Garden Classics

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Eshelman garden tractor

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When Dustin Scott of Russellville, Ohio, goes shopping for a garden tractor, he has Panzers only on his mind. When Danny McCloskey of Walton, Ind., heads out, it's 'something different' that catches his eye.

At a swap meet in May 1997 in Jones, Mich., Danny and his brother, Allen McCloskey, saw something different indeed. 'Actually, there were two of them there,' Danny recalls, 'and we'd never seen one before.' They were Eshelman garden tractors, made by the Cheston L. Eshelman Co. of Baltimore.

The brothers ended up buying one. With a hood and grille, Danny says, theirs is considered a 'Deluxe,' but despite that designation, it's rather crudely made. For starters, the frame has a lot of torch work on it, instead of more finished, fitted pieces, and there's only a simple roller chain running back to the gearbox. To go forward, the driver engages a clutch lever. There is no reverse gear; to back up, the driver pulls the clutch lever back and pushes down on a 'reverse' pedal, which sets loose 3/8-inch ball bearings in the hubs. When the bearings fall into grooves on the axle, the wheels start to turn again. 'It takes two or three seconds to change directions,' Danny says, adding the brakes work off that reverse pedal too.

The only identifications on the tractor are the name 'Eshelman' and 'Riding '56 Tractor' cast into the grille, and the number '1956' on top of the gear case, under the seat. Danny takes that to be the year the machine was made.

When the McCloskeys bought their Eshelman, it had been painted red and the paint had faded over time. As they began the restoration, they uncovered both yellow and gray paint too. In addition to repainting all the parts in yellow with red trim, they replaced the tractor's mismatched engine with a model 23 Briggs & Stratton engine, 'which is what it should be,' Danny says, and put on four new tires. The two front tires that were on the tractor when they bought it also were mismatched, giving the machine a sad and disheveled look.

Danny says the grille appears to have a broken tooth, 'but that's the way it should be.' Photos of another Eshelman product, a mini car called a 'Sportabout,' show the same grille pattern too.

The brothers previously knew of an Eshelman kiddie car, owned by a man at Monrovia, Ind., and later, they learned about Eshelman micro or mini cars for adults, as well as Eshelman snow plows, which were mounted on car fronts, and Eshelman Kulti-Mowers and walking tractors. 'And that's basically what this is,' Danny says of their machine. 'They just bent the handles of the walking plow over for a place for a seat.'

Since he and Allen bought the tractor, they've not seen another, and they don't remember who they bought theirs from or know who bought the other one. They've even been back to the same swap meet - taken their restored Eshelman there - but nobody said anything.

Through a magazine article, Danny learned of an Eshelman fan in New Jersey with whom he has corresponded, and from whom he has learned a few more facts about the firm and its founder. Also, one of Danny's twin sons, Daniel, posted pictures of the tractor on his Web site, prompting calls to Danny from an Oklahoma man, who said he also had one of the garden tractors, and from a Georgia man, who said he had one of the adult sports cars.

Danny says he's personally seen one of the kiddie cars, also equipped with a Briggs & Stratton engine - in a 1950s TV commercial for an Indianapolis securities firm. Occasionally, he learns of Eshelman items offered for sale on eBay, the Internet auction site. To date, a saw, sicklebar mower and reel mower are among the items to come up.

Occasionally, the McCloskeys take their Eshelman to a show. Danny usually hitches a little, iron-wheeled wagon to it that he bought 35 years ago at an auction. He says he bought two engines at that auction and one was sitting on the wagon, which didn't have sides at the time. Danny made sides and painted the little wagon, including adding 'McCloskey' to the sides, so his boys - the other twin is David - could ride in it at shows when they were young.

Danny and Allen (and more recently, their sons, too) have been collecting 'mostly bigger stuff' since 1960. They have about 50 full-sized tractors, including a Reliable made in the late teens in Portsmouth, Ohio. The original owner still lives near the showgrounds in Tipton, Ind., where the brothers frequently display this machine.

Danny also has more garden tractors, including nine Cub Cadets, and a few toy tractors too. In the last few years, he says he's tried to stick mostly with full-sized Internationals (his collection includes a 1934 W12 and a 1938 F14 with a loader on the front) while his brother goes for what Danny calls 'more odd-ball stuff,' such as Olivers and Massey-Harris machines. Danny says he worked at the International dealership in Logansport until it closed in 1981; since then, he's worked at a tool and die shop, as does son David. 'We collect just for our own enjoyment,' he says. 'A lot of this we got before other people wanted it.'

Dustin over in Russellville, Ohio, owns about 15 Panzer garden tractors, half of which are restored, and he says he's always on the lookout for more. But it's only these distinctive turquoise Panzers, or their older, red-and-yellow sister tractors, that he wants.

