When it comes to building an old iron collection, the methods to the madness are as varied as the collectors. Some enthusiasts focus on a single class of machine from a single manufacturer. Others chase every variation of an individual model – say, the John Deere A. In many cases students of old iron sort themselves out by paint color, but there is at least one enthusiast in Winnemucca, Nev., who doesn’t discriminate. “I am fascinated by junk of all kinds,” says Walter Curtis Jr., pulling over the big flywheel on his 9 hp Samson engine, which dates to about 1900. “If it’s old and interesting, I have to bring it home.”
Making do with old iron
Walt’s interest in old iron germinated in the 1950s while helping his father, Walter Curtis Sr., on the family’s sheep and cattle ranch near Craig, Colo. Hands-on experience with old Ford, Caterpillar and Cletrac tractors, and early Allis-Chalmers round balers, gave Walt a real appreciation for the value of well-worn machines. “We never had a new piece of machinery, but that’s how it was in those days,” Walt recalls. “We farmed with junk, but it got the work done.” That work included making enough hay to support 7,000 head of sheep and 1,000 head of cattle when pastures were lean. Walt learned about perseverance and equipment maintenance at the same time.
Fascinated by equipment, Walt started to hang around the local machine shop when chores weren’t pressing. “There was one full-service machine shop in Craig at that time,” Walt says. “I used to stop in after school and the man who owned it taught me how to operate the lathe and other machines.” At 19, fresh out of high school, Walt bought the shop and went into business. Eight years later wanderlust came knocking. He sold his business and went to work for a contractor who specialized in building convention centers across the U.S. In 1975 Walt and his wife, Sheryl, relocated one last time to Nevada, where they found themselves self-employed once again.
“We started out in construction, installing center-pivot irrigation systems and small subdivisions,” Walt says. “Then we specialized in communications work.” Among other things, that included installing underground fiber optic cable from Denver to Rapid City, S.D., to Billings, Mont., to Seattle. “We wore out several big D-8 cable-laying Caterpillars in the process,” Walt says with a chuckle. “We came across a lot of interesting old iron too.”
Gathering the goods
Walt blames the cable-laying business and even a few microwave tower installations for the bulk of his old iron collection, most of which was obtained using the barter system. “Back in those days, folks didn’t think much of easements and heavy equipment running across their land,” Walt explains. “We tried to overcome that by offering to do a little dirt work for the landowner as a goodwill gesture.” When the landowner happened to have something interesting sitting in a fencerow, Walt offered additional work in exchange for the iron. But how do you get all that heavy stuff back home?
Walt regularly sent trucks back to Nevada to restock and give employees a chance to reconnect with their families. Since the cable work was often in remote areas and schedules were tight, it wasn’t efficient to locate paying backhauls, so Walt just loaded his trucks with old tractors and other machinery and sent them home. With room enough for eight or nine pieces on a flatbed, the Curtis collection expanded rapidly. “At first I was just into the old tractors, and we would trade for just about anything,” Walt explains. “I got more selective after a while and then started concentrating more on engines.”
Although he no longer keeps track of numbers, Walt figures his collection now includes about 150 gas engines and 250 tractors, in addition to numerous cars, trucks, balers, combines and other machinery. Condition of pieces in the collection ranges from beautifully restored to hopeless, but they all hold value. “Some of the stuff is worthless except as scrap,” he explains. “But just looking at it makes me happy.”
For example, Walt has a pretty complete, original condition Wallis tractor that he knows he may never hear run again. But the smile that crosses his face when talking about it is born of pure joy. And sitting out in the dry Nevada air isn’t hurting the Wallis.
Now semi-retired, Walt tracks down interesting pieces at auctions and through private sales, which is how he obtained several of the machines he now uses. These days he has more time to negotiate. He got his 9 hp Samson, for instance, after several years of deal making. “When I first looked at the engine, I thought it was a little overpriced,” he says. “In time they gave a little and I gave a little and we worked out a deal that was fair to everyone.”
Patience pays off
“I had no idea that it was really a one-of-a-kind machine when I was using it,” Walt says of his Frandee Snoshu. “I just thought it was interesting and since it was old, I wanted it.” When he first encountered the unique snow-traversing Snoshu snow cat on a remote microwave tower installation, it was still used daily by the communications company that owned it. “I thought it was a neat old machine and it could pretty much go anywhere in the snow,” Walt says. “We used it to get around on the mountain and to pull the newer Bombadiers (snow cats) when they got stuck.” By the time the tower was completed, Walt made an offer on the Frandee, but the company didn’t want to sell it. “I figured that since it was so old, they would want it off their books,” Walt says. “About 10 years later they did.”
