Pair of Northwest hobbyists stand tall in old iron hobby
If there were a college degree in collecting old iron, Andy Gortsema and Ted Billups could serve as a two-man faculty. Each has spent a lifetime collecting, restoring and preserving relics from America’s agricultural heritage. Well into their ninth decades, each man remains actively involved in his hobby. They are both keenly interested in new finds, careful managers of extensive collections, and skilled artisans in coaxing antiques back to life.
Stationary gas engines are Andy’s primary interest. At one time, his collection numbered 100 or more engines. Now 85, Andy has amassed a broad collection, reflecting keen curiosity in the world around him. His museum at his home in Fairfield, Wash., includes a remarkable variety of farm-related items, local memorabilia, gadgets of the past and wonders from the natural world.
About 170 miles southeast, in Grangeville, Idaho, Ted has built a life around tractors. Now 88, he’s worked as a mechanic for the same company for 67 years. He tried retirement once; it didn’t take. Today he works full-time as a mechanic at the local John Deere dealership, tackles his own projects in his free time and manages an impressive tractor collection.
The two men are members of the Lewis-Clark Antique Power Club, EDGE&TA Branch 54, Lewiston, Idaho, and both have been inducted in the national EDGE&TA Hall of Fame.
Some kids start with baseball cards; others with stamps. Not Andy Gortsema. His first collection as a boy was old engines, and he never looked back. “They were always around,” he recalls. “And they were all different. Dad had engines to pump water and grind feed. We used the old engines until we got electricity on the home place in about 1940. Then they got shoved aside pretty fast.”
He started with Maytags (his collection includes a Maytag from the line’s first model, possibly dating to 1910). After he began working as a mechanic (first for a car dealer in Grangeville, then for an International Harvester dealer in Fairfield), he found additions to his collection almost easy to come by. “I’d make service calls to farms and a lot of times I’d see old engines,” he says. “The farmers would say ‘take it if you want it.’”
Before he knew it, a collection was born. Engines seemed to come out of the woodwork. Some came from auctions, others were finds; still others were given to him by people who just wanted to see old iron preserved. More than a few pieces in his collection are rare and unusual, like his Plunket Jr., one of several small treasures.
“I saw one years ago at the Brooks, Ore., show,” he says. “There was a sign on it that it was the only one known of. Later, somebody offered an engine to me and from the description, I thought, ‘Gosh, it has to be that Plunket – but it can’t be because I know there aren’t any others.’”
Built by J.E. Plunket, Chicago, in 1909, the 1/2 hp, 4-cycle engine was designed to provide power to early washing machines, sewing machines and other household devices. The engine is not totally original; when Andy got it the main bearing was in rough shape. But, he says, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another.
Then there’s his 1910 Kneeland Maid of All Work. Another small engine designed for domestic uses such as powering cream separators or churns, the 1-1/2 hp 2-cycle engine is nearly one of a kind today. “I only know of one other one,” Andy says.
A 1915 Sieverkropp 2-cycle 1 hp engine is another fine example of the small, household engine. Promoted by the company as a Washing Machine Special, the two-cylinder, 2-inch bore and stroke engine has one spark plug and one connecting rod. “It’s a beautiful engine to run,” Andy says. “It just hits so pretty.”
One of his treasures is of particular local interest. A 2 hp Novo spent more than 50 years at the bottom of Idaho’s Priest Lake before scuba divers brought it to dry land. “The story is that two farmers were moving it across the lake on a raft in 1935,” Andy says, “and the raft overturned.” Once he heard the story, he bought the engine sight unseen. Andy left the engine in its “as found” rusty condition, restoring it just enough to get it running again.
A 1902 Challenge windmill engine is an odd duck in the Northwest, Andy says. Used to pump water at Rose Lake in Idaho, the very early engine (No. 93) is also rare on account of its 4.2 hp rating. “It’s the only engine I ever saw with a decimal,” he says.
Although he’s downsized his collection of more than 100 engines, Andy’s held on to one of the giants, a 14 hp Stover dating to 1908. “It’s probably the only one in existence,” he says, “and it’s 100 percent original.” Originally a horse-drawn unit, the engine sports a seat and footrest.
Andy’s engine collection is noteworthy in its own right. But housed in his Lost Dutchman Museum (named for ancestry, not the famed mine of the Southwest), the engines are part of a glittering ensemble in which the only relic holding the spotlight is the one the eye lands on at any given moment. The collection is artfully but systematically displayed in two buildings: the main museum and a second structure christened Lost Dutchman Museum Annex I. Andy’s sons, Marvin and Gary, have been active partners in creating the museums.
Gathered over a lifetime, the collection includes vintage porcelain signs, spark plugs, automotive parts and pieces, gas pumps, tools for every conceivable use, chainsaws, toys, cameras, pennants, ephemera, oil cans, feed grinders, washing machines, hay carriers and forks, tractors, oilers, models, photographs, feed bags, lanterns, pulleys, dishes, household items and a massive chunk of petrified wood. There’s even a stuffed owl Andy’s father shot in southern Idaho roughly 90 years ago. “When I was a boy, it sat in our living room,” he says with a wry smile. “Those eyes always scared me.”
