John Deere Collector Flourishes

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The John Deere Spoker D's open flywheel was risky business for the farmer who caught an arm in it.
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This John Deere 730 Hi-Crop – one of just 78 built – was shipped to a California buyer in 1958.
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Mel Kopf keeps his collection in two custom-designed buildings totalling more than 15,000 square feet.
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The John Deere 330 was where Mel's collection really started. "I wanted the 30 series, but it was contingent on getting this tractor," he recalled. "When I got it in '89, I paid a lot, for those days. For a hobby, I thought, 'This is ridiculous.' It made me weak in the knees."
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A John Deere 630 on steel wheels – one of just 30 made – dating to the early '40s.

As a collection develops over the decades, it progresses at a leisurely pace. But when you go from zero to 60 in a short time – say, purchase and resoration of 70 tractors in about 10 years – the fur flies. Mel Kopf knows: he’s done it.

When Mel Kopf retired from a career as an executive with Southwestern Bell about 11 years ago, he became a serious John Deere collector. 

“When I first retired, I just had so much pent-up energy for this,” he said. “Every night I’d be down working on tractors until 9 or 10 o’clock. It was a driving passion.”

His was a case of full immersion in John Deere green: In just a few years, Mel had a good start on collectible tractors, farm toys, pedal tractors, dealership signs, surplus parts, manuals, decals and caps. Toss in a dealer’s parts bin, John Deere bicycles and a stationary gas engine, and suddenly, he’s a player. (Read how John Deere got his start.)

“I’ve got so much now I can hardly say grace over it all,” he said with a wry smile. Raised on a farm at Beverly, Kan. (west of Salina), Mel grew up with tractors.

“As a kid, I can remember lots of mornings, waking up and lying in bed, I’d hear Dad go out early and start the tractor,” he said. “I always liked the tractor end of it. But after college, that was the end of farming for me.” Career and family intervened, and more than three decades passed before Mel – who now lives near Topeka, Kan. – got reacquainted with tractors.

His first project was restoration of his father’s 1960 John Deere 630, one of the last 2-cylinders Deere produced. “He was so happy when he bought that,” Mel said. “It was just the second tractor he’d ever bought new, but he didn’t want any part of those new 4-cylinder tractors.”

Mel restored the tractor as a sentimental gesture. As work progressed, he thought maybe he’d do a couple more. “Then it was nine or 10, and then 20,” he said. “I never dreamed I’d have this many.”

The size of his collection, he notes, like everything, is relative. “This kind of thing goes on all over the U.S.,” he said. “Tons of people have as many or more. I maybe have more completed. But it’s no big deal: It just takes time, and money.” Money is, naturally, an increasingly important factor in the vintage tractor world. Mel said he expects some prices to go higher.

“I think the rare ones will continue to go up,” he said. “The common ones will probably continue at the same level. There’s probably not much more growth there. But the real good, solid ones that weren’t worn out, they’ll continue to climb in value.”

Mel, though, never looked at his collectibles as an extension of the stock market. “I didn’t go into it to make a profit,” he said. “If I ever get my money back, or close, that’s good enough. What a ball I’ve had with this. … When I retired, we could have traveled around the world or something like that, but I can have fun right here.”

Mel’s collection includes several rare tractors: three Hi-Crops, a Spoker D, a Low Radiator G, an HWH and an Open Fan Shaft A. Then there’s the 630 on steel wheels, from the early ’40s. “I’ve only seen one other 630 on steel,” he said. “They’re like finding hen’s teeth.”

Parts and collectibles he’s scouted for – like dealer’s signs – are equally rare. It took him eight years to track down a pair of heavy duty fenders for Dubuque-manufactured tractors (“And even then, I had to buy the whole tractor to get them,” he said), and seven years to find a couple of dealer’s signs (one, in neon, dates to the ’40s).

