Tried and True: Leander Wetter Builds Varied Tractor Collection

Minnesota collector glories in history of old machines, especially tractors that worked on the farm.

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Collector Leander Wetter at the wheel of his 1929 Twin City KT tractor.

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Leander Wetter is a man in love with history. His rural Buffalo, Minn., home is filled with historical artifacts, old movies, rows of ag-related books, boxes of old farm literature and magazines, collections of Marx train sets, pedal tractors, toy trucks, construction toys, farm toys and more. "I'd like to turn time back 50 years," the 67-year-old says, "to the lifestyle we had then. Even if it meant doing away with the air conditioner in the cab of my tractor," he adds with a laugh.

Leander is a curious mix of new and old. As a farmer, he was in the forefront of change: the first in his area with a four-wheel drive tractor, first with a Haybine, first with a grain dryer, first to plant grain in 30-inch rows instead of 38 or 40, one of the first to use chemicals on cropland, second to purchase a skid-steer tractor. The local veterinary supply business learned to send its rookies out to Leander's farm so he could hear about the latest techniques. "There was always talk," he says. "People would say, 'There goes Wetter with another wild one.'"

But he also believes in the powerful value of history. "The process of restoring and showing old tractors, for example, is a way of teaching young people how agriculture used to be, and how far we've come, of showing them how simple our country was at one time, that it wasn't always as modern as it is now."

Recalling the early days

Unlike many collectors, Leander has never had a favorite line of tractors, probably because he used so many varieties of them while farming as a youth. His earliest tractor memory was when he was 5 years old. "I drove a Farmall H at my uncle's, and to step on the clutch I had to slide off my seat down onto the seat brackets. After that, I grew up on Dad's Ford 8N."

He got into farming in a most unusual way. "The banker said I had two choices: I could go to college, and then he'd foreclose on our farm, or I could try farming and see how it went." Leander says he always regretted not going to college, but he loved farming and it was good to him.

In 1961 when Leander and his father farmed together, they bought a Massey-Harris 44 - for greater horsepower - at a time when many neighbors had John Deere tractors. One neighbor had Farmall tractors, another had a Massey-Harris Model 30, still another an Allis-Chalmers Model C. "I worked with the neighbors and drove every breed of tractor in the country," he says, "so I couldn't get to a favorite."

One that wasn't a favorite was a 1940 John Deere Model A with high and low shifting levers he used to haul corn for a Rogers, Minn., farmer. "He didn't tell me when you went down a hill, the shift lever would pop out of gear if you didn't hold it in with your foot," Leander recalls. The brakes were touchy, and one might grab firmly and whip the tractor around in a circle. When Leander came over the lip of a steep hill with a load of corn, the tractor slipped out of gear. "There was also a curve on the hill, and by the time I got to the bottom, I was really cruising," he says. "After that I used my foot to hold the gear lever in place."

Collection tells a story

Leander lives his love of history through his collection of old farm machinery. It all began with a 1934 McCormick-Deering W-30 tractor with a crank. "When I brought it to the farm my dad said, 'Cranks break arms,' and I said, 'I know that.' But I always had a hankering to own one of those you had to crank, so I decided to take a chance on it," he says.

Then there was the 1911 Baker 19-65 steam traction engine. "I remember seeing a steam engine work in downtown Buffalo years ago, sawing logs and using the water from a nearby stream, so in 1979 my brother and I thought it would be fun to own one." He quickly discovered he didn't know enough about the history of steam traction engines in general or the Baker in particular to run it.

"Nobody had a steam license, we didn't know about boiler-inspection requirements and our banker wondered why we would borrow $10,000 for a steam engine that wouldn't make us any money," he says, laughing. "We didn't know beans about peanuts, other than we had watched some of the steam traction engines run at the show. But we dragged it home from Montevideo (Minn.), and learned about it."

In those days operators could get a boiler's license if someone in the steam field vouched and signed for them. "Then you got to take a test at the boiler inspector's house, and if you passed, you got a hobby license," he says. "It was a thrill."

Since buying the rare (at least in Minnesota) Baker, Leander and his brother have replaced the engine's 50 boiler flues and second water-injection system (now required in case the old system fails). Within the next year Leander figures they'll have to replace the boiler, at a cost of $30,000. "We'll remove the mechanical parts, flywheel, piston and all that, and then remount it." Their Baker does not have a serial number.

Leander's other nod to early farming history is a 1910 36 hp Case steam traction engine. Like the Baker, it burns wood or coal. Years ago Leander heard stories about North Dakota farmers from old-timers who'd worked out of state. "Before they bought land they would make sure it had a corner with a little bit of lignite coal sticking out, so they didn't have to buy any," he says. "Things really haven't changed. In the old days they were concerned about the cost of fuel, just like today." Some engines ran on corncobs (2-1/2 tons equaling one ton of coal). "They'd be shoveling forever."

At shows, young people are awed by the heat the engines give off, while older people are impressed with how quietly they run, especially compared to the old gasoline tractors.

Collecting gas tractors

Leander's rarest farm machine is his 1929 Twin City tractor Model KT, rare because for years the official word was KTs (Kombination Tractors) were not built until 1930. "There's an interesting story to that tractor," Leander says, "but we'll probably never know all of the history on it."

The KT came from a Medina, Minn., man who had worked with it at the Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley, Minn., since the machine was new. His unofficial research determined about 50 KTs had been built in 1929 as test models. "The golf course is not far from the Twin City factory, so we figured company big shots had placed it there. I was assured this one was a 1929."