Tucked away in a garage is a beautiful 1954 International pickup, restored from the frame up. In a shed are a 1920 Avery 5-10 cultivator that came to Andy as a basket case (“I had to get the seat, gas tank, engine head, grill and steering made”) and a McCormick-Deering W9 Standard. “It was the biggest tractor International built at that time,” Andy muses. “Now it’s not big enough to mow your yard with.”
And so time passes. “I’ve seen a few changes over the years,” Andy admits with considerable understatement. But some things never change. Antique machinery can get a second wind if the restorer will take the time. “It may be stuck and rusty,” he says, “but don’t get in a hurry. It just takes time and patience. Working on engines, I’ve learned patience.”
Study the evolution of the American farm tractor beginning in the early 1920s, and you witness the backdrop of Ted Billups’ life. Now 88, Ted’s earliest memories are linked to legendary names like Rumely and Caterpillar. As a boy, he was a careful student in the school of farm machinery; as a young man, he found his life’s work there.
“I remember when the first two Caterpillar Thirty-Five diesel tractors were sold at Nezperce,” he says. “They came through Lewiston in 1933; I was 10. You’d hear an old farmer saying, ‘Nobody can tell me that damned thing will have power without spark plugs.’”
Bumped from the draft in 1943 by a high school football injury, Ted went to work at Brown Motor Co. (today, Bell Equipment, a John Deere dealership in Grangeville and Nezperce, Idaho) after graduating from high school. One of his first jobs was to figure out how to make a Caterpillar RD6 steer easily enough to be driven by a potential customer’s wife. The result was creation of a hydraulic booster steering system later fitted to all of the dealership’s three-lungers, making their steering clutches easier to operate.
Eventually promoted to shop manager, Ted rode the wave of advancing technology. But he retained a deep appreciation for old iron and immersed himself in it. Over the years, he’s restored more than 40 tractors for himself and others. It didn’t take long to develop a taste for the rare and unusual. Among his collection today: a Buckeye Trundaar, a Lessman Power Shovel and a Caterpillar R3.
Given to him as a basket case, the Buckeye Trundaar is so rare that restoration stalled out while Ted pondered his plan of attack. Built by Buckeye Mfg. Co., Anderson, Ind., the Trundaar was produced in two models (20-35 and 25-40) in 1920. Information on the model is sketchy at best. “Production of all Trundaar tractors was quite limited,” notes C.H. Wendel in Farm Tractors 1890-1980.
With significant parts missing and no images available as a guide, Ted improvised. The only Waukesha engine he could find was 8 inches shorter than the original, so he moved the mountings. Lacking the original radiator, Ted made do with one from a Cletrac 20. “I didn’t know what to call it,” he says of the finished product, “so it’s a 20 Buckeye Trundaar.”
The Power Shovel was built by Lessman Mfg. Co., Des Moines, Iowa, for a short time in the early 1950s. An integrated wheel loader built largely of Ford truck parts, the Lessman was an early innovation in the loader field.
Ted got the lead on his Lessman from a mechanic. “We don’t know what it is, but we want to get rid of it,” he told Ted. The relic had a flathead Ford V8 and at one time had been equipped with a backhoe. “I still didn’t know what it was,” Ted says, “but it was the first backhoe combination in the area. Restoring it was one of the dirtiest jobs I ever had.”
Ted’s Caterpillar R3 dates to the early 1930s. Built in extremely small numbers (a run of just 59) as part of a government contract, the model was developed for use by Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration workers in park work and trail building during the Depression.
“It’s an in-between size tractor,” Ted says. “Basically it’s the size of a Twenty-Eight Cat but it has a bigger engine and bigger bore. They must have wanted it heavy: The shield over the frame in the tracks weighs 400 pounds.”
Ted’s collection is housed in two buildings. An unidentified benefactor installed a sign on the newer of the two, which is filled with crawler tractors, reading “Ted’s Cat House.” The pieces in Ted’s collection regularly stretch their legs. Each July 4, many of the antiques make cameo appearances in local parades. “They’re not any good unless somebody sees them,” he says.
And with that thought in mind, talk turns to his current projects, a 2-ton Cat and a Domestic air compressor. For some, it’d be work. For Ted, it’s pure pleasure. “Work keeps you young,” he says. “Yellow paint keeps you young. But the real fun for me is the day it’s done and the dang thing starts for the first time in 40 or 50 or 60 years,” he says. “I’m always thinking, ‘Who was the last guy to hear this tractor run?’” FC
For more information:
– Andy Gortsema, Box 223, Fairfield, WA 99012
– Ted Billups, 315 NW 2nd St., Grangeville, ID 83530