Homemade Tractor Built From Scratch

Homemade tractor, nicknamed “Katydid,” restored after 40 years in the scrap pile.
By Larry F. Whitesell
April 2012
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The restored Katydid is not exactly the same tractor that my dad, Francis Whitesell, built, but it’s close. Toward the end I enlisted my brother Jerry to help wire the ignition and alternator, and we fired her up and backed her out of the shop. Dad drove her for the first time 67 years ago, and 50 years ago he drove her for the last time.
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In 1944, my father, Francis “Doc” Whitesell, was a young farmer in Vigo County, Ind. He and my mom were expecting their first children (my twin brothers, Jerry and Jim). My folks were farming for a living, and needed a farm tractor. But at that time nearly all manufacturing was devoted to the war effort and almost no tractors were being built — and even if one was available, I’m sure it would have cost more than my folks could afford. 

Homemade tractor

Dad was a bit of a mechanical genius, so he decided to build a tractor from scratch. His uncle, Homer Haymaker, had a welding shop, and he agreed to do the welding on the project. The engine came from a 1936 Chevy with a 3-speed transmission going into a 4-speed transmission going into a truck rear end. The 20-inch truck tires were replaced by 24-inch tractor tires on the rear and 19-inch car tires on six-hole spoke rims on the front. The front tires almost touched at the bottom; this would aid in steering.

For ballast on the rear, Dad took burlap bags and laid them over the angle iron drawbar that stretched across the width of the rear end and part of the frame to make a bottom form over the differential. Then he mixed concrete and poured it down onto the differential and laid bricks and rocks to form a block. This was the weight for traction, but it also served as a seat for us boys for many years.

A need for speed

With two transmissions, the tractor had a wide range of speeds. It would go slow enough to pull a tomato setter (also made by Dad). On those occasions, the tractor had to go very slow as two people sat near the ground and placed plants as it traveled along, making holes and filling them with water and tomato sets.

The tractor could also travel very fast. My brother Jim remembers Dad telling him of running 55 mph once, before shutting it down a bit for fear of the rear tires coming apart. My brother Jerry tells about coming home with Dad on the tractor from the elevator at Paris, Ill., and being passed by a moving van. Jerry remembers how long it took the truck to pass them as Dad decided to have a little fun and speed up to about 50 mph. Dad had a thing for speed.

When Dad drove his homemade tractor home for the first time from Uncle Homer’s and Mom saw him coming down the road, she said, “That looks like a Katydid coming down the road.” I’ve researched Katydids and frankly don’t know how she came up with that, but the name stuck and it’s been the Katydid ever since.

Seventeen years of service

Dad used the Katydid for many things over the next 17 years before retiring it in 1961. I believe he wore out three engines in it. By that time, he had more tractors and bigger ones, and was worried that one of us boys might get hurt on it, because of its capacity for speed.

Over the years we robbed parts off it. Like a host of other machinery, it sat back under some trees that we referred to as “the shed.” Two years before Dad died, he sold the ground the Katydid was sitting on. Before he gave up possession of the land, he hitched on to the remains of the Katydid, cut a tree out of the middle of it and drug it to a piece of ground he still owned.

Later, after he passed away, I cleaned up the area. I rented a backhoe, took a week of vacation and started scrapping. My nephew and cousin hauled stuff away and I spent a week loading and burning and sorting. All week the Katydid remains were in my way, but I couldn’t bring myself to put her on a load of scrap. At the end of the week I loaded her up and brought her home with me, along with some other stuff I just couldn’t part with. I never knew what Dad had in mind by dragging her over to the land he’d hung on to, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t to send her off to the scrap yard.

Proud relic

The Katydid lay in a pile at my place, untouched, for 10 years. With this project haunting me all that time, I dug her out and got to work. She’s as close to the original as possible. Since Dad used her to haul grain to the elevator, a license plate was required, so I got on eBay and found 1944 and 1961 plates to signify her first and last years of service. The 1944 plate is small; during the war years they were trying to save metal, so license plates were scaled down.

Dad once told me that for three years, the Katydid was the only tractor on the farm. One year he plowed 70 acres with her alone. That’s a good bit of work with a 2-bottom, 14-inch plow. He also used her to power a stationary hay baler. She didn’t have a belt pulley so he would line her up and then jack up a rear wheel, put her in a very low gear selection and run the flat belt off the tire. The Katydid got a lot of use and did a lot of work and was a pretty amazing piece of machinery for the time.

Today I live near Tipton, Ind., but I still own a few acres of the original home place in Vigo County. This summer I plan to load up the Katydid and take her back to her old stomping grounds for a ride. I’m hoping to find a few folks still living in the area who will remember her, as I love to hear stories about her when I get back there and talk to people. I plan to retrace the routes she ran so many times between my grandparents’ farms and past Rose Hill Cemetery, where Mom and Dad are buried, as well as Sandford and New Goshen. FC 

For more information: Larry F. Whitesell, 4314 S 300 W, Tipton, IN 46072; email: lana@tiptontel com. 


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