Later, a Montana man searching for the earliest KT serial number in the nation agreed his research confirmed KTs were made in 1929. Rod Beemer and Chester Peterson in Minneapolis-Moline Farm Tractors found serial numbers proving 79 of the rare 1929 models were actually made.

Talking with the Montana man, Leander discovered his tractor was the earliest-built, still-running KT in the nation. "His KT was three serial numbers earlier than my 300-015, but wasn't in running condition, and never would be, he said."

The KT attracts a crowd at shows, and people take a long look at it because of its unique history and because Twin City tractors were predecessors to Minneapolis-Moline tractors.

Three of a kind

Leander owns three CO-OP tractors. "I bought those because they're unique, and I wanted people to know about their history," he says. "They're crudely built tractors, and can actually go 35-40 mph, as rumor says."

The first was a 1936 or 1937 No. 2 CO-OP, which Leander liked because although CO-OPs were built in several states, this one was built in Michigan. He also has a CO-OP No. 2 with a PTO.

On one occasion, he heard about CO-OP fenders for sale and ended up buying the No. 3 CO-OP tractor he saw at the auction. "I'd always wanted a No. 3," he says. "I'd like to get a No. 1 someday, but I just haven't seen one on sale. It's a different tractor to have at a show, because nobody else has one." Leander's 1959 Massey Ferguson 98, one of his favorites, has an interesting history. A Massey dealer told Leander that Massey Ferguson Inc. of Detroit suffered a tractor plant fire in 1958, so the company contracted with Oliver Farm Equipment Co. of Chicago to build 500 1959 Massey Ferguson 98s. "Depending on how you ordered it," he says, "the MF 98 is almost identical to the Oliver Super 99 GM of the period or the Oliver 990."

Leander learned of the 98's peculiar history by accident one day when his son twisted off a PTO shaft while putting silage into 80-foot silos. "All we'd ever done before was fix the PTO clutches, main clutch, brakes and two flat tires," he says. "So it was no surprise."

When Leander called a salvage yard for parts, the owner gave him a strange answer. He didn't have a shaft, but he did have an offer. "He said he had a nice IHC tractor setting in front of his shop, and he'd make me a deal for a trade I couldn't turn down. He said, 'I'll also sign the invoice to say I won't scrap that 98.'"

Leander asked the dealer what was up. "He said, 'You know they only built 500 of them, don't you?' I said, 'I do now.'" A machine with that much history Leander just had to keep.

Leander's favorite tractor, for reasons more practical than historical, is his 1955 Oliver Super 99 GM, because it was the tractor that helped his farm turn a profit. "It got me over the hill, I'd say." With 78 hp, in 1955 it was the biggest horsepower tractor on the market. With larger injectors, Leander had it clocked at 90 hp on the dynamometer. "It was the same kind of tractor we'd had on the farm. Considering everything, it was quite economical, using 3 gallons an hour cultivating, plowing and chopping."

Before Leander could buy a Fordson like the one his father used on the farm in the mid-1930s, he had to find out some history: Which Fordson had his father used? "I quizzed cousins and siblings until I got enough information to determine it was a 1926 Fordson F," he says. "It was a dream I had, finally being able to afford one of them."

He also has a 1939 Montgomery Ward twin-row, which he bought because his wife, Mary, said it was one she would like to drive. The information plate on the tractor says it was built for Montgomery Ward & Co. by Cleveland Tractor Co.

The only tractor he's sold was a Huber 1937 Model B because he couldn't get it inside and it was starting to deteriorate. The guy who wanted it said he would restore it. "He still has it, totally restored as he said, and I'm happy for that."

If he wasn't collecting tractors, Leander said he'd go after whatever tickled his fancy at the moment. "One of my goals is to own one of those gas tractors that are as big as a steam engine, the Twin City 35-70 or 45-60, or the 35-70 Minneapolis, but I just haven't seen one come up for sale at a halfway reasonable price."

He'd like to have the Oliver Hart-Parr series like the 12-24, 18-36, 25-50 made in the early 1930s. "They have been on the tip of my tongue to collect at some time or another, and would fill out a part of tractor history." He's also looking for the early Oliver tractors that led to the later 90 series. "It's been on my mind to complete that if I could someday."

Finding clues in literature

Leander says there didn't used to be nearly as much information around to help with restoring as there is today. "For a while you could get a parts book, operating manual, even technical data booklets from IHC for a couple of bucks. But IHC quit doing that years ago, so restoration information was sparse for a number of years," he says. "Eventually others made copies, and if that fails, you can see the guys who sell old literature, like Jim Swenson and Clarence Goodburn."

Leander has also taken up the old literature hobby. "It's a way of seeing what the different equipment looked like in real life," he says, "and a way of seeing the history of marketing and the tools marketers used years ago, which are not so different as we sometimes might think."

He has an original contract for a 1902 18 hp Minneapolis straw-burning steam engine and a 56-inch separator. The buyer paid $200 down, and $300 twice a year for the next three years … with no interest. "I had heard some companies did some wild deals years ago to try to sell engines, and this kind of proves it."

Vintage literature also helps with restoration. Leander recently found literature for a Wards twin-row tractor, and a 6-row New Idea corn shredder. "Dad had one of those on the farm during the 1940s and 1950s," he recalls. "That kind of stuff really helps, and it adds to the history of the machines."

"I've always had a thing for the history of tractors. By restoring, we keep alive a piece of that history. The farm shows, the old machines, the restorations and the old literature all show what agriculture was like many years ago. I enjoy it a great deal. I never wake up in the morning and wonder what I'm going to do. I might wake up and wonder what I'm going to do first, though."

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; email: bvossler@juno.com