mt. Pleasant,' Zip recalls. 'When they pulled it off the lowboy, the tracks locked up. We spent the first three months rebuilding the tracks so it could be moved. So, I had to rebuild the pillow block bearings, put on some new angle iron, and put new wood (Pin Oak) on the treads.'

Fortunately, Zip is a man of many talents. While the Buckeye is his first foray into the world of antique iron restoration, his background is diverse and makes him well suited for the enormous task. His not-entirely tongue-in-cheek business card reads: Ditcher... water witcher ... rocket scientist... exaviator.

'I've never restored an old tractor or gas engine before, but I've got a lot of help,' Zip says. 'I've got a lot of resources I can call on ... the Old Threshers, my uncle... and I was born and raised on a farm, so I was familiar with this stuff.'

Restoring the ditcher

During the first three years of restoration work, Zip was assisted by his uncle, Paul Holtkamp, and Carl Pollmeier, now a senior at a Mt. Pleasant High School. Paul, who has since died, offered practical, hands-on knowledge as well as moral support. 'I've seen sicker dogs than that get well,' he said optimistically upon first seeing the Buckeye.

Restoration by the numbers

Reconstruction of the Buckeye's track was itself a major undertaking. From Zip's work log:

Tracks removed: 320 bolts (10 per tread) removed/cut

Left drive sprocket hub repaired

16 pillow block bearings removed and rebabbitted

8 roller shafts milled

128 track 'angles' repaired or replaced

32 oak treads purchased

32 tread metal 'aprons' repaired

320 bolts installed in 32 treads/aprons/angles

Tracks assembled and installed

The project's second phase focused on the Buckeye's power source. The six-cylinder Red Diamond IH truck engine that was on the Buckeye when Zip bought it wasn't original equipment, nor did it work properly. The Buckeye's engine, transmission and gearbox were all removed. At that point, Zip was unable to find a 14-hp Garwood gasoline engine to power the rig, so instead opted for a 6-hp International Harvester Co. Model M engine.

'The 6 hp was more reasonably priced (than a larger engine), it was in running order, and it generated adequate power to demonstrate the unit,' Zip says.

The final phase of work is to create a functional ditcher. 'Right now, just starting the engine is a challenge,' Zip says. 'You never know if it's going to start.' His demonstrations at the Old Threshers Reunions were limited to putting the machine in forward and reverse, and running the digging wheel. What he'd really like to do is demonstrate the device actually digging as it was built to do.

Zip's loosened countless rusted shafts and chains, and has replaced a lot of hard-to-find parts, some of which he had to have made. Only when all of the mechanical issues are resolved will he talk paint and cosmetics (the original paint appears to be a Persian red, he says).

Meanwhile, in the course of this project, Zip's located both a second Buckeye and a partial 12-hp Garwood engine.

Zip originally intended the second Buckeye - which he found in Ohio - to be a source for parts. Another Model 1, it's about the same vintage as the original unit, but came with an original 12-hp Garwood - although the engine is missing parts and isn't operational.

Garwood produced engines for the Buckeye in three sizes: 10 hp, 12 hp and 14 hp. The 14-hp engines produced for the traction ditcher carry the Buckeye name; none carry the Garwood name.

One of the two Buckeyes will be up and running at the 2004 Old Threshers Reunion, and Zip looks forward to firing up a Buckeye at the show. 'Lots of people look at it and say, T never thought I would see one of those again,'' Zip says. 'You'd be surprised how many people, or their father, or grandfather, or uncle, or they themselves, operated one of these machines, because of the quality of land in Iowa and the benefits of drainage. (New collectors and enthusiasts) are just amazed by all the shafts, gears, chains going around, and kids are just fascinated by the whole thing.'

What's special about the Buckeye? 'The fact that that its design has survived,' Zip says. 'They still use the same basic design, just with more modern engines. The axle-less, spokeless design is still part of contemporary machines. The digging wheel and the Cat-type tracks are two designs still in use today. I know of one unit identical to mine, equipped with a six-cylinder Chevrolet engine, that was still in use just three years ago!'

Besides restoring the Buckeye ditcher, Zip remains focused on creating a permanent exhibit at Mt. Pleasant that would showcase the traction ditcher's role in agriculture and demonstrate how the digging machine operated.

'I want to illustrate that drainage is important,' Zip says, 'and that my dad had the foresight to get involved in that.' FC

- For more information contact Clarence 'Zip' Mettenburg, 307 S. Walnut, Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641; (319) 385-1109; e-mail: zipandmary@iowatelecom.net

Ohio engineer's unique design key to evolution of an industry

The Buckeye Traction Ditcher s roots go back to 1894. That year, James B. Hill -while working at a Bowling Green, Ohio, machine shop - won a patent for design of the first successful steam-driven traction ditcher. Motivated by his own experience in farming, Hill understood the need to drain fields using underground tile.

According to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, tiling techniques for land drainage were first brought to the U.S. from Scotland in 1821 by John Johnston, who settled in Geneva, N.Y. Hand labor was used to dig trenches along a gradient and to lay tile pipe sections to carry off water. Wooden planks were used in lieu of tile until the brick and tile mills could be built to produce clay tiles. A Geneva pottery maker, B.F. Whartenby, perfected and patented the first U.S. tile-making machine for Johnston.

Hill's ditcher guaranteed accurately graded ditches for those tile systems as well as open drainage systems and pipeline trenches, and eliminated the need for slow and costly manual labor on such projects. Internal combustion engines replaced steam-powered units in the early 20th century (at least 700 were built before 1910).

Hill's unique design allowed the digging wheel (which had neither spokes nor an axle) to dig trenches up to 12 feet deep. The width of the ditch could be varied by changing digging buckets and adjusting the digging wheel frame and bearings. An early company sales brochure describes the ditcher:

The Buckeye Traction Ditcher is a traction engine on the rear end of which is mounted an excavating wheel provided with excavating buckets fastened to its circumference. This excavating wheel is an 'open wheel', that is to say, it has no axle but it revolves on anti-friction wheels placed just outside the rim of the excavating wheel.

These buckets have a top and back, but no bottom. They are shaped somewhat like the bowl of a drag scraper; and in fact they act very much like a drag-scraper in digging; for as the excavating wheel revolves, each excavating bucket cuts off a slice of earth which fills the bucket.

Now, this earth would drop out when the bucket gets above the surface of the ground, if it were not for the high-carbon steel arc. This arc does not revolve, for it is not fastened to the wheel itself. When an excavating bucket reaches the end of the arc near the top of the wheel, the dirt falls out of the bucket upon the belt conveyor.

The conveyor carries the dirt off outside of the trench where it piles up ... The Buckeye is the only machine that leaves a trench so clean and true that no men are required to follow after it with shovels to finish its work.

Hill continued to enhance his basic design after moving to Findlay, Ohio, where the ditchers were produced by Van Buren, Heck, and Marvin Co. That machine works' name was changed in 1906 to the Buckeye Traction Ditcher Co. For some 50 years, Buckeye was the largest tile ditching and construction trenching company in the U.S.

In 1907, Hill's traction apron (today known as the caterpillar tread) won a second patent. A man of broad interests, Hill went on to develop seed corn (Hill's White Cob and Yellow Dent) as well as equipment used to drain swamps in Louisiana.

The Buckeye steam traction ditcher has been designated as the 25th international landmark in the ASME Historic Mechanical Engineering Program. Each ASME landmark represents a step in the evolution of mechanical engineering.

- Source: The American Society of Mechanical Engineers; www.asme.org