Although his initiation to agriculture was powered with a multi-horse hitch, retired Eden, Idaho, farmer Charles Steinmetz now favors Farmalls and other petroleum-powered pullers over the four-legged kind. “When I was a kid in the 1930s, our farm was still entirely powered with horses,” Chuck explains. “We raised Belgians and I started driving teams before I was 10 years old.” Although the Steinmetz family was known for its well-trained teams and their working stallion, Chuck says tractors and other then-modern machinery gave him more than a gentle tug.
“I couldn’t wait to try a tractor,” Chuck says of his early engine-powered excitement. “I liked the way they looked, the way they sounded and I was impressed with the work they could do.” Chuck’s dad, George Steinmetz Jr., relented in the late 1940s and purchased his first Farmall H used. “It was a 1941 model,” Chuck says, wiping fine white Idaho dust from the hood of one of his dad’s tractors. “He liked the H enough that he bought an Oliver 70 for the heavier field work in 1947.” However, the horses weren’t put out to pasture until the mid-1950s. Chuck’s dad preferred to cultivate the more tender crops with a team.
Follow the family history
Chuck’s paternal grandparents emigrated from Russia and Germany at the turn of the last century. They initially settled in Kansas, but moved to Montana, Wyoming and elsewhere before following the railroad west to Idaho. “They arrived in Eden in about 1920,” Chuck explains. “The Milner dam and irrigation project was completed by then, which completely transformed the Snake River valley from a desert to some very productive land.” Although the territory was rough when they arrived, Chuck’s grandfather, George Steinmetz Sr., obtained a lovely, cleared 80-acre parcel that was ready to work.
“My grandfather grew alfalfa, beans, barley and potatoes for the most part,” Chuck recalls. “My dad pretty much did the same thing.” The Snake River’s Magic Valley, as this area has come to be known, is now famous for malt barley production, often under contract with a huge brewing company. The area also makes significant contribution to edible bean, potato and other specialty crop production.
Some of Chuck’s earliest recollections on the farm involve the hard work and workhorse handling associated with potato harvesting. “When I was in grade school, they dug and sacked potatoes during the day,” Chuck explains. “Nights after school were spent bucking those sacks to the cellar.”
Potato bucking was a labor-intensive practice that involved hitching a team to a wagon or sled, loading it with 100-pound sacks of potatoes, carting them to the cellar and unloading – only to do it all over again for hours. “It was especially important to get the potatoes to the cellar on cold nights,” Chuck says. “If they weren’t under cover by the time it froze hard, the previous day’s work would be spoiled along with the spuds.” Eventually, tractors supplemented horses when it came time for bucking potatoes. That’s when Chuck learned to drive.
Graduating from high school in the late 1940s, Chuck decided the family’s 80-acre farm wasn’t large enough to support two families, so he went to work for a neighbor. Although his decision didn’t sit well with his dad initially, they settled their differences and by the time George Jr. was ready to retire in 1974, Chuck and his wife, Fran, were ready to work the home place.
“Dad was still farming with the older Olivers and Farmalls when we took over,” Chuck notes. “None of those tractors had a 3-point hitch and I didn’t like all that trailing equipment, so the first tractor we bought ourselves was a 1952 Ford 8N with duals.” Although that Ford tractor had seen more than a score of years of work by then, it was in good shape when Chuck purchased it. “I still used Dad’s old Farmall H for cultivating and one of the Olivers for heavy tillage work,” Chuck says. “But we used the Ford for most everything else.”
Over the years, Chuck and Fran upgraded their equipment and practices. Where their corrugated land was initially flood-irrigated, Chuck converted to sprinklers, which made soil preparation a little easier, and made it possible to grow higher quality potatoes and other crops. After nearly 20 years of farming his ancestral acreage, Chuck officially retired in 1992 and leased the ground to a large potato grower. It wasn’t until then that his mind really turned to collecting, which Chuck says continues to be a great way to keep busy.
The first tractor to earn a place in Chuck’s collection was the old Ford 8N he and Fran bought in the 1970s to farm with. “I was getting pretty close to retiring and needed something to do,” Chuck says. “There were a few guys around here that were into fixing old farm tractors, so I decided to give it a shot.” That 1952 Ford is now among Chuck’s most cherished pieces, though other familiar machines have also made it through his shop.
“The 1941 Farmall H was one of two Dad owned,” Chuck says. “I learned to drive on that model. He thought they were pretty good for everything from plowing to cultivating to planting.” Since that tractor had never left the Steinmetz farm, there isn’t much of a story to how Chuck obtained it, but as an heirloom, it holds a place of honor in the shed. And just as its red paint provides a physical connection to his father, orange is the paint that keeps Chuck connected to an earlier generation.
“My grandfather liked horses,” Chuck reports. “But he also had a 1946 Allis-Chalmers Model C we used with a weed burner.” Chuck now owns that Allis Model C and it is lovingly restored. A quick look in Chuck’s shed reveals a good deal of green paint in his collection as well. “In addition to the two Farmalls, Dad had a couple of Oliver 70s,” Chuck explains. “He used those tractors for discing and other heavy field work.” Chuck owns several Oliver 70s today, but that’s not all.
