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Tracks and 2 Cylinders: Jim Sheppard’s Tractor Collection

Author Photo
By Bill Vossler

Dr. James “Jim” Sheppard has come a long way from his roots, when he and his father farmed with mules in southern Alabama. Nothing shows that distance better than Jim’s incredible collection of about 100 completely restored tractors, including Caterpillar, Holt, Best, John Deere and more. The 72-year-old’s collection is poetic justice, because Jim was the driving force in getting tractor power onto his father’s farm. “When I was 12,” he recalls, “after my urging and cajoling, Dad finally decided to trade the mules and get a tractor.

“That 1945 John Deere Model LA was an enormous step forward in our productivity,” says Jim, a specialist in internal medicine and cardiology in rural Ponce de Leon, Fla. “With that little tractor, we could do a lot more work than we ever could with mules.” His father, Arthur, was a skilled cotton ginner. During harvest, Jim worked on the farm and Arthur ran the community cotton gin.

“We began to prosper, and eventually we bought the farm we had been sharecropping on,” Jim says. “That was a profound experience.” When Jim was 15, his father traded for a 1949 John Deere Model MT tractor. “Then we doubled our productivity,” he says. “That machinery got us out of the pits of poverty, and endeared the old machines to me.”

Nostalgia fuels collection

Jim went on to attend college and medical school. Fifteen years after graduation, he returned to his roots, buying a farm where he could raise his family. “I commuted to my office, and raised four kids here,” he says.

When the time came to buy an old utility tractor for mowing on the farm, he immediately thought of that old Model LA. “In the intervening years, my dad left the farm and those old tractors passed on to other owners, and we lost track of them,” he says. Instead, Jim bought a 1946 John Deere Model LA, and later, a 1949 John Deere Model MT. In 1974, he decided to restore one so it would look like it did when he was a kid.

Jim jumped into the old iron hobby with both feet. “There are several different kinds of tractor collectors,” he says. “One group enjoys finding tractors, another enjoys collecting them but not restoring them, another enjoys showing, parading and talking about them. Old tractors mean different things to different people. When I started, the most fun was restoring the old tractors: getting them in the shop, seeing what was wrong, tearing them apart, fixing them up, restoring them.”

He found restoration to be more fun than work. “I got to use my hands, and that’s different from using my brain all day in my practice,” he says. “I started thinking ‘If I run across another old tractor, I’m going to buy it.'” Which he did … and one followed another. “I never intended to do any big number of them, but it’s like playing tennis and fishing,” he says. “If you enjoy it, you just keep doing it.”

Then Jim began looking at model lines. “I figured ‘I’ve got this model and that model, and if I got this other one, it would kind of bring me up chronologically and begin to make sense.'” He started filling the gaps in his collection, which now includes 71 fully restored John Deere tractors. Today, he’s five or six short of a complete collection ranging from the Waterloo Boy to the end of production of the 2-cylinder 440s and 840s.

Scouring the country

Finding decent tractors quickly became difficult. Many tractors Jim found in the South were in such poor condition that restoration was a major chore. “They had suffered the consequences of high humidity, heavy rainfall, rusting and pitting,” he says.

He began looking for tractors in the Midwest. He bought five in Iowa and hauled them back to Florida. “They were in far better condition,” he explains. “The weather was kinder to old tractors out there, plus Midwest farmers were more affluent and prosperous, and took care of their equipment, servicing and fixing things during the winter when they couldn’t work outside.”

The Iowa junket was the first of many. Each year Jim scouted tractors in a different state. “Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska,” he recalls. “Each year I’d get two, three, four old tractors and bring them back and restore them. They were cheap, 2-cylinder tractors going for $100 to $500 each, and they weren’t going to get cheaper.”

 Finished with the John Deere row crop series, Jim turned his attention to specialty models, the Model Rs of wheat country, hi-crop and orchard models from Florida and California. “I began to branch out into the Pacific Coast of California, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and got down to Nevada and Arizona. Arizona junkyards yielded hard-to-find 40-inch rear tires on old Oliver tractors, so I bought a bunch and use them on the high clearance John Deeres.”

The art of the deal

Jim’s favorite tractor story involves a John Deere Model 320 vegetable tractor in Louisiana. “Only about 13 were built, and I found one in really nice condition in a barn,” he says. “The owner had bought it brand new, watched it get unloaded off the truck, used it rarely and kept it inside. I asked if he was interested in selling, but he thought he’d probably just keep it.”
On the way to his car, Jim realized that someday somebody would offer the man a big price, and he’d sell the tractor. “I figured I might as well offer him that ridiculous price right now. So I told him I’d pay him double the $1,750 he said he’d paid for it new. I figured twice its original value wouldn’t be an insult. He said, ‘Heck: If you want it that bad, you can have it now.'”

Another time he spotted a trio of John Deere tractors (two Model As and one Model ANH) in southern California. “The ANH had a narrow-front with a 40-inch round-spoke wheel and wide quills,” he recalls. “They only built 27 of them. I asked how much he wanted for it. He said he didn’t want to sell it: ‘I want to sell all three.'” So Jim bought them. “To him, they were just old, obsolete, worn-out tractors good for junk iron. As scrap, he’d have gotten $100, but hauling would cost $150.”

Tracking favorites

Eventually Jim began collecting and restoring John Deere crawlers, like the BO Lindeman, MC, 420C and 430C. “I realized my favorite John Deeres were the tracked machines,” he says, “and I had a special attraction to them.” It wasn’t much of a leap to Caterpillar, the dominant force in crawler tractors.

