Visitors to George Schaaf’s collection of stunningly unique antique, early tractors are routinely rendered speechless by the array. Virtually every piece in the collection is at least 75 years old; most are handsomely restored; nearly all are as rare as hen’s teeth. But at least one visitor – a member of a senior citizens tour group – took it all in and, in some sense, found the collection wanting.
“Don’t you have any John Deeres?” he asked politely.
George, who lives in Frankfort, Ill., has assembled a collection of almost literally one-of-a-kind vintage tractors. Their rarity and unique qualities captivate him.
“About everything I have was made prior to 1926,” he says. “Back then, they didn’t know what kind of engine they were going to have … one cylinder, two cylinders, two cylinders opposed … The oil systems were all so different, and the cooling systems were all different. There was hopper cooled, siphon cooled, backwards radiator, side ways radiator … When they came up with the inline engine, everything got simplified.”
The inventiveness, the resourceful designs, the sheer ingenuity of the early tractors has yet to lose its appeal for George.
“I always admired what they did, the mechanics of these tractors, how they operated. Everybody had their own idea of what would work. Very few of the early tractors would have the same engine,” he says. “Tractors from the thirties, forties and fifties never meant a lot to me. But if you drove one of these big ones,” he says, pointing at a row of 30-60’s of various pedigree, “you hadn’t driven them all.”
George’s tastes are diverse. He has a building full of pre-1926 classics, another building where he’s grouped rubber tire oddballs (including eight he picked up at the Ed Spiess sale last year), and another building for “oddballs and big ones.” He clearly has a preference for the big guys.
“The big ones have just always interested me,” he says. “When they were made, that had to be a time in history; that had to be unusual.”
George’s only ties to farming were the summers he spent as a youth on his uncle’s farm.
“I always wanted to be a farmer,” he says. The farm never materialized, but the tractors did.
“I bought my first tractor, a Case CC, for $750 at an auction,” he recalls. “I was so nervous that night I could hardly sleep.” (Times have changed, he notes: “The big ones now go for more than $100,000. The 40-80 Avery I bought for $18,000 probably sold new for $3,000 in 1910, 1912.”)
Soon after, George happened on to his first steel wheel tractor.
“It started by chance,” he says. “My cousin called, and said his wife’s uncle had an old tractor – he thought maybe it was a Hart-Parr. Well, I’d never heard of Hart-Parr, but I went to have a look at it.”
In the past 20 years, George has put together a professional restoration operation. He employs one man full-time, and another two part-time, to work on restoration of vintage tractors and trucks. He’s woven an extensive nationwide network of craftsmen he calls on for various parts and components.
“We do take the tractors all apart, and reassemble them,” he says. “We get parts made all over. It’s just a matter of trial and error. Some tractors you start on, and it may be two or three years before you finish them up; some times you just can’t get parts made. You’d better have patience if you’re going to restore tractors.
“Compared to cars and trucks, old tractors are by far the hardest thing to find parts for,” he says. “And the big tractors, it’s terribly hard to find parts for them. We get a lot made at machine shops. But I like restoring them; I like a tractor to look like something when we get finished with it. A lot of these were in bad shape, but some just needed cosmetics. Truthfully? It’s nice to find one in running condition, and just have cosmetic work to do on it.”
Visitors touring George’s collection like his hands-on approach: He generally starts a few tractors during each tour. That’s just routine business for him.
“I run everything once or twice a year,” he says. “And I’ve hauled as many as eight big tractors to a show.”
He enjoys the relaxed atmosphere at tractor and engine shows, particularly given his perspective as a champion restorer of vintage trucks.
“I hope tractor collecting doesn’t go that way, where they’re roped off, and there’s mirrors underneath them, and you can’t get close to them,” he says, “where they’re judging the restoration.”
He wonders about the hobby’s long-term future.
“You look at today’s tractors … I don’t know if people will collect them in the future,” he says. “I look at them and just wonder: Who’s ever going to restore that? Are they going to be restored? There’s not a lot to the early tractors: just spark and gas. But today’s tractors, they’re all computerized.”
The early tractors were simple, even crude, in comparison to today’s equipment. The classics got the job done, but at a price.
“Today we’d think, if you had ridden all day on a Mogul, oh my … but when the alternative was walking behind a horse … well, I’ve done that,” George says. “When you see what hard work it was, if you had to do that now, you just wouldn’t do it.” FC