For two years, Meredith Witt and his father, Norbert, kept an eye on a mowing tractor parked at a pawnshop near their homes in Palmyra, Missouri. “One day we stopped in and talked to the pawnshop owner about it,” Meredith says. “He had bought the tractor at an auction, brought it back and parked it outside his shop. It was rough; nobody could tell what it was. To us, it looked like a homemade thing.”
Curiosity got the better of the father and son. In 2000, they bought the hulk. The tractor didn’t have many strong suits, but its engine — a flathead Ford V-8 — was at the top of the list. Norbert, 75, had worked with Ford tractors years earlier and liked their engines. If nothing else, the two reasoned, they would get an engine out of the deal.
The first order of business was to figure out what they had hold of. A serial number tag solved that mystery: The tractor was a 1938 Topeka Hi-Way Mower Model C4 tractor. At that point, the mowing tractor became a prime candidate for restoration. “Seeing the serial number and tags,” Meredith says, “we knew it wasn’t manufactured by a homemade company and it was probably pretty unique. So we decided to restore it.”
But it had to take its place in line. The Topeka was pushed aside for four years while Norbert and Meredith worked on other projects. “We have about 20 tractors and the same number of stationary gas engines,” Meredith says, “so we always have work to do. I work in construction and my dad is retired, so each winter we choose a project and work on it together for three or four months. Working that way, we’ve restored some fairly rare tractors, like an International Harvester High Crop MV, and some other IH and Ford tractors as well as gasoline engines.”
Design ahead of its time
The unusual Topeka tractor came with a sickle cutting bar. Even more unusual for that era, the sickle could be used at any angle. It could cut hay on level ground and then the bar could be lifted to cut weeds on a steep ditch while the tractor stayed on comparatively level ground — or anywhere in between. Most sickles produced in the late 1930s could be used only in a flat position.
Nearly the entire Topeka Hi-Way Model C4 tractor is made of Ford truck parts, which may account for its “homemade” appearance. The drivetrain is from a Ford truck, as is the flathead V-8 engine. “The frame is a shortened Ford frame, and the steering column is from a Ford truck,” Meredith says. “Except for the sickle, which is from a John Deere, all of the parts are from a 3/4-ton Ford truck.”
And that explains why the Topeka drives like a truck. “It drives pretty decent. You could go down the highway at 40 mph if you wanted to,” Meredith says. “We drive it into town every now and then for a show. It’s like driving an old truck but with nothing protecting you.”
Ready for restoration
When the Witts got it, the tractor didn’t run, Meredith says. “We put on new tires, new paint and decals, and worked on the engine,” he says. “Despite everything being there, we still had to do pretty much everything on it. When we get going on a project, we go through a tractor and make sure everything is nice.”
Though the tractor was mostly complete, belts and a few parts for the sickle were missing. Those parts were easy to find, however, because the mower — perhaps old enough to be a horse-drawn implement — was a John Deere product.
The mower runs on three belts. The main one runs on a pulley where the belt goes below the radiator in front. On either side are belt tensioners to tighten or loosen the belt. On the operator’s platform, a yellow steering wheel-like device is cranked by hand to raise and lower the mower.
Rarely seen at shows
The history of the Witts’ tractor is lost to the mists of time. The pawnshop owner who sold it to them bought the Topeka at a west-central Missouri auction, but he had no information on the tractor’s history. The manufacturer — Topeka Farming & Machinery Co., Topeka, Kansas — is also a bit of a mystery. “It was more or less a one-man operation, from what I’ve found,” Meredith says. “There’s just very little information available on it.”
Research suggests that the Topeka was built in small numbers. And despite the tractor’s unique design — “Other sickles were driven by gears, so you couldn’t do things like you could with the Topeka, which is totally belt-driven” — Meredith doesn’t think the tractor was a big seller. “It’s high-geared and hard to mow with,” he says. “After World War II, they began making the same tractor out of surplus jeeps.”