“On the West Coast, I was stumbling over them everywhere, in fencerows, weeds and barns,” Jim says. He began buying them for a few hundred dollars each, some running, some needing work.

California was the early center of tracked tractors, with Holt Mfg. Co. and C.L. Best Tractor Co. building good machines in heated competition. In 1919 Best unveiled its new Model 60, and two years later, the Model 30. Both were so well engineered that today’s crawlers use the same principles.

When Holt proposed a merger, the two firms united in 1925 into Caterpillar Tractor Co. The Holt 2-ton tractor survived the merger because of its size, because the turning clutches ran in oil (unusual for that time), and because it had a Hall-Scott engine with overhead cam, an exceedingly rare feature in 1922. “Later, Caterpillar bought production rights for that engine and built it themselves,” Jim says.

The first Caterpillar tractors were the Caterpillar Twenty, Ten and Fifteen. “Being new machines from a new company, they had several small design flaws,” Jim says. “The gas tank on the Model Ten and Fifteen was over the motor, so as the engine heated up, the gasoline boiled. Some said after you stopped the engine, you could sit there and hear the gasoline boiling and gurgling in the gas tank.”

A second flaw was placement of the throttle on the side of the fender, making it difficult to reach in case of an emergency requiring engine shutdown. And the square seat back didn’t allow you to see a plow behind you, Jim says.

So the tractors were redesigned. The gasoline tank was placed behind the engine, the throttle moved to the dash, corners lopped. The new improved model became the Caterpillar Twenty-Two. During the transition, the flaw-corrected 10 hp was called the new “small Fifteen,” and the flaw-corrected 15 hp the new “small Twenty.” Only 307 of the small Fifteens were made, and only 652 of the small Twenties, making them very rare. “Once someone asked if I’d ever seen the rare small Fifteen, and I said I hadn’t. He showed me one, and when I got home, I found I had bought one and didn’t know it. I thought it was just another Fifteen.”

The superior tractors held over into the Caterpillar line were the Best 60 and Best 30. “These turned out to be exceedingly well engineered, so basically they changed the name to Caterpillar, and kept building them,” Jim says. “Today’s Cats still have engineering principles in them from Best.”

Most Best 30s were rear-seat orchard variety. Only about a half dozen top-seat models were built. Of those, perhaps a couple were Best 30 loggers. Jim’s Best 30 top-seat may be the only logger of that model known to exist.

You never know … until you ask

An unstyled John Deere Model BI proved to be the hardest-to-find John Deere tractor in Jim Sheppard’s collection. Only about 91 were made. On one occasion, Jim and friends were visiting a mutual friend with two unstyled BIs. “I was told he wouldn’t sell one,” Jim says, “because both my friends had been turned down.”

Jim saw the rare pair and nearly salivated over them. He couldn’t resist asking if the owner would sell one. “Sure,” the man said. Jim asked how much, found the price reasonable, and paid it. “My friends were just chagrined, saying ‘Can you beat that? Jim just asks, and he sells it to him.'”

At pick-up time, Jim asked the owner why he’d sold the BI to him, when the other two men also wanted it so badly. The explanation was simple. “There are only two BIs in my state,” the seller said, “and when I restore mine, I want it to be the only one in the state. If you take one to Florida, that will solve the problem.”

“So,” Jim says, “I learned you never know until you ask.” 

The Best of the rest

Of the hundreds of tractors he owns, Jim’s favorite is the Best 60. “It is a handsome and durable tractor,” he says. “Regal, primitive, lusty but beautiful.” And his may be the only one. About 1 percent of the Best 60s built were Logging Cruiser models, with top-seats, a fold-down buggy top for the woods, front hook, heavy-duty grille, cast iron brackets over idler bolts and a high-speed third gear. In addition to those differences from the farm model, the brass shift quadrant plate on the logging model has different gear information, 1-2 H R instead of 1-2-3 R.

His favorite John Deere is his 1924 Waterloo Boy Model N, which was shown at the Waterloo Boy Exposition in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1987. Jim also likes his trio of Cletrac crawlers: a 1934 Model 15, 1935 Model 20 and a 1936 Model 25. “Cletrac had very, very advanced engineering,” he notes. “They had planetary gear turning, the first central oiling for rollers on the tracks and were first to have a high drive. They would have wound up being real strong competitors if they hadn’t succumbed to the Great Depression.”

A set of Sheppard pieces is a fitting sideline to Jim’s collection. He has a 1950 Sheppard SD-3 diesel WF tractor, a stationary Sheppard SD-1 single-cylinder diesel (rare in Florida), and a 3-cylinder stationary. The SD-1 was found in a California junkyard. Other stationary engines in his collection include a Case 15-45 cross-mount, and 3 hp and 6 hp hit-and-miss John Deeres found in a junkyard.

Restoration got Jim into the hobby, but connections with people have cemented the relationship. “The most overwhelming, pleasing, gratifying and pleasant thing has been the lifelong friends I’ve made doing this, people who visit me here and I visit them there,” he says. “If I had never found an old tractor, never restored one, if all the tractors were left out of it, the greatest pleasure of the hobby has been the wonderful people and friendships I’ve made over the years. It has enriched my life in untold ways I had never considered, or dreamed of.” FC

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; email: bvossler@juno.com

Published on Nov 1, 2006

Farm Collector Magazine

Dedicated to the Preservation of Vintage Farm Equipment