Restoring Antique Tractors: From Hobby to Business

Father and son team builds business around passion for restoring antique tractors

Ken Peterman works on a 435 John Deere in his farm shop northwest of Webster City, Iowa

Ken Peterman works on a 435 John Deere in his farm shop northwest of Webster City, Iowa. The tractor sports a Detroit diesel engine and is reportedly one of only 3,500 built in the late 1950s.

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Restoring antique tractors from scratch is old hat to Ken and Dan Peterman. This father-and-son duo has been restoring rare tractors and not-so-rare tractors for years, without ever advertising their business. 

Restoration work, a hobby which has been gaining speed nationwide over the past decade, is now providing a full-time business for the rural Webster City, Iowa, men.

Ken Peterman began tinkering with tractors 30 years ago. At first, he started restoring antique tractors for his own pleasure. Now, he has to find time to fit his personal projects into his busy work schedule.

Set on a small farm northwest of Webster City, Rusty Acres Restoration is a full-time enterprise. Ken Peterman says restoring antique tractors is more than just a sideline these days, as collectors and farm hobbyists are seeking out their restoration business to rebuild tractors from across the country.

"It is a big hobby right now," Ken says. "It is absolutely going bananas."

Ken began working full-time in antique tractor restoration after Iowa Central Community College closed its Power Farm Mechanics program, where he was an instructor.

Ken started restoring antique tractors as a hobby in the 1960s. He says he enjoyed the challenge of taking an unusable tractor, tearing it down, and rebuilding it with new parts or parts he designed himself.

"Sometimes you just cannot get parts for old tractors," Ken says. "You have to get a print, or look at the worn-out parts and build them from scratch. It is often a challenge."

Ken says John Deere is the tractor of choice for farm collectors and, oftentimes, it is the easiest brand for which to buy restoration parts.

"John Deere saw the demand for the parts, and now they are making the parts for the old tractors," Ken says. "It has been a priority for John Deere."

Although John Deere may be the choice of many tractor enthusiasts, Rusty Acres does not limit itself to green paint. The Petermans can rebuild virtually any tractor.

Recently, they were working on a Massey, a Case, John Deere tractors and even a Pet tractor.

The Pet brand is by far the rarest of the most recent group of tractors the Petermans have restored. Dan Peterman said the Pet model they have in their shop is one of only five known to exist.

A particular challenge with the Pet: there are no blueprints or color pictures to help them accurately rebuild the tractor.

"The Pet is priceless," Dan says. "The only thing we have to go on to restore this tractor is a black-and-white picture out of a book."

Ken Peterman says the tiny tractor was first designed by the Flinchbaugh Mfg. Co. in 1903. It was built for a child to ride on, and very few pictures exist of the actual tractor. In order to restore the tiny tractor, the Petermans will have to virtually rebuild it from the ground up.

Ken says restoring tractors when there are no parts manuals or pictures makes the job tough, but it is part of the challenge that occasionally adds spice to their jobs.

"We get a lot of jobs which we call 'basket cases,'" he says. "A customer brings it in in pieces, and expects us to rebuild it. That makes it a challenge, when you have nothing to use as a guideline."

Many rare tractors are restored by Rusty Acres, but the Petermans said rare machines are not necessarily their most frequent restoration project. Other, more common models are assigned a different type of value.

"A lot of tractors we rebuild are family heirlooms," Dan says. "People want to restore the tractor their dad drove. They are sentimental to them, and important."

With the nationwide hobby growing, fewer and fewer tractors are in circulation. Many are already in the hands of collectors, either resting in storage or sitting in a museum. Two-cylinder tractors built prior to 1960 seem to be the tractors of choice, and the rarer the model, the higher the price. Ken Peterman says the hobby is continuing to grow in the U.S. Some hobbyists spend more than $10,000 per tractor to restore the antiques to new condition.

"If you are planning on making money restoring tractors, think again," Ken says. "Many times you put more in a tractor than it is worth. One thing is for sure: it costs just as much to restore a plain tractor as it does a rare tractor, so the rare tractors are a better investment."

Ironically, the rarest tractor at Rusty Acres is a 30-20 John Deere. The tractor is truly one-of-a-kind, because it was built entirely by Ken Peterman. The working 1/2 scale remote-controlled toy tractor is fully equipped with a working diesel engine, PTO and a clutch. It is based entirely on the full-size John Deere model.

Dan joined his dad in the business in 1992 on a fulltime basis, but he says he first became interested in his dad's hobby when he was just 4.

"I've always known I would jump in and help build tractors," Dan says. "My dad taught me everything I needed to know. This is the first, best job I have ever had."

Dan says there are only a handful of businesses in the U.S. that are completely devoted to restoring antique tractors from scratch. Many such businesses choose to restore only John Deere tractors, but the Petermans rebuild any brand.

"We are the only restoration tractor business in Iowa dedicated to working full-time at it," Dan says. "We take them all apart and work them over carefully. We replace the bushings, bearings, seals, brakes, rebuild the transmission, the clutches, overhaul the rear end, and the tires."

Ken does most of the mechanical work on the tractors, while his son, Dan, handles body work and reassembly.

The father-and-son team plans to continue restoring tractors for years to come, although Ken did say he is supposed to be retired now.

"The good thing about having a business like this is the deadlines are not as crucial," he says. "After all, it is just a hobby." FC 

For more information: Dan Peterman, 1057 180th St., Webster City, IA 50595; (515) 543-8353; e-mail: rstyrest@wccta.net; on-line at http://www.rustyacresrestoration.com.   

Randy Mudgett is a staff writer for Farm News, Fort Dodge, Iowa, where this article first appeared.