Antique Tractors Fuel Nostalgia

Minnesota man builds a collection of antique tractors he grew up with.

carl

Carl on his Bronco.

Photo by Bill Vossler

Content Tools

Carl Johnson’s attraction to old iron began when he was allowed to drive his father’s Farmall F-20 from the farm to his family’s home. “It had a crank start, but I couldn’t start it,” he recalls. “But then my dad would say, ‘Can you take this back to the house from the field?’ I was small at the time, 8 or 9, but I was excited that I could do that. It’s not a tractor for little kids, though.”

When his father bought a 1950 Minneapolis-Moline Model R, that changed everything. “I grew up on a small dairy farm in central Minnesota, and in 1950 my father bought that tractor new,” Carl says. “It had a cultivator and a plow, and it was the first tractor I could really drive because it had a hand clutch. It was easier to steer and get in and out of gear.”

After Carl’s mother was killed in a car accident, his family invited Carl’s father, Henry, to live with them in their home near Scandia, Minnesota. “It was enjoyable and useful experience to have my father as part of our family,” Carl says.

“As we had a small farm, my father brought his Moline and John Deere A,” he says. “In the winter he used the A to plow our driveway, and in the summer he used the Moline to maintain a large garden, until his death 11 years later.”

Of his 70 antique tractors, Carl says that Moline remains his favorite. “I grew up on it and still have it,” he says. “My father kept it in very good shape, and it still has the original rubber. He kept it shedded, so it wasn’t a hard restoration. It carries a lot of emotional meaning for me. I take it up to the Almelund (Minnesota) Threshing Show each year and run it in the caravan before the show.”

Remembering the Fordson

After Henry’s death in 1985, the Moline sat for a while. In 2002, Carl restored it so he could drive it in parades. “That’s when I got the bug to get some tractors my father and grandfather had,” he says.

And that meant his grandfather Ludwig’s Fordson tractor, the subject of stories Henry had told. “Because of the lug wheels, he said when he was finished plowing, he’d be shaking,” Carl says. “It wasn’t a good tractor for riding. It was also a dangerous tractor. Nothing happened to Dad or my grandfather, but the Fordson could tip backward pretty easily. The company did a design change, but instead of fixing the pulling drawbar, I remember the appearance of a wide back fender toolbox as a safety feature to prevent it from tipping over.”

When it came to tractors, Carl’s dad was never terribly brand loyal. At various points in his farming career, Henry used tractors built by John Deere, Farmall and Minneapolis-Moline. That variety may be what led Carl to build a varied collection. “I like the differences and uniqueness of all the tractors, so it all evolved from there,” he says. “I started looking for vintage tractors from the 1940s and ’50s, small 1- or 2-bottom plow tractors that were used to replace horses during that period. I was looking for unusual ones. I found probably 25 different makes, and most of them are running.”

Collection showcases the rare and unusual

Carl’s collection of 70 tractors includes more than a few rare models – like a Waterloo Bronco. Manufactured in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, the 1948 Waterloo Bronco Model 110 is unrelated to the Waterloo tractor built in Iowa. Little is known about this tractor, which had a Wisconsin 2-cylinder Model TE engine. Its 3 x 3-1/4-inch bore-and-stroke engine is rated at 11 hp.

Carl found the Bronco in Michigan. He replaced the steering shaft and put in new points, and the tractor ran well. “I didn’t have to do anything else on it,” he says. “It’s a neat tractor that’s a little different. I haven’t seen many of them around.”

His Centaur tractor was manufactured in Greenwich, Ohio, by Centaur Tractor Corp. The Centaur first appeared in 1921. Carl’s is an early model, judging by its looks, with none of the smooth, refined lines of tractors built later in the 1920s.

He found his Centaur at an auction in southern Minnesota. “It’s kind of a unique tractor,” he says. “You sit on a seat behind the tractor, giving the sense of riding behind horses. It’s a concept that was introduced when tractors were replacing horses. You sit on the seat and drive the tractor from that seat. It’s a 1-bottom plow tractor with lugs on the wheels.”

Silver King and Gibson

A few years ago, Carl saw three Silver King tractors for sale. The first two needed work to get them running, and though he doesn’t shy from tractors that need a lot of tender loving care, he thought hard about buying them. But by the time he made up his mind, they were gone. “Then this one – a 1948 Model 42 – popped up, and it was already restored,” he says. “The information I found says 8,700 of them were built.”

Carl’s Model 42 appears to be a rare model, as it is not listed in noted historian C.H. Wendel’s books or online references dedicated to the Silver King – even though the engine markings, in large letters, clearly show it is a Model 42. Silver King tractors were originally Plymouth tractors, built by Fate-Root-Heath Co. of Plymouth, Ohio, starting in 1933. After a dispute with Chrysler Corp., which produced Plymouth automobiles, the Ohio company was paid $1 to change the name to Silver King.

