Farming on 2 Cylinders

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Detail of Donny's 1937 John Deere commemorative centennial plaques

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Donny Welch is the fourth generation to live and work on his family's Bunker Hill, Ill., farm. He's also a master tractor mechanic with a long career at the local John Deere dealership. As a young man, Donny worked at his uncle Alexander's John Deere dealership where he gained a deep appreciation for all things green.

'At the dealership, I started as a truck driver and equipment set-up man,' Donny says. 'Eventually, I filled an opening in the shop. Of course I still helped Dad with the farming, too.'

Having survived 41 years of tractor repair experience - and several dealership changes - Donny retired from the implement business as head mechanic in autumn 2001. With the added free time, Donny devotes more energy to maintaining the many two-cylinder workhorses he's collected - and still uses.

'There are many more projects here than I can ever get to,' Donny frankly admits.

Reflecting on his long career, Donny recalls with clarity many of the machines he worked on and their owners. He can recount what went wrong with each piece of equipment and how he fixed it. With an easy, reassuring style, Donny can explain which tractor models were particularly good and which were lemons. After so many years behind the wrench, he intuitively knows the particular strengths of specific tractor models, and which frustrate even the most patient farmer - or repairman. 'Don't think for a minute that every thing John Deere made was gold,' Donny says with a knowing smile. Even though some less-than-exceptional green equipment was manufactured through the years, Donny's experience with Deere & Co. tractors taught him that the later 20 Series models were the best as a group.

'As far as I'm concerned, they (John Deere) quit making tractors after the 20 Series models,' Donny says. 'They were the most economical tractors tested at Nebraska at the time. You could run those tractors forever with a bit of fuel, a little care and lubrication.'

Donny farms exclusively with such a fleet of tractors, including 420, 520, 620, 720 and 820 models.

Farming favorites

Big Bad John, a special Model 720 diesel, stands out as Donny's favorite workhorse. This 1956 gasoline-started tractor steers with a wide-front axle that was salvaged from a tractor hit by a 200-car coal train. The Model 720 sports a custom dual exhaust and intake that Donny fabricated. 'One of the easiest ways to gain horsepower is to let the engine breathe a little easier,' Donny says, and that's just what his modification accomplishes.

Donny uses Big Bad John for virtually all of his ground preparation, and in the winter it serves double duty with a rear-mounted snow blower.

'When he's done, so am I,' Donny says about Big Bad John. Despite his ominous prediction, there's a certain twinkle in Donny's eye as he nods toward the pile of donor parts that he hopes will keep the big tractor running for years to come.

While Big Bad John is his favorite, Donny has an interesting collection of different models and variants, all within the 20 Series. These include all-fuel, propane and gasoline versions of the 520, 620 and 720 tractor models. He also has both the gas-start and electric-start Model 720 diesels, and a Model 820 gas-start diesel. With so many acres to cover on Donny's family farm, each machine finds useful work in the course of a year.

Donny harvests his grain with one of two John Deere Model 95 combines from the 1960s. 'These are 6-cylinder gassers, but they work perfectly for my acreage,' he explains. Donny has one combine outfitted with a corn head and the other with a grain head for cutting wheat and soybeans.

Donny hauls grain to town with a 1974 Chevrolet hoist box truck. 'It isn't as much fun as the 620 LP pulling the wagon,' Donny explains. 'But with the truck, I can usually make it to town and be back combining in less than 15 minutes.'

Furloughed friends

Donny also has many John Deere tractors that aren't in the 20 Series. These machines get used only rarely - if at all - and are more like family heirlooms or even old friends that he drops by to see now and then.

The first tractor in his extensive collection was a Model G that his cousin traded in exchange for work in 1970. The tractor was over grown with weeds - and his cousin's kids once put an axe through the radiator - but such is the life of a forgotten tractor. Despite those minor obstacles, Donny had that tractor running again within just a few months.

Shortly after the Model G, Donny obtained a 1935 Model A, 1928 Model D and 1935 Model B. He painted all four tractors once they were running well and cut his own stencils for the lettering and logo, which were originally silk-screened onto the tractors at the factory. 'They were a little shorter than original and not quite as smooth, but they worked well for the time,' Donny says about the now-antiquated application technique.

'These tractors really gave me the collecting bug, though,' Donny adds about the mud-dauber covered foursome now tucked inside an old chicken house.

Donny also has the steel-wheeled Model D that was delivered new in 1936 to his grandfather, and a 1952 Model B that was delivered new to his father. In fact, with so many models - each with a unique pedigree - Donny isn't exactly sure how many tractors he owns. 'It must be somewhere over 35 scattered around here,' he says. In addition to the tractors, he has many new-old-stock John Deere parts and tools, as well as Deere-specific literature and memorabilia.

Donny's youngest child, Donna, is taken with two-cylinder farming, too. 'She's the only one who showed any interest in these tractors or working the farm,' Donny says. Thus, the fifth Welsch generation is groomed to keep the two-cylinder farm popping long after Big Bad John finally gives up the ghost.

- Donny Welch welcomes correspondence with other two-cylinder farmers and old tractor enthusiasts. Contact him at 12706 Mansholt Road, Bunker Hill, IL 62014.

Oscar 'Hank' Will III is an old-iron collector and restorer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Whittier, Calif, and his farm in East Andover, N.H. and writes about the machines and people he meets in between. Write him at 13952 Summit Drive, Whittier, CA 90602; (562) 696-4024; e-mail: owill@mail.whittier.edu