Brian Dagan’s tractor collection is wrapped in family ties, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “My uncle and father collected old hand tools, gas engines and tractors, so I’ve been around old iron my whole life,” says the Eagle Lake, Minn., farmer. “These tractors will always stay in the family. I’ve got a family of a wife, two daughters and a son (Chase, named for a rare gas engine), and they’re interested in them too.”
So it’s only natural that the center-piece of his collection is a 1918 Nilson Jr., a very rare tractor with strong family ties of its own. The product of a company organized by Nils Nilson in 1913, the Nilson Jr. owned by the Dagan family is the only one known to exist. Descendants of Nils Nilson have traveled to the Le Sueur show to see the tractor on display. Nilson family members have retained company memorabilia, documentation and blueprints. Through visits with those people, Brian has gleaned information about the early tractor inventor and manufacturer.
Those conversations and research he’s done leave Brian convinced that his Nilson is one of a kind. “There may be others,” he says, “but I haven’t seen them or heard specifically about them. Occasionally you hear things, but it’s always about the Nilson Sr. There is a Nilson Sr. in a museum in Saskatchewan (and another at the Dale and Martha Hawk Museum in Wolford, N.D.), but this is the only Jr. we’re aware of.”
What is it?
The Nilson Jr. came into the Dagan family on a fluke. “A couple of elderly bachelor brothers from the Le Sueur area sold a few tractors in their collection to people they knew,” Brian recalls. “By the time my uncle got wind of it and went as a third party, he had to settle for the only remaining tractor, the Nilson Jr.”
Brian was 12 at the time. “I was pretty young, but I was always intrigued with antiques. Any time we bought gas engines or tractors, it was fun to work on them and get them running,” he recalls. “I thought the Nilson was a great find.” It was hidden in a shed. The building’s roof had crashed down on the machine, and the Nilson was mired in mud halfway up its spokes. “Luckily, the shed kept it from getting rusty,” Brian says. “There were no dents in it, and it was complete.”
The Dagans didn’t realize how rare the Nilson was until they began checking around. “That was when we realized we had a real rarity on our hands,” Brian says. Restoration began immediately. The Dagans took the tractor by storm, sandblasting, fixing the magneto, loosening a couple of stuck valves and repainting the rare bird. “We took a couple of bolts loose and tried to match the color as much as we could,” Brian says.
The finished piece was a showstopper: The Dagans’ Nilson was featured in a tractor calendar a couple of years ago. Their work often gains accolades: The family’s 1919 Rock Island Heider was an early calendar feature, and their 1950 Leader tractor will be included in a 2007 calendar.
Within a couple of weeks, the tractor was ready to start. The 1918 tractor turned over nicely and ran, and still runs well. Brian attributes that success to practical experience. “We’re farmers by trade,” he says, “so we’re used to getting things running.”
The Nilson Jr. is run only once a year now, during the Le Sueur show. The Dagans take extra care with it. “Any time tractors or engines sit for a long time, the gas varnishes up so bad because modern-day gasoline doesn’t agree with the old engines,” Brian says. “Today’s gasoline doesn’t have lead in it, so we run stabilizers in the gas.”
A unique design
Brian enjoys visiting with people about the Nilson and its unique features. Though early Nilsons had a single large drum wheel in back, the Dagans’ 1918 Nilson Jr. is an exception. “It was designed with three wheels in back,” Brian notes. “Most of the time the tractor was used for plowing, and the three wheels would crush cornstalks down flat so the plow wouldn’t plug up.”
The two outside rear drive wheels are only 10 inches wide, narrow compared to the rear wheels of many similar-sized tractors at that time. (The Waterloo Boy and Parrett All-Purpose had 10-inch faces on their rear drive wheels, while the Big Bull had 14-inch faces, the Big Four 20-35 had 16-inch faces, and the Pioneer Jr. and Wallis Cub had 20-inch faces on their rear drive wheels.) The inner wheel on the Nilson Jr. was 33 inches wide, which pretty well covered the distance between the other two wheels.
The front end of the Nilson Jr. is wider than the back end, which is unusual in tractors. When the front wheel dropped down in the furrow while plowing, the back end would stay up on solid ground, so the tractor and the operator would actually be at an angle. Nilson inventors, however, resolved that problem by devising a way to adjust the front end leaf springs by moving pins to make the tractor ride level. “You just had to jack up the front end and pull two pins, and the whole suspension in front drops down,” Brian says. “There’s a pipe with a series of holes at each end of the motor where the whole front end rides.” Once the desired level was reached, the pins were reinserted.
The Nilson Jr. also had a lever-hitch system, which consisted of a series of 10 holes into which implements could be hooked. “That hitch actually goes up each side of the back wheels and bolts on to the main frame high behind the tractor seat,” Brian says. “When the Nilson Jr. is hauling equipment, the implement pulls down on the back end of the tractor, and the lever-hitch system adds more weight on the back end of the tractor to give it better traction.” Originally the Nilson Jr. was rated at 15- 30 hp, but in 1918 it was re-rated to a 16-25 hp, and later still, 16-27 hp.
Brian’s seen pictures of mowers and other implements made specifically for the Nilson, and some actual units. He’s not sure whether those ever went into production. “They might all have just been prototypes,” he says. “The Nilsons invented a lot of things to go with the tractor.”
People who see the bright orange machine for the first time fall into two groups, Brian says: Some aren’t interested at all; others immediately understand the tractor’s rarity. The latter group peppers him with questions. “There are a lot of questions about the back wheels and lever-hitch system, and a lot of people are intrigued with the wooden seat and wooden tool box,” Brian says. “They are all original and have never been replaced.” Questions like those, and the conversations they generate, are important. “This is the only complete Nilson Jr. tractor that we’re aware of,” Brian says, “and it’s a great showpiece for educating people about the history of agriculture in Minnesota.” 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: firstname.lastname@example.org