'They were simply made and easy to work on,' he says, 'They're belt driven, with one lever for forward and reverse; three speeds and independent braking on each side. I like the looks of them; they're nice for the kids; they're easy to store and haul, and they're safer than full-sized tractors.'

In short, he loves 'em, and we haven't even mentioned the Panzer pictures on his living room walls or the 'Panzers Only' parking sign in his drive.

Dustin spent two years restoring his first Panzer, a 'basket case' given to him in December 1997, and the experience made him a loyal fan. He'd gone with one of his brothers to pick up an antique car and discovered a Panzer T70bes back of the seller's garage. That man told him he'd bought the Panzer new and after he'd had it for a while, tried unsuccessfully to turn it into a lawn roller. When that didn't work, he parked it. Dustin expressed interest and was invited to haul the little tractor away.

It had big, round flat wheels on the back, intended to serve as the rollers, Dustin recalls, but no traction, so that idea just didn't work. To restore the machine, Dustin replaced the right frame rail, rebuilt the Briggs & Stratton motor, which is a 7 hp, and tracked down some new wheels.

The toughest problem was finding those wheels, he says, but since joining the Panzer Tractor Owners Club, based in Manassas, Va., he has found a number of sources for new old stock or new parts machined off originals.

After Dustin finished that first restoration and began to look for another machine, he had a little trouble finding one, he recalls, 'but now the floodgates have opened.' According to the 'The Panzer Page' on the Internet, these garden tractors first were manufactured in 1954 in College Park, Md., and later in Laurel, Md., Waynesboro, Va., and finally Martinsburg, W.V., where production ceased in 1972. The Maryland company was Copar Inc., and beginning in Virginia, it was Virginia Metalcrafters, a firm that retained the Copar name on some of the models.

In the spring of 1999, Dustin bought Panzers for his children, Courtney, now 12, Carissa, 8, and Trenton, 7. Because so many parts are interchangeable, Panzers are hard to date, but Dustin estimates Courtney has about a 1963 T-70, Carissa a 1963 T-70bes and Trenton, a 1961 T-70b. All have 6 hp Briggs & Stratton engines in them, and Dustin says the children 'have a blast' driving the little machines.

Only Trenton's had to be restored. 'I took every nut and bolt out of it,' Dustin says, 'sandblasted and used Bondo to fill scratches and chips in the surface; then painted it again.' The engine didn't need any work.

'I've only gotten rid of one Panzer - and that was to my best friend.' - Dustin Scott

Panzers made after 1959 were painted 'Tantalizing Turquoise,' but that paint is no longer on the market, Dustin says. He has been substituting a paint called 'Teal' and made by Martin Senior, which is a Sherwin Williams brand, but now that color has been discontinued too. Luckily, Dustin has some extra stashed.

Earlier Panzers - those made from the tractor's introduction in 1954 until '59 - were painted red and yellow. Although most of Dustin's machines are of the more-recent style, a few of the older ones can be found in his collection. He recently finished restoring a 1958 model T-210 4-wheeler with a 3-point lift, and in June, he bought an even earlier treasure: a 1954 model A, with a single front wheel, serial no. 303. 'It's in fair shape,' he says. 'It came out of Monson, Mass.' Restoring the model A will be Dustin's upcoming winter project.

He says he'd still like to find one of the 'Pennsylvania Meteor' Panzers, which were among the later models made, but that's not as high on his wish list as the model A was.

He'd also like to add more Panzer implements to his collection as full lines of implements were manufactured and sold. He owns mower decks, a snow plow and a snow thrower, but would love to find a front-end loader (only 200 were made and one of those was run over in the factory before it could even get to a showroom floor) and a rototiller (these were powered by a separate motor).

Once he buys a piece, he says, he never sells it. 'I've only gotten rid of one Panzer - and that was to my best friend.'

The Scott family, including wife, Kristi, attend about five shows a year with their collection. Family favorites include the Highland County Antique Machinery Show in late June in Hillsboro, Ohio, and the Ohio Valley Antique Machinery Show in early August in Georgetown, Ohio. Dustin says that in addition to discovering collectible Panzers for sale at such gatherings, running ads and following up on word-of-mouth tips are the most effective ways to find them. 'Beat the bushes,' he advises. 'They're hiding.' FC

-Contact Dustin at 411 N. Middle St., P.O. Box 177, Russellville, OH 45168; (937) 377-6871; e-mail: Panzerclan5@yahoo.com

-Contact Danny at RR. 1, Walton, IN 46994; (574) 859-4500; e-mail: McCloskey@tds.net