Once the Snoshu made it back to Nevada, Walt learned the unique and capable vehicle had been assembled for the U.S. government at the end of World War II. The tracked truck was built on a welded tubular frame using 3/4-ton Ford truck parts, including the flathead V-8 engine, transmission and a pair of non-steering live axles.
“The front axle had the differential turned over so that it would spin the right direction,” Walt says. “Other than that, except for the dropbox, it’s all standard 1940s vintage Ford parts.” The Snoshu’s single-speed dropbox, which transfers power from the transmission to both axles, is a unique piece that Walt learned more about on a chance encounter with a man who helped build it.
“I noticed a car stopped on the road outside my shop where the Snoshu was parked,” Walt says. “When I asked the driver if he needed help, he told me the story.” As it turns out, the stranger was a student at Utah State Agricultural College in the early 1940s and had helped build the machine. According to this man, the Frandee Snoshu was an experimental vehicle, hand-fabricated as a joint effort of the Utah Scientific Research Foundation and the college. The man was also quite certain that Walt’s machine was the single prototype.
According to U.S. Soil Conservation Service historians John T. Phelan and Donald L. Basinger, the Frandee was part of a federal program aimed at creating safe over-snow vehicles to support, among other things, SCS snow survey efforts. The SCS contracted with several western universities to design, construct, test and evaluate such machines. The Frandee (named for its builders Roy France and Emmett Devine) was the first project financed by the SCS and is a direct ancestor of the Thiokol IMP snow cats and other low-ground-pressure machines built for the military by Morton Thiokol Chemical Co. Morton Thiokol sold its interests in snow machines to John DeLorean in 1978, and one or more of his companies continued to manufacture them for several years.
Favorites stay on the farm
Today Walt keeps a small herd of sheep. He enjoys the animals, and they do a fantastic job of keeping the weeds down. “I don’t think the shepherd in me will ever be totally gone,” he says, pointing out how effective the animals are at mowing around his treasures. Walt also works a little ground in and around Winnemucca, including a nice well-irrigated 20-acre piece across the road from his shop. The oats and wheat he grows are used in threshing displays at local shows and as winter feed for his sheep.
He also relies on a fleet of vintage tractors to help with the heavy work. A little Rumely OilPull Model L 15-25 comes in handy for light tillage duties. For heavier ground-grating work, he chooses from among several John Deere Model R tractors, or crawlers from makers like Cletrac, Caterpillar, Holt, Allis-Chalmers, John Deere and International Harvester. The 1934 brass-tag John Deere Model A works well in front of an old manure spreader when it’s time to fertilize the soil with sheep manure and composted grass clippings. If the row crops need cultivating, Walt fires up his little Allis-Chalmers Model G.
Heavier chores require something a little larger. The 1948 CO-OP E3 has plenty of power to keep the International Model 37 baler busy (with or without a hayrack in tow), and when it’s time to cut the small grain, one of a pair of engine-powered pull-type Allis-Chalmers all-crop combines is pressed into service.
“Although he’s busy running the business now, my son, Bryon, still gets involved when he can,” Walt says. “And my wife, Sheryl, is into old washing machines and toys, so we have a lot of fun together.”
The Curtis family is also known for its enthusiastic participation in and support of several regional events. Vintage machinery enthusiast Al Barkl, Elko, Nev., says Walt and his family go all out to put together interesting and educational displays. And no matter how cold it is, Walt takes his 1944 John Deere Lindeman to Winnemucca’s annual Christmas parade.
“I made pads out of 3/4-inch belting to keep the grousers off the pavement,” Walt explains from the seat of his favorite parade piece. “I decorate the undercarriage with flashing lights to make it look like the tracks are turning even when I’m sitting still.”
Walt doesn’t know what pieces of junk might follow him home next. He’s just added a 1927 bar-start Caterpillar Sixty and a Caterpillar Twenty-Eight to his old iron collection. Other new additions include a nice Silver King and 1941 General Model GG wheel tractor. The General, which was made by the Cleveland Tractor Co., is particularly unusual because it is the only wheel tractor that the makers of Cletrac crawlers ever put into production. After 1941, Cleveland Tractor Co. stopped selling the GG outright and built them for B.F. Avery & Co., Louisville, Ky., instead. Within a few years Avery produced the GG at its own plant and eventually renamed it the Model A.
Although pieces with interesting stories like the General GG intrigue him, Walt has an open-minded approach to collecting. “I usually don’t know what I am looking for until I see it,” he says of his strategy. “I guess that’s why I have a little of everything.” FC
Walt Curtis is interested in learning more about his Frandee Snoshu, General Model GG and an old Allis-Chalmers Model KO start-on-gas diesel crawler that he was told doesn’t exist. If you have information, or just want to visit, contact him at (775) 623-5796.
Oscar ‘Hank’ Will III is an old iron collector and the editor of Grit magazine. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org