Power for pulling
Just as George Jr. believed in the pulling power of Belgian horses, Chuck believed in the big standard tractors of the day, and his interest in prime moving power never waned. “The neighbor I left home to work for had one of the first tractors in Jerome County delivered with rubber tires,” Chuck explains. “It was a 1935 Allis-Chalmers Model U, and it came to the Magic Valley sporting a set of closed-tread Firestones.” Chuck says he spent literally years of his life in that tractor’s seat. When he found it sitting out in the weather, he had to buy it.
The old Model U had plenty of pull, and plenty of history. According to Norm Swinford in The Proud Heritage of AGCO Tractors, the Model U was the first farm tractor to come standard with low-pressure pneumatic tires, beginning in 1932. Ironically, it was initially equipped with pneumatic truck tires up front and smooth aircraft tires in the rear – specialized tractor tires weren’t available. In that same year, the standard-tread tractor was powered with Continental’s 284-cubic-inch-displacement engine, which delivered around 30 hp to the belt pulley.
By the time Chuck’s Model U was put together, an Allis-Chalmers-designed and Waukesha-built 300-cubic-inch-displacement mill powered the puller, which increased the number of PTO ponies to slightly over 34. It also rolled on Firestone tires designed specifically for pulling in the dirt.
“The U’s engine was stuck when I got it,” Chuck says. “So I took off the head, soaked the cylinders and waited.” Now and then during the wait, leaving the transmission in gear, Chuck gave the tractor a push or pull. Eventually the engine broke loose.
Even though it had been sitting for many years, the old Allis was in remarkably good condition. Chuck pulled the pistons and replaced the rings, ground the valves, removed shims from the bearing caps and put it all back together again. “The tractor ran so well that I just had to take it to the antique pulls,” Chuck says. “It did pretty well, but didn’t have nearly enough weight in the rear to handle all the power.”
Among other relatively powerful tractors in Chuck’s collection is a restored gasoline-powered Oliver 88 he once used to sculpt fields and maintain irrigation ditches pulling a tumblebug-style earthmover. It too has performed well on the pulling track.
Chuck later obtained a 1952 Oliver 88 Diesel in North Dakota, and it is one of his favorite pulling tractors today. “I bought the Model 88 Diesel in ‘running’ condition,” Chuck says with a smile. “But it didn’t run very well, so I overhauled it.” That tractor quickly turned into Chuck’s secret weapon on the pulling track: Although it looks every bit like a Model 88, he rebuilt the engine with a Super 88 kit, increasing its power by close to 25 percent.
Although still plenty fond of International, Ford and Allis-Chalmers tractors, Chuck is most captivated by Olivers. It comes as no surprise that he has plenty of them in his collection. And like most of his other machines, no matter the size, Chuck’s Olivers have all had their chance to perform on the pulling track, even an Oliver-Cletrac Model HG.
Chuck found that littlpulling tracke crawler in Oregon, in the form of two machines a friend tracked down for him. “I wasn’t interested in two crawlers,” Chuck explains. “But I needed the pair to make one good one.” One of the Model HGs was equipped with a dozer and had decent tin; the other had a good undercarriage and tracks.
Once disassembly, reorganizing and reassembly were completed, Chuck was left with a fully functional farm tractor, but one with a significant quirk. “At some point an extra transmission was installed between the engine and the tracks,” Chuck explains. “It was hooked to the main transmission with sprockets and chains.” What makes the HG even more interesting is that the extra transmission was borrowed from an International Harvester wheel tractor. “With all of those gears you can always find the right speed,” Chuck says. “So I had to try it out on the pulling track.”
Among many other members of his Oliver team, Chuck notes several favorites, including models Super 88, Super 66, Standard 77, 70 Row Crop (with single front wheel), 70 Row Crop with conventional narrow-front end, 80 Row Crop and 550. His current project is a 1964 Oliver Model 1800 Series C he and his pulling club (Magic Valley Antique Tractor Pullers) plan to use as a sled pullback tractor during the 2007 season – if all goes well.
“I’m just a retired guy trying to keep busy,” Chuck says of his obsession. “My wife, Fran, is also a great mechanic and we sometimes work on tractors together.” Just as they were partners in farming for decades, Chuck and Fran remain true partners in life and even in the shop. “Fran helps with the fine work and offers an extra set of skilled hands with the restoration projects,” Chuck says with affection. “But she isn’t as interested in the pulling as I am.”
In fact, it seems as though Fran’s interest in old iron in general might be waning just a little bit. “I have my eye on an Oliver 770,” Chuck says, laughing. “But I don’t think Fran thinks we need another tractor at all.” And still, the pull of that undiscovered Model 770 is part of the magic for Chuck … and Fran. FC
For more information, contact Chuck Steinmetz at (208) 825-5400.
Oscar “Hank” Will III is an old iron collector and the editor of Grit magazine. Contact him at email@example.com