Mel’s “wish list” is not long, but it’s challenging: a 330 V Hi-Crop, a GP over-the-top steer and a Waterloo Boy. The hunt is as much fun as the find, he said. He’s bought tractors from dealers, private collections, auctions and farmers in 10 states. Hooking up with a network of collectors, though, is the first step. “Then you just start running your traps,” he said.

It didn’t take Mel long to develop his own philosophy on collecting. “I try to buy as good a tractor, in as good a shape, as possible,” he said. “When it’s worn real bad … well, there’s just a certain amount of wear you can get out of them.”

He goes for what he likes, not what’s popular. And he believes in authentic restorations. “I try to put the tractors back as original as I can, with the right lights, gauges, dash, decals and all that,” Mel said. “I don’t criticize what another guy has done with his tractor. It’s his tractor. He can restore it however he wants to. And there’s no end to how far you can go in making it perfect. But if you don’t do it just right, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It just takes away from everything a guy’s done to restore the tractor.”

Every rule, they say, is meant to be broken, and a project Mel has in mind falls in that category. He’s planning to paint a 1948 D in shades of purple and silver – complete with the Power Cat mascot – as a reincarnation of one used at his alma mater, Kansas State University, during the Vince Gibson football era 30 years ago. Still, outlooks have a way of evolving. “I have changing thoughts on some of this,” he said. “I used to think they all had to be painted. Now, if they’re nice enough, I don’t restore them.”

Mel has marked his first decade as a serious collector. His passion for Deere collectibles hasn’t faded, but it’s mellowed. There are far fewer late nights spent laboring over a tractor. But the time he does spend with his collection is, perhaps, more rewarding.

“I probably enjoy it more now,” Mel said. And, there’s time left for other pursuits. “I like to play golf, too,” he said with a smile. FC

John Deere Company’s Roots in Plowshares

“I will never put my name on a plow that does not have in it the best that is in me.” – John Deere

John Deere’s early life gave little indication of the success that lay ahead. Left fatherless at age 8, Deere dropped out of college, failed at his first business venture, and, at 32, moved to a different state, leaving his pregnant wife and four children behind to face the creditors. But a chance observation put his life on a decidedly different course.

Deere was born in 1804 in Rutland, Vt., a tailor’s son. After a brief stint at Middlebury College – his mother’s idea – he opted instead for an apprenticeship with a blacksmith, which he completed in 1825. For 11 years, he worked as a blacksmith, both for hire and in his own shops. His specialty was tool manufacture, and he was well-known throughout the region for his hay forks and shovels.

However, a combination of bad luck (fire destroyed his shops on at least two occasions) and bad timing (flagging economies in the Eastern states in the 1830s) finally forced him to seek a fresh start in the West.

That start came in Grand Detour, Ill., west of Chicago, where he found work at a sawmill operated by another Vermont expatriate, Leonard Andrus. Blacksmith services were in great demand in Great Detour, and Deere’s business soon flourished. In short order his family – including a new baby, Charles – joined him in Illinois.

The defining moment in Deere’s career came directly after, when Deere hit upon the use of polished steel in the fabrication of plow shares. Cast-iron plows were commonly used in the East, and worked well on the light and sandy soil there. In the Midwest’s heavy, sticky soil, though, cast iron wouldn’t budge.

On a visit to the Andrus mill in Grand Detour, Deere spied a broken saw blade on the floor. The blade, polished by repeated trips through a saw, served as inspiration for what would become the self-scouring plow.

In 1848, Deere moved his growing enterprise to Moline, gaining better access to the transportation of raw materials. Five years later, he was joined in the business by the son who was born in Vermont after his father had left for Illinois. Charles Deere, then 16, continued with the Deere company until his death in 1907.

By the end of the Civil War, John Deere’s involvement in the company he founded had diminished. He died in 1886 at age 82, but his commitment to quality workmanship endures today, in the form of a leading international manufacturing concern. – Leslie C. McDaniel

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