Collectors Crazy about Cockshutt Tractors

Three New York men round up collection of more than 50 restored Cockshutt tractors

Skip Chamberlain (left), Lee Northrup and Jim Northrup with the 1956 Cockshutt Black Hawk tractor that they restored

Skip Chamberlain (left), Lee Northrup and Jim Northrup with the 1956 Cockshutt Black Hawk tractor that they restored. Their restoration was so good that a member of  the family they purchased it from didn't even recognize it.

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A lot can be said about Cockshutt tractor collector Lee Northrup. It might be said that the New Yorker loves Cockshutt tractors. After all, he and his partners own around 50 of the farm machines. It might also be said that Lee likes working on Cockshutts. 

He bought his first one in 1989, and has collected and restored them ever since. It might even be said that Lee has Cockshutt in his blood. His dad's tractor of choice was always Cockshutt, and Lee is just as fond of the line as his father once was.

Lee grew up on a small dairy farm near Lowville, N.Y., one of 11 children. When his dad, Leon, decided it was time to replace the family's Case SC, he chose a 1958 Cockshutt Model 550 for several reasons. "It was easy to drive, easy to work on," Lee explains. "It's also safer for kids. It had a platform with fenders. Very kid-friendly."

Lee's dad paid cash for the new tractor in 1958. Lee still owns the original invoice, and a copy of the document is included in the book Cockshutt - The Complete Story by Dennis McGrew. It soon became Leon's favorite tractor, Lee adds, and he used it for the rest of his farming days. The Northrup brothers - Lee and Jim - still own their dad's Model 550. It's a sentimental reminder of their father and life on the farm. "We had lots to do and not many tractors." Lee jokes about their days milking cows, and raising oats and potatoes. "Now we have many tractors and not much to do with them."

Lee and his brother, Jim, echo their dad's opinion about how easy Cockshutt tractors are to repair and restore. The brothers make a good restoration team: Jim is the painter, and Lee is the welder and metal fabricator.

In addition, Lee makes just about any part they can't find. He's so proficient at fabricating parts that he sells his handcrafted fabrications to other Cockshutt collectors. Jim's long-time companion, Pat Sterling, also helps. She provides the artwork and finial details for each restored tractor.

The fun of tractors is "10 percent restoring, and 90 percent the friends and people you get to meet," Jim says. "We've met hundreds of nice people."

Team Cockshutt

One of the nice folks the Northrups have met is now one of their restoration partners. C.S. "Skip" Chamberlain is the restoration team's engine block expert. Jim, Lee and Skip are all members of the International Cockshutt Club. Skip is the current director, and Jim is a former director of the organization that boasts more than 1,600 members internationally. Luckily for Lee and Jim, Skip worked for years as a technical supervisor for Cockshutt. Skip originally met the Northrups quite by accident. The way Skip explains it, he was in a local store in 1991 waiting for his wife, who was Christmas shopping nearby, when he saw Jim, who was waiting for Pat to return.

"We were two of the most bored-looking men you've ever seen," Skip says with a smile. Skip started talking to the tractor collector. When Jim mentioned Cockshutt tractors, Skip told him that he used to work for the company. Jim said simply, "We have to talk."

Their conversation about old iron continued after the ladies returned. "Now there were two of the most bored-looking women you'd ever seen," Skip adds with a laugh.

Not long after, Skip bought a Cockshutt Model 550 diesel tractor, and the rest, as they say, is history. Skip's wife told Jim, "I hope you're happy. You got him hooked!" Even if Jim fueled the fire, it wasn't a difficult conversion.

"I always liked Cockshutts," Skip explains. "They were built heavier, had higher horsepower, bigger tires, live PTO and live hydraulics. They were designed better, and were much more reliable."

Even though he'd never owned a Cockshutt tractor, Skip fondly recalls working at the factory as a technician. "I liked the people I worked with at Cockshutt, and always kind of liked working for the underdog," he says. "It gave me a lot of satisfaction when we sold a Cockshutt over other brands."

The tractor restoration partnership has obviously been beneficial for them all. A testimonial to their restoration work came at a farm show where the men displayed a 1961 Cockshutt restored so well that it looked new. "A fella came up and said 'I didn't know that they were still making these,'" Skip says proudly.

Lost treasures & garden tractors

Even though they've seen about everything related to Cockshutt tractors, the Northrup brothers still find surprises. About 1990, the Northrup brothers were visiting neighbors and learned that they had a 1956 Cockshutt Black Hawk Model 35L in their barn. Before that, no Black Hawks had surfaced in the area, Jim says.

Cockshutt purchased the U.S.-based Black Hawk Cultivator Co., and used the defunct firm's name on tractors to retain name recognition among potential customers, Lee says.

Lee and Jim bought the tractor and restored it. The restoration was so good, a member of the family that they had purchased the tractor from didn't recognize the Black Hawk when he saw it at a Syracuse, N.Y., farm show. "Man, that's a beautiful tractor," he said. "We used to have one like that."

When the Jim and his brother explained that the Black Hawk was the same tractor, the fella couldn't believe it, Jim says. The collectors let the disbeliever sit on the Black Hawk and even took a photo. "I get to sit on the L!" the man said excitedly as they snapped his picture.

The Black Hawk tractor was Lee's favorite until he converted a pair of Montgomery Ward garden tractors to look like a Cockshutt Model 540 and Model 550. Both are painted harvest gold and red, and are powered by Briggs & Stratton gasoline engines. The tiny 540 sports a 14-hp engine, while the 550 runs on a 12-hp engine.

Although the miniature 540 only took about three weeks to convert, the 550 took about 1,000 hours to complete, Jim says. "I had to lengthen the frame and front spindles and modify the steering and throttle linkage to make it look like the original," Lee explains. "I basically made the whole dash." Lee did all the metal fabrication on the little 550, and Jim painted the tractor.

The models even have their own serial numbers (as required by customs officials) so that Lee could truck them out of the country to Milton, Ontario, Canada, for shows. Since they are one of a kind, they both carry the serial no. 0001.

To keep them dry and in good running condition, the pampered pair is housed in Lee's barbershop located in North Western, N.Y. They fit right in with his vast collection of Cockshutt models and other company memorabilia on display. Lee is such a dedicated Cockshutt man, he even wears socks that carry the Cockshutt logo. One might say he's Cockshutt crazy.

Thanks to the Northrup brothers, and friends like Skip and Pat, Cockshutt tractors won't soon fade into history. "Someone came up to us at a show and was so pleased that someone was taking these and doing something with them,: Skip says. That's where the satisfaction lies for Cockshutt collectors, keeping the past alive.

"The Cockshutts are largely forgotten," Jim concludes. "Taking some-thing that's a piece of junk and making it into something nice - that's what it's all about."

Cockshutt tractors at a glance

Not as well known as Deere & Co. or International Harvester Co., Cockshutt tractors were produced by the Cockshutt Plow Co., Brandford, Ontario, Canada. The company was founded by James C. Cockshutt, and sold Oliver-made tractors until the firm began producing their own tractors in 1946. Cockshutt was the first tractor to use an independent power take-off, which farmers prized as highly as the tractor's reliability. In 1961, the White Motor Corp. purchased the Cockshutt Co.

For more information on Cockshutt tractors, visit www.Cockshutt.com.

Read about Cockshutt tractors:
Cockshutt - The Complete Story by Dennis McGrew
Memories of Engineering at Cockshutt by Ivan MacRae FC 

Brenda Potter Reynolds is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Orwell, N.Y.