Old Tractors Keep Family Together

Old tractors form the bond that keeps one collector’s dream alive.

A restored 1929 Wallis 12-20

Norbert Hoefs’ 1929 Wallis 12-20.

Photo by Bill Vossler

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When Norbert Hoefs died in 1998, he left behind a large collection of old iron, including threshing machines, plows, elevators, wagon running gears and tractors. What happened next was a collector’s fondest hope. Through a carefully considered plan, Norbert kept his family and his tractors together.

Before his death, Norbert bequeathed tractors from his collection to members of his extended family. He knew they would want to continue his custom of ferrying the relics to the Le Sueur County (Minn.) Pioneer Power Show every year. That meant they would be helping each other, just as they’d helped him, coming together as a family.

“In giving tractors to family members,” says Jim Heyda, Norbert’s son-in-law who lives in Montgomery, Minn., “it was Norbert’s intent to help keep the family close. Collecting the tractors was very important to Norbert. Outside of farming, he spent much of his spare time working on his collection. He wanted the family to continue taking care of these antique tractors and showing them at the Le Sueur Show every August.”

Building a collection

Jim and Norbert enjoyed a close relationship. “I grew up on a farm and my dad died fairly young,” Jim says, “so after I got married, my father-in-law became kind of like a father figure to me. When he got into old tractors, I volunteered to go to auctions with him wherever there were auctions, all over Minnesota and Iowa. He would buy this big stuff and I helped him haul it back. He was a good man. With Norbert, you never knew what he was going to bring home.”

The hoard eventually included nine old tractors. “When Dad brought tractors or other old equipment home,” says his son, 58-year-old Jim Hoefs, “we just rolled our eyes. ‘Here’s another one to restore or paint,’ we’d say. He really got into the painting. He loved making it as original as he could remember from when he was younger.”

In his will, Norbert gave his eight remaining tractors to his son, son-in-law and three grandsons. The eight include: 1930 John Deere Model D, 1929 McCormick-Deering 22-36, 1929 Wallis 12-20, 1929 Wallis 20-30, 1936 Case Model L, 1929 Irish Fordson, 1941 Farmall H and 1948 Ford 8N.

The tractors remain in a shed on Norbert’s former farm, where his daughter and son-in-law, Kathy and Jim Heyda, now live. So you might call Jim Heyda the keeper of the family’s interest in old iron. He also had a hand in working on and restoring all nine tractors. “Other than one tractor that was sold at Norbert’s wish after he died, all the rest of the tractors are here,” he says. “I house them all.”

Show brings family together

In late summer the family gears up for the Le Sueur show. “We set up a day to work on everything,” Jim Hoefs says, “usually when my sons are available with their young, strong backs.” Grandkids wash tractors, and fill radiators and gas tanks.

Each tractor has to be crank-started. In the early years after Norbert’s death, that presented a big problem. “We all thought we knew how to start them,” Jim Hoefs says, “and Dad always left notes here and there on how each one should be started. But if the notes were in the toolbox, mice ate them, so that first year we didn’t have all the remembrance we needed to start the tractors. There were a lot of tricks to learn.

“Jim (Heyda) was right there with me when we thought we were listening to what Dad said, but when we were put to the gun, we were surprised that we didn’t remember a lot,” Jim Hoefs says. “You always think that Dad will be there next year and next year, but it doesn’t work that way.” Today, Jim Heyda keeps a list of start-up requirements. The process is different for each tractor, from the way the gas is turned on to setting the choke and cranking the engine.

Cranking can be dangerous, especially on tractors that don’t have a working impulse coupler (an extra-hot spark from the magneto that allows a tractor to start at cranking speed). “That’s what the impulse is for,” Jim Heyda says, “to delay the timing so it doesn’t kick. The kick comes when the engine fires before the pistons are at top dead center. If you’re the one turning the crank on a tractor without the impulse, when it starts you just get out of the way, because most of the time it kicks the handle out. I’ve been kicked a few times.”

It’s not unusual for Jim Hoefs to be busy making hay at the same time the tractors come out of the shed, causing him to question his priorities. “But since the collection is there, we need to take care of it in the memory of my father,” he says. “They need to run, so we have those young men crank them and get them started. That way we find out if any of them need extra work.

“When we’re loading, my daughters like to show up and help carry the blocks or the chains to tie them down,” he adds. “We’re buoyed up by remembering Dad’s constant smile when we would help him get tractors ready for the show.”

A winning pair of Wallises

The most unusual tractors the family shows at Le Sueur are a pair of 1929 Wallises: a 12-20 and a 20-30. Norbert drove a Wallis 20-30 as a kid on the farm, but the first Wallis he bought was the smaller 12-20 model.

The 12-20’s 4-cylinder I-head engine (Nebraska tests showed it was more than 24 hp at the belt) displaces 248 cubic inches. It has a 3-7/8-by-5-1/4-inch bore and stroke and three forward speeds. The tractor weighs about 3,900 pounds.

Almost nothing else is known about the tractor. “The guy who knew everything about that one in particular isn’t around any more,” Jim Hoefs says. “We have no idea where he got it or what kind of work he did on it, except that he painted it.”

A true basket case

The Wallis 20-30 came out of Lakeville, Minn., in pieces. “We brought it home in boxes,” Jim Hoefs says. “The heads were off and the engine was torn down with two stuck pistons.” After Norbert died, Jim Heyda and a buddy, Tom Vlasak, tackled restoration. “To get the pistons loose, we made aluminum blocks the size of the pistons, slipped them down into the sleeves and pounded them with a maul until they popped loose,” Jim says. The sleeves were rotted, necessitating new sleeves and rings.

Once its valves were ground, the magneto charged and the head finished, the Wallis started going back together, with help from the extended family. “My nephew hooked an International 560 to it with a belt to get it running,” Jim Heyda says, “because it wouldn’t start on its own.” And that’s no easy task, Jim Hoefs notes. “Everything has to be lined up perfectly straight, or the belt will fly off in a hurry,” he says. “If everything is lined up straight, you can run the machine wide open, but if it’s not straight ... ”

After that came the fine-tuning: The governor needed to be overhauled, a broken spring on the magneto was fixed and the dogs in the impulse were repaired. “It was the first time I’d ever overhauled an engine by myself,” Jim Heyda says. “I had helped my father-in-law with a few older ones, but when this Wallis started and ran, it surprised me.”

Carrying on the tradition

As any exhibitor knows, all the hard work of preparing for a show is forgotten once the display is complete. Jim Hoefs enjoys hearing old-timers’ comments; his brother-in-law gets a kick out of hearing the old iron run and watching people take photos of the tractors. Showing the tractors is a tradition they intend to continue, as a way of honoring Norbert’s memory. “You almost had to have seen the smile that came onto Dad’s face when he got the tractors ready and everything working for the show,” Jim Hoefs says.

“It’s a family thing,” he adds. “When we get to the show each August, we take turns driving the tractors in the daily parades: the son and daughter-in-law, the daughter and son-in-law, grandsons and granddaughters. And now there are great-grandchildren who enjoy riding on the tractors in the parade. In the end, we’re carrying on Norbert’s tradition, and that’s what he wanted.” FC

Read more about Wallis tractors in A Brief History of Wallis Tractors.

For more information:

— Jim Hoefs, 17738 320th St., New Prague, MN 56071

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: bvossler@juno.com.