Consider this a warning: Even if you aren't a collector, reading Farm Tractor Collection, a new release by MBI Publishing Company, may persuade you to start.
Anyway, you'll gain a wealth of knowledge about your favorite tractor lines and their corporate histories. This book is suitable for display on your coffee table, but it won't stay there long. Packed with 200 full-color photographs and 50 black-and-white illustrations, it almost brings tractor-related collectibles to life.
Historian-collector-restorer-humorist Roger Welsch puts the subject of collecting into perspective as well as any expert I've read. In the book's foreword, he advises against trying to make sense of collectors and collecting. The collector, he says, has a complete inventory of reasons why he collects, say, brass Minneapolis Moline tractor radiator caps, among them: "...They're a terrific investment... They make perfect Christmas gifts since they can be used as ashtrays or windchimes or even earrings if you don't happen to own a Minne-Mo tractor..." Then there's Welsch's personal favorite collector's rationale: "I eventually want to restore a tractor and the radiator cap just happens to be where I'm getting my start."
"Don't get me wrong - things have their charm, value and story," Welsch continues. "That's why this book is in your hands, after all - so you can look at things. But those of us who scour junkyards and antique stores, bargain endlessly with antique dealers, and stand patiently in the rain waiting for a box of old staplers and letter openers to be raised in the auctioneer's hand because we've spotted, way down toward the bottom, six unsharpened Farmall Tractor dealer's pencils, the excitement lies precisely there - in the game of looking for treasures, in the surprise and delight of finding them, in the thrill and strategy of competing for them with others, and in the final victory of taking those prizes home and adding them to others -- and then telling others about all that... You like to hear or read stories like that, because you have stories, too... I love old tractors and everything associated with them because... well, because I do."
The MBI staff wisely assigned chapters and sections to various tractor magazine editors and writers, instead of placing the text in the hands of one author. For example, writer/collector Ed Bezanson, who writes a column for Antique Power magazine, collaborated with collector Ray Crilley on the Caterpillar chapter. Keith Oltrogge, editor of Wild Harvest-Massey Collector's News, wrote the chapter on Massey-Harris/Massey-Ferguson. And Kurt Aumann, editor of Belt Pulley magazine, assembled the chapter on Minneapolis-Moline. That broad expertise lends considerable credibility to the book.
Other major tractor lines and related memorabilia covered are Allis-Chalmers, Case, Ford, International Harvester, John Deere and Oliver. There's also a chapter on company histories and collectibles of "orphans" (tractors made by manufacturers who later folded, went bankrupt or otherwise disappeared).
A passage dealing with Advance-Rumely is a good example. An oil sample case (typical of that carried by salesmen to show farmers the different models and grades of oil used in a Rumely), is shown, as are a match safe, watch fobs, operator's manuals, a copy of Oilpull Magazine from the 1920s, and vintage advertising.
Orphan-related collectibles are often the most difficult to find, writes Kurt Aumann, who penned that chapter.
"By 1917, there were well over 200 companies producing farm tractors. These ranged from the small companies that hand-built nearly unknown tractors like the Fair-Mor and Besser, to big companies like Case and International. Companies that produced tractors like the Happy Farmer and the Plow Boy were clearly naming their tractors to gain the slightest edge in the cutthroat tractor market... (which leaves) today's tractor memorabilia collector with a large array of material that can trace the steps of tractor development. While finding literature from the large, still popular manufacturers such as Fordson and International Harvester is relatively easy, locating a Hart-Parr sign or a Parrett dealer display is another deed altogether... So many items from this early era cannot be accurately valued because of their scarcity."
The often-colorful histories of manufacturers are covered extensively, showing the influence of corporate growth on the types, designs and quality of what are today's collectibles.
"Collectible," by the way, defines everything from parts to promotional items bearing the tractor maker's name, logo and slogan. For instance, a John Deere wrench with that imprint and wrench number would appeal not only to JD tractor fans, but also to the serious wrench and tool collector. Do you collect 'paper' items - old ads and instruction manuals? This book is for you. Or maybe you're a watch collector who owns an old tractor: there's likely a picture in this book of an old fob for your tractor line. And then there's farm toys and scale models... The list of collectibles goes on and on, and 'Farm Tractor Collectibles' covers it all.
Including prices. A brief price guide is included. That's good, and it's good that the editors kept it brief, because prices and values vary widely. Price and value depend on many factors: region, who's buying (and why), who's selling (and how), weather and convenience (such as, if it's raining at a farm auction in North Dakota 30 miles from town on a mud road on the same day of a similar auction in Nebraska... you get the idea).
Back to company histories: I was raised on IH Farmalls and now own a Model H and collectibles from wrenches to promotional items. But I still learned more than I expected to when I went through the Farmall history in "Farm Tractor Collectibles." I've been interested in Fordsons for some time, but it was interesting to glean – through this book – that they'd been shipped to British farms during World War I as "MoM" (Minister of Munition) tractors. Then there were The Tractor Wars, when Henry Ford made a run at the competition by pricing his tractor at $395 (below cost), forcing some manufacturers to drop their prices or fold up entirely. Those that survived, though, grew stronger as a result.
Details like those – and much more make this book a classic for the collector. And if you're not a collector yet, this book may make you one.
Farm Tractor Collectibles, MBI Publishing Company, 729 Prospect Avenue, PO Box 1, Osceola, WI 54020; 160 pages, hardbound. FC
Gary Van Hoozer is a Missouri writer specializing in vintage agriculture and farm history.