Meredith has seen a couple of photos of Topeka tractors on the Internet, but none of those tractors were complete. “I’ve never seen another one at a show,” he says. “One guy who follows Topekas says he’s seen only one other of the older ones, like ours, and its mower was missing.” He’s also seen a couple of the later models that were built from surplus jeep parts. “Those were more hydraulic-driven, from what I’ve found out,” he says.
For a small tractor, the Topeka makes a big impression. “At a show as big as the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa,” Meredith says, “there are still lots of people who say they’ve never seen anything like it, or heard anything like it. It generates a lot of attention. There’s no muffler on it, so it makes a lot of noise; it’s a loud and unique sound for a tractor anyway. People enjoy the tractor.”
The Witts’ collection also includes a 1940 Cletrac General manufactured by Cleveland Tractor Co. They found the tractor — the first one they bought simply to restore — at a central Illinois auction in 1996. “It was an estate sale of 100 or 150 rough tractors,” Norbert says. “It is just a very small tractor that was probably used on a vegetable farm or something like that.”
The tractor’s engine wasn’t stuck and nothing was broken, but it hadn’t been checked for a long time. “It took a lot of cleaning, redoing the carburetor and getting everything else to get it to where it would run,” Meredith says. “We put rings and stuff like that in the engines as a matter of course. So it’s a basic overhaul, I guess. It’s kind of a rare tractor that you don’t see a lot of at other shows, so we got the bug and bought it.”
The General, notes C.H. Wendel in Farm Tractors 1890-1980, is a “dead ringer” for the B.F. Avery & Sons Co. Model A tractor manufactured in Louisville, Kentucky. “My grandfather’s first tractor was an Avery A, and that’s the first tractor that Dad remembered,” Meredith says, “so getting the General was kind of neat.”
The General was more of a project than the Topeka. “It’s not a common tractor,” Meredith says. “It was rusty and discolored and rough. It did have a serial number tag on it so we could determine that it was a Cletrac, instead of the Avery A, but it took a lot of investigative work. We went to the Internet to find out more information on it, like the paint colors, for example. We pretty much completely rebuilt it. Luckily, you could still see the letters and decals so we could get it back to how it looked originally. The fact that it was a single front-wheel tractor was also unique and different.”
The tractor’s sheet metal was dented but the engine wasn’t too bad. “It’s a simple engine, so it didn’t take too much to get it running,” Meredith says. “The real work was in fixing the tin and painting it. Dad has been a mechanic all his life, and even restored tractors as a young kid, so he does a lot of the mechanic work. I’m more picky so I do more of the paint work.”
Sharing a hobby
Both father and son grew up on farms and that likely stoked their interest in old iron. But Norbert also worked on tractors for years during his career as a mechanic. “A lot of those tractors were old Allis-Chalmers models, like the WD45, and early Fords, like the Jubilee and the 861,” Norbert says. “In fact, our neighbor had an 861 that we managed to get for our collection.” The Witts have about 20 tractors and the same number of gasoline engines.
The father-and-son team has no particular formula in deciding on their next winter project. “It’s whatever hits our fancy,” Meredith says. “We usually have a shed full of projects to work on, so we can choose — unless there’s a special show feature that we want to work on.”
When it comes to restoring old iron, Meredith enjoys the challenge of doing something different and solving challenges. But he also enjoys the fellowship of the hobby. “We belong to a local tractor club in Palmyra,” he says, “and we get together once a month, visit and have a good time. We’ve also enjoyed going to shows and tractor drives.” And at the end of the day, the two just enjoy sharing a hobby.
“We get along good together,” Meredith says, “and we enjoy working together. When we farmed, I worked for Dad, and when he had a used car lot, I worked for him there for a while. We’ve spent a lot of evenings and weekends working on these projects. We just enjoy working together, restoring tractors and engines.” FC
For more information:
— Norbert Witt, 7899 Hwy. 168, Palmyra, MO 63461; (573) 769-2026.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.