A Diet High in Iron: From Fordson Tractor to Essex Coupe

A Minnesota collector, born and raised on vintage tractors, remembers the Fordson tractor that started it all.

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Above: A 1955 Allis-Chalmers CA tractor like the one shown here is not an easy find. (Photos this page by Nikki Rajala.)

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As a boy of 10, Lyle Osten decided he wanted to buy a steam traction engine. "My dad took me to the first steam show in our area," he recalls, "and as soon as I got into it, I decided I wanted to buy a steam engine."

He was, of course, too young, so he switched his sights to a Fordson tractor that only cost $20, and he and his dad got it running. Shortly thereafter, Lyle and his dad bought and worked in partnership on a 1931 18-32 Case cross-motor tractor, and the love of old iron was forever embedded in Lyle's consciousness.

Though Lyle shifted his attention to old tractors (he has about 50 today), he never forgot the steam traction engine. "When I was 15, we found a 1906 22 hp Minneapolis steam engine I wanted really bad," he says. "My father didn't want to help out on it, so we found three older gentlemen who said if I was interested in steam, they would buy it for me, help me fix it up, and later I could buy it back from them." He bought a share of the steam engine, and a few years later, bought out the whole thing. "I couldn't legally run it until I was 18, but I ran it the whole time," he says. He acquired his steam license at age 18, and another steam license later.

Wedding bells, wedding tractor

One night at a high school basketball game between Minnesota rivals Pelican Rapids (where Lyle's family farmed) and Barnesville (where Bonnie Bekkerus' family farmed), Lyle and Bonnie met. The couple dated for three years before they married, and by that time, Bonnie not only knew Lyle loved old iron, she did too. When they decided to marry, Lyle figured he would give her an unusual wedding present: a 1930 Minneapolis 17-30 cross-motor tractor. "It was just one of the tractors she liked, a very easy-starting tractor," he says, "and I thought if I gave it to her, it would keep her interested in the hobby."

Lyle and his father had found the Minneapolis in a junkyard, where the tractor was going to be cut up for scrap. "It was in excellent shape, and needed a paint job," Lyle says, "so Bonnie and I cleaned the grease off, sanded it and painted it up." At the time, though, Bonnie didn't realize it was going to be her present.

Forty-three years later, Bonnie remains delighted by the gift, which made her practically the only woman involved in the Western Minnesota Steam Threshers' Reunion at Rollag, Minn., each year. Bonnie's driven the Minneapolis in Rollag's daily parade every year since.

Allis country

Lyle grew up with Allis-Chalmers on his parents' farm, so he has a soft spot for orange tractors. As a fairly new collector, he picked up a pair of ACs on the same day: a 1937 WC wide-front, and a 1939 unstyled WF. "A friend said he had to buy five tractors to get the one he wanted - one of those all-or-nothing deals - and asked if I was interested in the pair of Allis-Chalmers tractors he'd bought, along with two John Deeres and one Minneapolis."

They agreed on a price on a Friday, and Lyle said he would come pick them up, but didn't set a date. On Monday, Lyle got a call from the owner asking where he was, and Lyle said he wasn't quite ready to come down. The owner, though, insisted he come right away, so Lyle set out with a trailer. After the two tractors had been loaded, Lyle asked why the sudden urgency to pick up the tractors. "The guy said, 'I collect John Deere, and I don't want anybody to see me with any Allises.' He was a true green collector, with about 150 John Deeres in his collection."

Other ACs in Lyle's collection include a 1949 styled WF from Canada. "We were at a museum in Yuma, Ariz.," Lyle says, "and a guy from Alberta started making small talk. He asked if there were any special tractors I was looking for, and I said I was still trying to find a reasonably priced styled WF. I told him what I'd pay, and he took my card."

Three months later the man called to ask if Lyle had found his WF yet, and he was happy to find out Lyle hadn't. "Good," he said. "I bought one for you. I have it in my shop. You come up and stay with us, and pick the tractor up."

Because the Ostens didn't know the Canadian man and his wife, they planned to stay in a motel, but he insisted they stay in their home. When the Ostens said they preferred not to, the man said "If you don't stay with us, I'm not going to show you where the tractor is," as it was stored at a different site.

The Ostens discovered the Canadians were very gracious, and the two couples have since become good friends. The styled WF was not in working condition, but Lyle's new friend got it running, and didn't charge for any of the work he had done.

Another one of Lyle's Allis-Chalmers tractors - a 1955 CA with a single front wheel - was the result of a deal five years in the making. He bought it from a Phoenix, Ariz., man. "I have not seen many CAs," Lyle says, "although I think there are more out there." The Osten grandkids use the CA to make small square bales and drive in parades.

Orange plus

Lyle's collection is not limited to Allis-Chalmers. He has a B.F. Avery tractor he found advertised in a Pelican Rapids-area newspaper. "The guy who had it before me used it for lawn landscaping, so he shortened the frame, put a blade on it and took a steering sector off a car to raise the blade up and down because it didn't have any hydraulics." After he got the big Avery, Lyle decided he wanted a miniature, and finally found one. "The miniature cost me only $50 less than the tractor," he says with a chuckle.

