Even though he’s just 42, Brian Nelson has a long history with old iron.
In 1954 his grandfather, Carl A. Nelson, was the first president of one of the oldest and largest thresher shows in the U.S., the annual Western Minnesota Steam Threshers’ Reunion at Rollag.
So it comes as no surprise that Brian carries an interest in old iron, and by extension, John Deere tractors. That in turn led him to become the owner of an approximately half-size replica of the Froelich tractor (for more on the connection between the Froelich engine and Deere & Co., see related article "Froelich Launched New Era on the Farm"). Some consider the Froelich to be the first tractor ever built (in 1892), referring to it as “the first tractor with forward and reverse.”
“I’ve been driving tractors at Rollag ever since I can remember, ever since I could operate the clutch,” Brian says. “Usually it was the 1936 John Deere A with steel wheels that my grandpa had.”
In 1979, as a high school freshman, Brian bought his first tractor (a 1939 John Deere) for $160 and drove it home from the auction. “My father and I fixed that one up and had it at Rollag for several years, and now it’s in the process of being restored again,” he says. “That was the first tractor I could call my own. I was probably 14 years old.”
Brian and his father, Nels C. Nelson, bought and restored several other John Deere tractors – an A, several B’s, a D, G and H, but nothing rare until the Froelich replica.
“Archie Hanson of Ada, Minn., who has now passed on, was sort of my mentor, as gentle a man as you could find, and a man who loved mechanical things,” Brian says. “As a teenage kid I’d be up at Rollag doing odd jobs with my dad, and Archie was there. He had the patience to work with the younger generation, and I have many good memories of visiting with him. He’d always be working on projects at Rollag, which was the only place I regularly saw him, and I’d get a few pointers here and there.” (Archie was also instrumental in restoring the 353 locomotive that circles the Rollag grounds.)
Building a replica
Archie had seen a full-size Froelich replica in the Deere & Co. collection in Moline, Ill. “He wanted to see if he could reproduce a similar tractor like it in his own little farm shop, because there weren’t any tractors around here like it,” Brian recalls. “He took pictures and started acquiring parts for it.”
One critical part was a 4 hp Root & VanDervoort upright gas engine. That probably sold Archie on the idea of making a replica, Brian says, because with the 4 hp engine he had his power source, although that gasoline engine left the half-size Froelich a little underpowered. The R&V engine also meshed neatly with the Froelich’s heritage: Deere & Webber Co., Minneapolis, had been a major distributor for Root & VanDervoort.
Archie worked steadily on the Froelich replica over the course of two winters. He wanted his creation to drive forward and backward, like the original, which he accomplished by using four open gears (one of which does not run until it is slipped into place) on the left side. On the half-size Froelich, a lever on the left side (looking forward on the machine) can be pulled back, sliding the engine itself all the way back, causing the gears to mesh, putting the machine in forward. The lever is held in place by a ratchet.
To drive the Froelich in reverse, the lever must first be moved into neutral and the fourth gear dropped down into place. The lever then slides the engine all the way forward, the gears mesh and the replica moves in reverse. “It doesn’t go very fast,” Brian admits, “and I haven’t done it a lot.”
Nobody seems to know if a gear actually had to be moved in and out of place for the original Froelich to change directions. Photos of the old Froelich don’t show whether the gears are actually there or not. Regardless, the real Froelich tractor was billed as the first tractor to move backward and forward.
On the right side of the replica is another similar lever and ratchet, which engages and loosens the belt tightener.
Not a precise copy
There are other differences between this Froelich replica and the original. Brian guesses his replica to be perhaps half the size of the original. His Froelich has a 4 hp Root & VanDervoort engine, while the original Froelich had (depending on the source) a 14, 16, 20 or 30 hp Van Duzen engine.
The replica has manure spreader wheels in back, what appear to be silo filler wheels on the front, and bits and pieces of different machinery for the steering, gears, shafts and levers. “It’s absolutely mechanical genius how some of these guys can do stuff like this,” Brian says. “You have to look at the transmission. I just marvel at the engineering that Archie used to build it.”
The replica also has a brake, unlike the original, which Archie installed so a young Brian could run it safely. “It doesn’t serve much of a purpose any more,” Brian says, “but it does work.” The most noticeable difference is the water tank, which is round on the replica and square and enclosed on the original.
A few imperfections
Brian doesn’t run the replica much. “It runs for a little while, about five minutes, and then the points carbon up,” he says. “It’s a little underpowered, too, and the transmission is a series of shafts within wood 2-by-6s laid on end with shafts and gears running through, so there’s a lot of friction involved. But it is operable. I drove it around the yard a few times before I took it to the 2008 John Deere Expo at Rollag. If it starts easily in the yard, you’re guaranteed it will start hard at the show. I’ve never been able to run it in the parade because of that problem, and far as I know, Archie had the same problem with it.”
The problem probably exists because the replica is missing its original igniter. While attending an auction, Archie saw both the 4 hp R&V engine and its igniter; the igniter was in a coffee can on a hayrack. But since he didn’t realize he would end up buying the engine, he didn’t pay attention to the stray part. By the time he bought the engine, the igniter had been sold with the rest of the items in the coffee can. So Archie had a new one made.
If he had run the machine more, Brian says, he would have more experience with it. “It’s more of a static display than an operational one,” he says. “It’s not the easiest to drive because there’s a lot of things that need to be done. It’s easy to steer, but because it’s underpowered it’s not that much fun to drive.”
The Froelich replica is kept at the grounds in Rollag during the club’s Labor Day weekend show. The rest of the year it’s at Biewer’s Antique Acres Museum at Biewer’s Tractor Salvage in Barnesville, Minn.
Brian says he is honored to own the replica because he knew the builder, and the machine is a reminder of his friend and mentor, Archie Hanson. “I enjoy being able to put my hand on a piece of history,” he says. “If a person collected just for the machines and the mechanical parts, with all the frustrations you’d wonder if it was worth it. But the people I’ve met at Rollag, the Lake Agassiz Two Cylinder Club (where he’s a founding member) and around the world, they’re the ones who make all the difference.” FC
For more information: Brian Nelson, 27451 110th Ave., Hitterdal, MN 56552-9436; (218) 962-3480.
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 56569; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .