Orphan Tractors Find Homes

Little-known tractors, or "orphan tractors", stir collectors' interest

Carl Hering's Empire. Just 4,000 were manufactured in a two-year production period.

Carl Hering's Empire. Just 4,000 were manufactured in a two-year production period.

Gary Van Hoozer

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During early farm tractor history, many manufacturers disappeared due to intense competition and economic adversity, leaving smaller numbers of treasures for today's collectors. Names like General, Custom and Besser are rarely recognized today. 

Such rare tractors, or "orphans" as they're sometimes called, are enjoying a surge in collector and restorer popularity. Several related organizations and events have been established as awareness of orphan tractors increases.

Sears, Roebuck & Co., for instance, included among its many catalog offerings the Graham Bradley tractor. The GB (which carried the last names of its inventors) was made for Sears in 1937-38. Production halted when the plants were converted to military use.

"Plans were to resume tractor production after World War II, but they merged with Kaiser-Frazier to manufacture automobiles instead," explains GB collector Kenneth Walters, rural Akron, Ind.

The first tractor Sears sold – the Economy – resembled an International Harvester F-12, Kenneth says. Later, but before the introduction of the more streamlined Graham Bradley, Sears offered the David Bradley, which resembled an IH F-20. There's also a smaller garden tractor-variety DB, so it's evident that avid collectors can concentrate on "families" of orphan tractors.

"I purchased my 1938 Graham Bradley tractor in 1996 after seeing it advertised in a farm paper," Kenneth says. "It had been restored 12 years prior to that. It has a Continental six-cylinder motor, a four-speed rear end, and can easily pull a two-bottom plow.

"The Continental motor was also used in many taxi cabs," he says. "One unique thing about the GB is that it has a throw-out on the rear end to use a belt pulley, which can be engaged forward in four different speeds, or reversed. My GB has a rear-end assembly made from a 1937 Ford truck rear end, and is called an Eaton axle. The GB can be pretty quick for an old gal: she can do about 30 miles per hour in fourth gear."

Kenneth belongs to the Echoes From the Past antique tractor club, which organizes and participates in parades, shows and other activities.

"Last year, we had 150 tractors at our county fair, plus lots of other antique equipment," he says.

Kenneth also has restored a 1947 B.F. Avery Model A tractor, and plans to restore a 1948 B.F. Avery Model V.

Avery and other brands are related to the Cleveland Tractor Co., founded in 1917 by Roland H. White, according to a 1992 edition of Tru-Draft Magazine. In 1941, General GG purchased B.F. Avery & Sons Co. from Cleveland, then sold Avery in 1951 to the Minneapolis-Moline Company. Cletrac (crawler tractors) was sold by Cleveland to the Oliver Corporation in 1944.

Then, in 1969, Avery and Cletrac were acquired in a merger, forming White Farm Equipment Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of White Motor Co. Interestingly, White was founded by Roland H. White, also founder of the Cleveland company. Like seed and biotech companies of today, tractor maker histories can be complex, yet interesting, to collectors.

Carl Hering, Cayuga, N.Y., started the Empire Tractor Owners Club in 1993. The Empire tractor was made from late 1946 to early 1949.

"My idea is to locate as many Empire tractors as possible," he explains.

"My company is called Empire Agri-Systems, so when I first saw an Empire at a car show in Georgia in 1991, I just had to have one," Carl says. "I finally located two near Fillmore, N.Y., with the help of 'Bump' Hamilton, who operates an old tractor museum in Cuylerville. I combined those two tractors into one real nice Empire that we use at local trade shows as a kind of company mascot. It sure draws a lot of attention."

Carl says Price Stevens of Gardiner, Maine, provided a starter list of Empire owners. The club now has more than 120 members in more than 30 states and three Canadian provinces. More than 125 Empires have been located, and are registered by serial number. Carl says the company made about 4,000 tractors, so there should be several more "out there."

"The tractor was originally made to be exported for the Lend-Lease program after the War," he says. "We believe more than 2,000 were sent to Argentina and other South American countries. The tractor proved not to be well suited and in turn, several distributors were set up in the U.S. and Canada to sell the excess production."

Thus, "out there" could lead a good collector to change his vacation destination!

"If one thing was the Empire's claim to fame," Carl adds, "it was the straight bar hitch that pulled from under the center of the tractor, thus making an overturn nearly impossible. The other selling point was the Willys engine and drive train made famous during World War II."

The Empire Club offers some reproduction tractor parts, and has compiled an Empire farm equipment guide book set. The club newsletter, similar to those of other such organizations, offers advice on restoration, sources for parts and equipment, special events and more. But commercialism is not stressed; the club correspondence reads like a family letter.

The January 1997 Empire newsletter describes a factory prototype made on Nov. 7, 1947. Purchased at auction by Robert Brell, Elwood, Neb., the early model had a larger-than-normal toolbox, tilt hood, and other design characteristics not found on later models. Discoveries like that are what keep collectors of rare tractors and orphans on the hunt. FC