One of his favorites is his 1920 (or 1921) Frick tractor. "I have two of them, but only one runs," he says. "These are the only ones we know of west of Chicago. I belong to the Frick Engine Club, and nobody has seen any other Fricks west of Chicago." Manufactured by the Frick Co. Inc., of Waynesboro, Pa., just 820 Fricks were built, and only about 15 are known to survive.

Lyle got one of the Fricks in a complicated trade. "We had two Allis-Chalmers 15-25 tractors after we bought out an antique dealer in Escanaba, Mich., so we decided to get rid of one." He knew of a man attempting to collect one of every Allis-Chalmers model, and he hadn't been able to find a 15-25, so Lyle offered it to him in trade for another tractor. "He came up with a list of tractors he would trade for it, and on this list was a Frick. I'd never heard of it, so I said I'd get back to him."

After doing some research, Lyle decided he wanted the Frick, so he and his dad loaded up the 15-25 and met the collector in Iowa, and swapped for the Frick, which turned out to be a bit on the rough side. "The Frick really needed a lot of work. The fenders were gone, the top and bottom of the radiator was gone, though the core was there, and the gas tank was gone, so we figured it would take a couple of months to get it running."

In fact, restoration took a year, partly because the Frick had a Beaver engine, and parts were hard to find. Finally, they took valves out of a Caterpillar D-8, cut them down and made a crank. They didn't have a Frick magneto on the engine, and a friend kept urging them to get an original one, which would have cost $380. Another friend had shelves of old magnetos … including three non-working Fricks. Combined, the three were used to create one good magneto. The finished result is a beauty. "When we take it to any show, it's a real eye-catcher."

Another of Lyle's favorites is the Allis that isn't an Allis. "I'd known where this Allis-Chalmers UC tractor was in Yuma, Ariz., for three years, and after bugging the guy about it, he finally sold it to me," Lyle recalls. "He said he'd bought it in Louisiana. After I brought it home, I described it to a friend." Then his buddy came to see the tractor. "You don't have an Allis-Chalmers," he said. "That's a Thomson." "He'd been down to Louisiana looking for one, and finally found one," Lyle noted. "He had a book on Thomsons, so he photocopied it so we could know more about it. I had never seen or heard about the Thomson."

The Thomson, built by Thomson Machinery Co. of Thibodaux, La., was originally an Allis-Chalmers Model UC cane tractor. After Allis quit building the UC, the Louisiana company bought Allis parts and used them to produce the Thomson UCD.

Lyle's 1935 Allis-Chalmers WC is another of his favorites, because he used it on the farm. "In 1963 I needed an extra tractor, and an elderly gentleman had one with no starter, no lights, no nothing on it, but it ran. He wanted $125 for it, so even though the tires were ragged, one had fluid in it and the back wheels didn't match, I bought it from him. I told him I didn't have any money, and he said, 'You milk cows. Give me $25 now and $25 for the next four months.' We farmed with that tractor for six years. It was my second tractor, for the manure spreader and that type of thing."

A few years after he parked the tractor, Lyle decided to restore it to original factory condition, so he hunted up steel wheels, scraped it down, and cleaned it and gave it a paint job. "I still have it, and I run it at shows. Every time I get on it, I think of all the hours I used it on the farm."

The Essex

One of Lyle's most unusual finds was an old Essex coupe automobile he found in a ramshackle garage when he was 15. "Some friends and I were hunting ducks and were going through a slough on the back side of the farm when we saw it in the shed."

The farm was abandoned, so Lyle found out who the owner was, and visited him in a nursing home. "He lit right up and said, 'Of course that was my car.' He was a bachelor, and the car only had 15,000 miles on it. I asked him if there was any chance I could buy it, but he said, 'No, you can't buy it.' My heart just sank, but then he said, 'If you can get it out of there, you can have it.'"

After agreeing on a purchase price of $10, Lyle and crew used jacks to get the Essex out, as the car's roof was holding up the roof of the garage. After some work, Lyle drove the Essex to a job in Pelican Rapids (a 16-mile round trip) every Saturday. Eventually, he put on 2,000 miles making the commute, but the car hasn't been used regularly since.

Contented tractor owner

Today, Lyle's content with his collection. "I don't have anything in the back of my mind that I really want right now," he says. "It would have to be something that we would stumble across, like that Thomson. That was just a fluke."

"I just enjoy collecting tractors," he muses. "I'm doing it for my kids and grandkids, so they'll have something their dad or grandfather had." He and Bonnie still like to drive around the countryside, both in Minnesota and in Arizona, where they winter, looking for old tractors. "You never know what you're going to find," Lyle says.

- For more information:

Lyle Osten, Route 1, Box 95, 28572 172nd Ave., Callaway MN 56521-9682; (218) 375-3285.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com