The R.H. Sheppard Company of Hanover, Penn., stopped making diesel tractors in 1956 after only six years of production. For the next 30 years, no one thought much about the Sheppards, and many languished in sheds and junkyards. But in the past decade, there has been a renewed interest in this forerunner of today's diesel farm equipment, with rare models being rescued from oblivion and lovingly restored.
"I graduated from high school in 1949," says Lynn Klingaman of Columbia City, Ind., president of the (as of June 2000) six-year-old Sheppard Diesel Club. "We were farmers. In the summer of 1950, we were at the Grasslands Reid Day at Warsaw, Ind. They had various tractors there, and there was a Sheppard demonstration. I tried to get my dad to buy one, but he wouldn't, so when I decided to collect tractors, I had to have a Sheppard. Now I have five. I'm retired, and I restore them. I also have several generators, plows, mowers, a stalk chopper, and a Sheppard two-row mounted corn planter."
The R.H. Sheppard Company was founded in 1937 by Robert Sheppard when he bought a one-story factory on East Middle Street in Hanover, Penn. Included in the purchase were the rights to produce existing product lines of the Kintzing wire cloth loom, floor polisher and gas generator. These products provided the basis of the manufacturing facility and a place where diesel engines could be developed. As various uses for the engines were found, the business prospered and the other lines were phased out. In 1940, the company bought a factory on Philadelphia Street in Hanover, adding a foundry in 1943. The company still operates at that location, where it produces power steering equipment for the transportation industry.
"My father grew up in Pennsylvania," says Peter Sheppard, who took over as company president in 1979. "He was mechanically inclined. He built his first diesel engine when he was 16 and went on to graduate from Dickinson College."
According to company records, the first diesel engines were produced experimentally as early as 1933. Altogether, 20 basic engine models were developed and marketed around the world. They were used to power generator sets, pumps, lifeboats, rescue craft, refrigerated rail-cars, and farm tractors. The engines were Robert Sheppard's first love, and he searched for 30 years for a long-term use for them.
Company records show that, in 1949, an idea was put forward to re power a Farmall M International farm tractor with a three-cylinder Sheppard diesel. While it was not very successful, it did lead to the introduction of the Sheppard farm tractor, the first diesel tractor produced in the U.S.
"They were just so different from the tractors of the day that they didn't gain wide acceptance," Peter says. "And there were starting difficulties. Gas engines start in any weather. The company was the first to introduce an all diesel-powered, rubber-tire farm tractor with a complete line of implements. They were marketed until 1956. In the sixties, the industry caught up, and probably surpassed what the Sheppards were capable of."
Of the 1,943 Sheppard tractors produced between 1949 and 1956, 14 were the SD1 model. There were 257 SD2 models built; 1,441 SD3s; and 231 SD4s, which were the largest model of the line.
"The SD1 at 5 hp was the smallest diesel built," Peter says. "It was really a footnote. It was the first lawn and garden tractor, and had automatic steering and transmission. It also had a disc plow and a front-end loader. The SD4 is the best one from a technological standpoint. It has a torque converter, a 13-speed transmission, and power steering. That's where our current product came from. We make power steering for buses and trucks."
Richard Sterner of Chambersburg, Penn., has a collection of Sheppard tractors. A retired toolmaker, he switched some years ago from restoring antique automobiles to seeking Sheppards, a link to his youth.
"I have to thank Mr. Bob (Sheppard) for giving me a job, and getting me started," he says. "I started work with them in 1949, the same year they started producing the tractors. I was with them for a couple of years."
Richard, a Hanover native and vice president of the Sheppard Diesel Club, has four complete tractors and one in the early stages of restoration. He also has a McCormick W-6 tractor from the late 1940s in which he's installed a Sheppard three-cylinder diesel conversion in place of the tractor's original four-cylinder gas engine.
"I saw them in Farmalls, but never in a W-6," he says. "I did it to be different. That's maybe the only one in the world. Some of the stuff is interchangeable. I only had to drill two holes in the frame. The water pump, clutch assembly, starter and air cleaner all fit together."
Richard says Sheppard tractors are hard to find, but he has had and restored a dozen over the years.
"Then someone comes along and buys them," he says. "There wasn't much interest until about nine years ago. I had two-cylinder, three-cylinder and four-cylinder, fixed them up and took them to shows. People hadn't remembered them. When they saw them, the interest came back and they decided to start collecting. How much they cost depends on what shape they're in."
In his workshop Richard has an SD3 ready for attention.
"It's one of the earliest models," he says. "I bought it from a salvage yard. Where do you get parts? You talk to your buddies. Some parts you can't find, so you make them. I have a little machine shop, and I do that. I have no idea of the hours I spend. You really don't want to keep track of time or money because if your wife finds out, you're in trouble."
Richard heard through the grapevine some years ago of a two-cylinder Sheppard buried under a pile of aluminum in a Pennsylvania junkyard, so he went and bought it.
"They ran that engine 'til it blew apart," he says. "I put it back together. It's maybe a '52 or '53. It was built with a heavy front end to hold a loader or a backhoe. The four-cylinder I bought from a dealer in Mercersburg (Penn.) about four years ago. They all run. The one that's torn apart will run one day."
These days, Richard still goes to shows, but mainly to look. He tells of seeing a Sheppard SD1 going for $25,000 at an auction.
"It went to Ohio," he says. "It had all kinds of attachments. The SD2 was a two-plow tractor. The SD3 was a three-plow tractor. The SD4 was a four- or five-bottom plow, depending on the soil. I'm interested in anything pertaining to Sheppards, and I collect anything related to them."
The 1999 annual meeting of the 100-member Sheppard Tractor Club was held last summer near Chambersburg, Penn., in conjunction with the 15th annual Cumberland Valley Antique Engine and Machinery Show. According to Club President Lynn Klingaman, this year's show will be held July 28-30 at the Little Log House Showgrounds, Hastings, Minn. FC
For more information: Lynn Klingaman, (219) 799-5920; Richard Sterner, (717) 263-4703. Information on the R.H. Sheppard Company is available at www.rhsheppard.com.
Jill Teunis is a freelance writer living in Damascus, Md. She is interested in writing about communities, their people and history.