Half a century afterward, Charles Haecherl of Veseli, Minn., discovered that in the old iron world, what goes around sometimes comes around. When he set out to restore the tractor he’d used as a 15-year-old, he encountered damage inflicted by an irate teenager … himself.
“I had to pound out dents in the fenders,” he chuckles ruefully. “When I was a kid I’d get frustrated if the tractor wouldn’t start, or if I’d get stuck while plowing, so I’d take a wrench or a hammer and pound on the fender.”
Biggest tractor on the farm
Charles’ father, Andrew, bought a new 1950 Custom Model B tractor for the Haecherl farm near Lisbon, N.D. Custom Mfg. Corp. of Shelbyville, Ind., made the tractors starting in 1947. “Custom tractors were different because they had a 6-cylinder Chrysler engine,” Charles says, “and not a lot of tractors had a 6-cylinder at that time.” It was equally unusual for Chrysler automobile dealerships to sell tractors.
“The local Chrysler dealership, Hansen Motors of Lisbon, had that Model B with the narrow-front on the lot and Dad brought it out to the farm,” Charles recalls. “We used it for a while, until Dad told them he would rather have a wide-front than the narrow-front, which came on the Model C. So they ordered it for him, and when it came, Dad returned the B.”
The 1950 Custom Model C was the largest tractor on the Haecherl farm, ahead of a 1946 Minneapolis-Moline R, so the C was used for most of the small-grain work. “We field cultivated in the spring, plowed in the fall, seeded, planted corn, harrowed, pulled loads of grain, did everything with it,” Charles says.
As a 15-year-old in 1950, one of Charles’ jobs on the family’s 320 acres was plowing. “I was really happy to be driving a new tractor out in the field,” he says. “But in August, when it got really hot, I had to take a 2-bottom Minneapolis-Moline plow and plow 60 acres. Dad always insisted on plowing around the field, instead of up and down, and that 60 acres seemed like it took forever.”
The tractor’s boxcar hitch slowed progress. Strike a rock, the hitch trips and the plow comes loose. “You’d go 20 to 30 feet before you got stopped,” Charles says, “and then you had to back up, get lined up, hook up and then you’d go on your way again.”
Charles’ dad insisted on plowing around the field to reduce the number of dead furrows. “Every time you would strike out a section,” Charles says, “you would have a dead furrow. You could have several in a large field, and those dead furrows could get pretty deep if you weren’t controlling right and working the levers right. In the spring you’d have to work and work those furrows to get them filled in. Dad wanted only one dead furrow, which would be in the middle of the field if you plowed around it, starting on the outside.” At the time, he didn’t agree with his dad’s methods, Charles says, but now that he’s an adult, he understands.
Restoring Dad’s tractor
With those memories simmering in his mind, Charles decided to find and restore the 1950 Custom Model C his father bought half a century ago. Finding the tractor was the easy part of the project: Andrew had sold the tractor to a relative, who agreed to sell it to Charles.
The reunion was bittersweet. “The tractor looked worse than I remembered,” he says. “It was all rusted out, missing parts, the hood was off, it had the wrong motor and it just didn’t look very good.”
Ultimately, the C got a major overhaul: a Chrysler 6-cylinder motor from another Custom tractor, new pistons, bearings and seals, and the crank and camshaft were sent out for grinding. Then Charles looked at the body and saw the dents in the fenders.
“I had to pound out those dents I’d put in it as a kid,” he says, “and then had it sandblasted and started painting it.” Charles painted the frame and all the parts, but had an auto body shop do the hood and fenders. “I had never really done any painting before,” he says. “Since it was my dad’s tractor, I wanted it to look real nice.”
A rose by any other name
Custom began as a partnership in 1944, launched by three members of the National Farm Machinery Co-Operative: C.F. Brown, Edwin Ashley and Dan Ileininger. Operating out of Shelbyville, they marketed their tractors under the Custom name through the Diamond T Truck Co.
Custom also manufactured tractors for Lehr Equipment Sales, Richmond, Ind. (later sold as Lehr Big Boys); Regal Motors, Brampton, Ontario, Canada (sold as Regal Customs); and Rock Oil Co., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (sold as Rockols).
In 1950, Custom Mfg. Corp. was sold to Harry A. Lowther Co., Joliet, Ill. Lowther marketed tractors under the Custom name and also sold them to Montgomery Ward & Co. for resale as Wards tractors. In 1952, the company was sold and relocated to Butler, Ind. In October of that year, rights to the Custom name were sold to Custom Tractor Mfg. Co., headed by George Pusch, Hustisford, Wis. Production of Custom tractors in the U.S. ended by 1954.
Lehr Big Boy
After joining Custom Club International, a collector organization, Charles learned about the breadth of the Custom line. First on his list was the Lehr Big Boy. He found two in Aberdeen, S.D., and during the trip to pick those up, found another in nearby Redfield. “That one was really a basket case,” he recalls. “The motor was the correct motor and wasn’t stuck, which surprised me. It had a 2-speed rear end, a 1937 Ford automobile front end, an altered steering shaft and no tires.”
Charles heard his Big Boy had earlier been converted into a loader tractor, which required rigging the Ford front end onto the tractor so it had the correct pedestal. He used parts from several Lehr Big Boys to fix that. “That’s what you do in this business when you want to get something fixed with original parts,” he says. “You buy another tractor to make one out of two.” In the case of the Lehr Big Boy, Charles bought three to make two.
Of the four tractors in the Custom family, the Rockol was the hardest for Charles to find. “I had two or three of each of the others before I ran across a Rockol,” he says. A recent Custom show drew 24 Shelbyville tractors, but only four Rockols – the most Charles had ever seen.
Charles finally found a pair of Rockols in a Bridgeport, Neb., salvage yard. “The owner of the yard would take tractors they wanted in Canada up on a semi,” he says, “and haul other tractors back to his salvage yard.”
From one, many
After Charles found his favorite tractor in the series (his father’s 1950 Model C) and got it restored, he turned to the other tractors in the Custom line. “Whenever I read about one for sale, I’d go to the auction and take a look, and usually ended up buying them,” he says. “I just fell in love with Custom tractors. They are more streamlined than a lot of tractors of the era. Everything is under the hood except the muffler.”
Like other antique tractors, many of the Customs Charles finds have been modified. “I bought a Custom C that had been painted International red, but I just left it that way,” he says. “When it’s sitting side-by-side with a Custom, somebody that knows the colors a little bit would be able to spot it right away, but mostly you can’t even notice it.” He even found a Custom Model B painted John Deere green. That one’s made it to Charles’ shop three times but still hasn’t been restored. “I always end up buying another one that looks like it will be quicker to restore,” he says, “so I pull the green one out and work on the other one.”
Today Charles’ collection numbers 16 Shelbyville tractors: four Custom Bs, a Custom 98, five Custom Cs, two Wards HRs, two Lehr Big Boy Model Bs and two Model 77 Rockols. All are restored and/or drivable. He also has a Simpson Jumbo, which has more than a passing resemblance to the Custom models.
Charles’ entire extended family helps drive the red tractors in show parades. “Daughters, sons, grandchildren, in-laws,” he says. “Five generations have ridden on my tractors.” Family ties wind through his hobby. “Of course, my dad’s Custom C is my favorite because there’s a lot of history there.” But he also likes the Custom 98 – and the Wards – and the Rockol. “I guess if you get them all fixed up and working good,” he says, “you like them all.” FC
For more information on Custom tractors and Custom Club International, contact Charles Haecherl, (507) 744-2447; e-mail: email@example.com.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.