Another of Carl’s unusual tractors is a Gibson D, the smallest model built by Gibson Mfg. Corp., Longmont, Colorado. In Farm Tractors 1890-1920, C.H. Wendel writes that the company filed a trademark application in 1949 for its tractors and farm implements. “Curiously, the mark claims to have been first used in April 1943. However, the Gibson Model D tractor first appeared in the 1948 trade directories.” So it’s possible the Model D might have been in production in 1943, Carl says.

“Instead of a steering wheel,” Carl says, “the Model D has a stick for steering. You push it forward and back to turn left and right. It’s a small 1-plow tractor.” However, Carl also has a Model D-2 and a Model H, which is a 2-plow tractor. “I had been told that this D-2 ran, but when I tried to start it, it wouldn’t go,” he says. “I checked the compression, and found it was zero.”

So he pulled the head and found that the valve stems had rusted, keeping the valves in the open position. “The exhaust comes out at an angle, and when it was sitting out, rain had gotten in and rusted the valve stems,” he says. “I used steel wool to clean out the bore and cylinder valves and the valve stems, put oil on them, replaced them and it ran pretty nice.”

Relics from the post-war era

Carl also has a Porsche 111 Diesel dating to about 1957. “That one was a difficult one to get hold of,” he says. “There aren’t many of them around, so when I saw it, I grabbed it. The neat thing is that it’s a 1-cylinder diesel, and when it starts, it goes bang, bang, bang until it gets going. That 1-cylinder diesel is kind of unique.”

His Empire tractor, built after World War II, has an interesting history. Empire Tractor Corp., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was formed after World War II to build a small tractor using Willys Jeep engine available in abundant supply in the post-war years.

Hoping to capitalize on the Marshall Plan, Carl says, Empire built tractors for export. “They built thousands, but they didn’t go over that well,” he says. “They were unique with that Willys Jeep engine, and having a drawbar below and in front of the engine so you couldn’t tip over was one of the features they advertised. It’s a relatively high tractor; it looks almost like a jeep. After I got that one, my neighbor was running for mayor, so her son drove it as she sat on that high seat in the parade. It’s a 2-plow tractor, based on the size of the engine.”

CO-OP called for muscle

His 1938 Farmer’s Union CO-OP No. 2 was built in St. Paul, Minnesota, one of several places of production used by Co-Operative Mfg. Co., Battle Creek, Michigan, and other affiliated companies. It has a Chrysler Industrial 6-cylinder engine and 3-1/8 x 4-3/8-inch bore and stroke.

Although Wendel notes that with various companies involved, the history of the CO-OP tractor is difficult to untangle, that didn’t matter to Carl. “That Chrysler industrial engine was used in other tractors made during that era, like the Rockol, for one,” he says.

The CO-OP tractor required a bit more work than some of his other tractors. “It needed new plugs, points, all the wires, hoses and belts, and that got it running nicely,” he says. “Some of the sheet metal was dented, so I had it straightened at a shop, where it was also painted. I put the pieces back together, assembled it, and put decals on. I always do the finishing work on the tractors, and paint some of the tractors myself, but if I want a really nice finish, I go elsewhere.”

Carl grew up on a farm, so that has helped with working on the tractors. “Plus, I just like to do it,” he says. “I don’t tear down engines, because I don’t have enough equipment in the shop to do that. But I’ll work on parts of the engine that are readily available, like pulling the head to see what’s wrong with the valves, but I won’t tear engines down.”

Getting a tractor restored and running gives him a big kick. “Then I have something from the past and see it come back to life,” he says. “That’s probably why I continue to do it.”

Always looking for the next one

Carl’s next project is always a surprise. “I search Craigslist, auctions and so on,” he says, “looking for something unusual from the 1940s or ’50s, a 1- or 2-plow type of tractor that’s hard to find. If I see one and it piques my interest, and I have space for it, I get it. But there are still tractors out there that I don’t know about yet.”

Still, he knows it’s coming to an end, because he’s running out of storage space. “All of my tractors are kept inside,” he says. “I’ve got three pole sheds, with a shop in one part of them, and cement floors in all but one.”

To be sure, Carl’s collection is rooted in nostalgia. “I grew up during the era when most of these tractors were built,” he says. But his hobby is an equally good fit for a highly trained mind: Carl is a mechanical engineer and a patent attorney. It all comes down to the fact that he just likes machines. “I find it intriguing to get an older machine and restore it to make it go,” he says. “It takes me back to my younger days.” FC


For more information: Carl Johnson,
12740 Mayberry Trail, Scandia, MN 55073;
phone (651) 865-4220; pa99carl38@yahoo.com.

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.