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Orchard tractors hold top billing in Illinois collection

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Left: A 1951 Case DV vineyard special. Designed specifically for vineyard work, the DV is 9 inches narrower than the Case DO, which is designed for orchard grove applications.

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The Buckert family of Hamilton, Ill., collects Case orchard tractors for three reasons. First, as a family, they've collected tractors for more than 40 years. Second, the Case orchard tractors they favor are different from most tractors found in Illinois, where they live. And third, Case orchard tractors were built in small numbers.

"My dad, Fred Buckert, has been collecting tractors forever," says Danny Buckert. "All of us kids just grew up around all these old tractors." The clan includes Danny's brothers Kenny and Alan; Kenny's son, Kyle; and Danny's sons Jared and Jeremy.

Fred was president of the J.I. Case Collectors' Association for many years. During that time, the association published production numbers for Case VA and SO tractors. "(VA and SO) were low production and 'oddball' in this part of the country, and we tend to go that way," Danny says of the family's collection of more than 100 tractors.

For Midwesterners, orchard tractors have special appeal. "The orchards are something different, a specialty tractor used in Florida or California or Michigan. You don't see a lot of them in the Midwest," Danny says. "Not a lot of them were built, and few are left today, because they had a tough life, getting pretty well beat up."

Case a la carte

Special tractors often come with memorable stories. Take the Buckerts' Case VAO. Danny and his wife, Karen, were visiting his cousin in Riverside, Calif., about 15 years ago, and decided to go out for supper one night. "We were running down the interstate and pulled into this place," Danny recalls. "Everybody was all charged to go into the restaurant when I stopped. There, sitting in an empty lot across from the restaurant, was a tractor."

To make things even better, it was a Case tractor, one of a line the Buckert family has collected for years. "My wife wasn't really happy with me," Danny says. "I think she thought I should be able to put tractors aside for a bit while we went into the restaurant. But first priorities first." That meant trotting across the street to take a closer look. As it turned out, the tractor was in decent shape. All the sheet metal was intact, a miracle in itself, because orchardists routinely removed sheet metal from orchard tractors. And if it hasn't been removed, it's been pummeled by tree branches … or worse.

"Orchard tractors were used to pull sprayers, so the sheet metal gets damp a lot and rusts out," he explains. "And once the drivers had a flat tire, they had to take the sheet metal off and then they usually just threw it away."

Danny says he's been told that eventually more than half of all new orchard tractors were sold without sheet metal. Orchardists apparently wanted the low-profile tractor more than they wanted the sheet metal. "They left the shields on over the tops of the hoods because they protected the drivers," Danny says. "But the side shields were usually taken off in the early years after they had to take it off and put it back on a couple of times."

Eventually, Danny's cousin tracked down the owner of the tractor, and the Buckerts closed the deal. "I was just amazed to see that tractor sitting there in downtown Riverside, California," Danny muses. "It was miles away from any orchard, and to this day I still don't know why it was sitting there. There wasn't a house or anything there, just a vacant lot. Maybe it had been the middle of an orchard once and all the trees had been taken out when the restaurant was put up."

Seeing doubles

The Buckerts have a pair of Case SO orchard tractors that are just five serial numbers apart. Both built in 1942, one came from Arizona and the other from Florida. "The SO is probably our rarest orchard tractor, production-wise," Danny says. About 1,800 were produced.

A 1942 SO they found in a Yuma, Ariz., junkyard was in the worst condition of any of their finds, Danny says. "A guy took a torch and cut the sheet metal off it, cutting the bolts and ripping the tin, so we had a lot of patching to do. It needed a complete overhaul of the motor, too, because it was just about worn out."

The fenders for the SO were a problem, because - as with the Case DO orchard tractor - the fender is flat on the outside and rolls up as well as back around. "When you're trying to make them," Danny says, "the metal looks like a giant soup bowl, flat in the bottom, and then you cut them in half."

The Buckerts have tried to get the fenders made in different ways, like having them spun-cast, for example. "There was a guy out east who worked for an airplane company, and he thought he could spin them and cut them in half, but I haven't seen anything come out of there yet," Danny says. "People are trying to reproduce them, but they really cannot do it."

The fenders the Buckerts made for their orchard tractors (both the SO and DV) eventually were pressed, cut, formed and welded together. "Dents and scratches are smoothed out with body putty by my older brother, Kenny," Danny says. "We're pretty particular about getting them right."

Other orchard tractors in their collection include a 1953 Case DO, which came out of Florida; a 1951 DV (just 582 were produced); a Case 730 LP, a Minneapolis-Moline Jet Star LP and a 1936 John Deere BO.

Playing favorites

Aside from orchard tractors, Danny's favorite tractor is a 1919 Indiana tractor, followed by an Allwork. The Indiana is probably the family's rarest tractor, and the Allwork may be next in that category. "The reason the Allwork is up there is that I'm just amazed that we ever found it," Danny says, "and then got it together."

The Buckerts had been looking for an Allwork for more than 20 years, Danny says, partly because the tractor was built 35 miles away by the Electric Wheel Co. of Quincy, Ill. They found theirs at an auction north of Peoria, Ill. "A guy had started restoring it, and then died, so we bought it in pieces," Danny says. The Buckerts hauled the frame and four wheels on a trailer, and put the rest of it in the back of their truck. When the time came to assemble the tractor, the crew had little to go on other than some sales brochures and an owner's manual.

Home-grown hobby

Collecting tractors is clearly in the Buckert blood. "Dad's been doing it forever, so it's something the rest of us just fell into," Danny says. "We're always working on at least one tractor in the shop. Lots of times there are two or three or four in various states of restoration, waiting for parts or the right weather to paint, or different things."

The family runs a complete operation, doing nearly all restoration work themselves. Danny's favorite part is the mechanical work, tearing motors apart and putting them back together again. "Generally that's not a problem, because the orchard tractors have standard series motors that you can find parts for," he says. "The DO had a DC motor in it, and it's pretty common for parts. You can still get a lot of parts from the company and automotive suppliers for the VAO."

And that's part of the key to the Buckerts' interest in orchard tractors. "It costs only a little bit more - for paint and body work - to restore one of 1,100, as compared to restoring one of 5,000," Danny says. "You might as well do a low-production tractor, because it will be worth more in the end."

The family's collection is not yet complete. They'd still like to get hold of a Case 630 orchard, which had a limited run, and a Case 400 orchard (built in the mid-1950s), but only 125 of those were built. "We have a couple of guys in Florida looking for them, but like a lot of these tractors, they're getting pretty well picked up and dozed down, and leaving the country," Danny says. "One of those guys says there are more orchard tractors in Illinois now than there are in Florida."

Going to shows and talking to people is the best part of the hobby, Danny says. "A lot of people call and want information on different tractors, so we get to talk to people from all over the country," he says. "I've been going to shows virtually all of my life, and have a lot of friends from all over. A lot of times, the only place I get to see them is at shows."

The Buckerts display tractors at five or six shows each year. In the off-season, you'll find them in the shop, where they finish two or three tractors each winter. It's a demanding hobby, but a rewarding one. "You get a great feeling of accomplishment when you start out with a piece of junk," Danny says, "and eventually roll it out the other end, done."

For more information, contact Fred Buckert, 976 E. County Road 1650, Hamilton, IL 62341; (217) 847-2690.

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; e-mail: bvossler@juno.com