Happy Days for Happy Farmer

Father and son restore little-known Wisconsin-built tractor

Front view of the Happy Farmer tractor

Marshal and Randy Reysen restored this 1917 Happy Farmer 12-24 Model B over a period of months. Few Happy Farmers have survived, Randy says, “I’ve heard of 20 to 25 that have surfaced.”

Courtesy Randy Reysen

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Poorly designed, badly built, little known: The Happy Farmer tractor is not a natural choice for restoration.

But after an industrial-strength dose of tender loving care, Marshal Reysen’s 1917 Happy Farmer 12-24 Model B shines like the sun.

Bathed in gallons of DuPont YS 113 orange paint, it ought to. “The whole tractor is painted orange,” bemoans Marshal’s son Randy, who worked side-by-side with his dad on the restoration. “Madison-Kipp painted their oilers black before they left the factory or I am sure that would be orange too.”

More than meets the eye

Marshal bought the 2-cylinder tractor in March 2007. “Randy wanted it,” he recalls, “but he didn’t have the money so he came to me. We looked at it and I said ‘What the heck.’” It was a marriage made in heaven. “Dad had the money and interest in the tractor,” Randy says, “and I had the excitement.”

The two are old hands with antique tractors and stationary gas engines. Marshal began tinkering with old tractors and engines in the 1970s. He restored a 20-40 Rumely OilPull, and then, with an assist from sons Randy and Rob, a 1930 22-45 Eagle. “I’ve just always been interested in old iron,” he says, “and I think Randy took over where I left off.”

Marshal bought the Happy Farmer from the family of the late Bob Knoeck, who’d owned the tractor since the early 1980s. Bob bought the tractor from a Kansas collector who’d owned it for some 20 years. When Bob and his son Matt, West Bend, Wis., went to get the tractor, it was buried under a pile of scrap iron. “Before they could load the tractor, they literally had to dig it out,” Randy says.

When Marshal got the tractor, it was plenty rough: It wouldn’t even roll until the wheels were removed, turned around and put back on, preventing the drive gear from meshing with the pinion. The carburetor was missing (though later found), the engine was stuck and one of the rockers was broken.

Fortunately, there was more to the Model B than met the eye: The tractor came with a nearly complete set of replacement parts. “If it had not been for the previous owner digging around for years and finding spare parts, restoration would never have moved as fast as it did,” Randy says.

Tackling a wreck

Both men were totally committed to keeping the Happy Farmer as original as possible. “We even took out the pop rivets and re-riveted the reproduction fenders with steel rivets,” Randy admits. But that was late in the game. First came the wrenching.

Marshal is a retired farmer; Randy teaches social studies at a nearby high school. Working at night and on weekends, father and son disassembled the tractor in nine days. The crank, cylinders, block, pistons and cam were sent off for light machine work and a dip in a rust-eating solution. The governor and Hyatt roller bearings (which, like the transmission gear, were completely frozen) also took a dip.

As Marshal and Randy delved further into the project, they discovered an unanticipated problem. The transmission’s clutch flywheel had an old repair: a bushing had been shoved in and brazed, requiring boring of the transmission shaft and a few thin sleeves made to tighten the shaft properly.

They had the engine block bored and re-sleeved, and poured new brass and babbitt rod bearings, main bearings and camshaft bearings. New bushings and wrist pins were made for the pistons, and the piston was lathed for new rings.

Keeping it real

The tractor boasts an original Perfex radiator. “It’s not a reproduction,” Randy explains. “The previous owner contacted Perfex in the 1980s and asked if they could make a radiator for a 1917 Happy Farmer. They still had the plans, so they built one at the factory. It’s just 90 years newer than the tractor.”

The coil, too, is correct. The K-3 Atwater Kent coil was restored by Atwater Kent Mfg. Co., Worcester, Mass. “They restored the coil using old parts,” Randy says. “They even saved the original paper cover and reused it. The coil is restored to the appearance it had 90 years ago.”

Reproduction parts were made to be as correct as possible. The tractor’s gas tank, for instance, is an exact replica of the original, including rolled nipples on both ends. A new battery box was made to house a small gel pack rather than a full-size 6-volt battery. The box’s dimensions are very similar to those of the original, but use of the gel pack (considerably smaller than the original series of batteries) opens up storage space.

An umbrella was fashioned using dimensions from an original relic and a pole and skeleton found online. “We found fabric that matched the old one, and Mom got a friend to sew it,” Randy says. For his senior project, a high school student digitized the Happy Farmer logo for screen printing on the fabric and for production of vinyl decals. “It was a labor of love,” Randy says, “a lot of work to get all the pieces.”

Gut-wrenching growl

From the beginning, Randy’s goal was to debut the restored tractor at the 2007 Symco Union Thresheree near Manawa, Wis. Delays in engine work, though, derailed that plan. In July 2008, with the restoration completed in March, the Symco date was a sure thing … until it was time to load the tractor on the trailer.

On the big day, a “low, loud growl” from the transmission could not be ignored; plans to display the tractor at Symco Union were abandoned. As it turned out, traces of rust on the interior of the pinions worked loose when the tractor was started for the first time after restoration. “Our expert machinist friend, Ron Markus, bushed the pinions and made new pinion pins,” Randy says.

Repair was “easy,” he notes wryly, “after we removed the gas tank, top and bottom differential gear cases, two bull gear sections, both wheels, both fenders, both brake bands, battery box, all three bearing mounts and the left bevel gear.”

Looking ahead

The project completed, father and son are looking ahead to their next undertaking: restoration of Marshal’s 6 hp Sta-Rite gas engine manufactured by the Reliance Iron & Engine Co., Racine, Wis. It’s practically a cousin to the Happy Farmer: Reliance was reorganized in 1912 as the Sta-Rite Engine Co. In 1917, Sta-Rite merged with the Happy Farmer Tractor Co., resulting in the newly formed La Crosse Tractor Co.

The Sta-Rite will get the same meticulous, correct restoration that is the Reysen hallmark. Look no further than the Happy Farmer. Asked if, with hindsight, he’d do anything different on that project, Marshal didn’t hesitate. “Nope,” he answers, “not a thing.”

“The hard work was the fun of it,” Randy says. “We put heart and soul into it – the crazy road trips, the people you meet along the way … that’s what I’ll remember.” FC