The HCEA Big Dig 2021

Antique construction equipment, steam engines and tractors have a romp on Kansas farm

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by Leslie C. McManus
Front: Dave Dobratz, Council Grove, Kan., on his Caterpillar D4. Back: An International crawler operated by Levi Martens, Fairview, Okla., pulling a Baker-Manning pan scraper owned and operated by Mike Waggoner, Cushing, Okla.

The blades on an installation of wind turbines were spinning for all they were worth when The Big Dig opened near Concordia, Kansas, on a hot August day in 2021. And as the state song memorably notes, “the skies were not cloudy all day.”

Hosted by Prairie Plowing Days, the Historical Construction Equipment Assn. (HCEA) held its 35th annual International Convention and Old Equipment Exposition at a one-of-a-kind event featuring a remarkable display of steam engines, antique tractors and tracked equipment – more than 540 pieces in all – on the Kurt Kocher farm southwest of Concordia in north-central Kansas.

man riding a yellow tractor with a plow on the front

Postponed from August 2020 by concerns relating to the pandemic, the 2021 event seemed determined to make up for lost time. Some 7,000 people were on hand for two days (the show’s final day was rained out) to see an amazing array of antique equipment – steam engines, tractors, dirt movers, scrapers, haul trucks, shovels, cranes, pull and motor graders, elevating grader, drag line, dozers and wheel loaders – put through its paces. For kids, there were several diversions, including a bale maze, playground equipment and sand pile.

Vintage construction equipment was used to create a service road, build and widen two pond dams and level a dam at a silted-in pond. Meanwhile, tractors, prairie tractors and steam engines pulled a 52-bottom plow. Sorghum was pressed with century-old mills, rock was quarried and crushed, and an antique press was used to bale hay. Lots of people were doing lots of things, “and we know they had a good time doing it,” Kurt says.

green tractor pulling a scraper

‘I came here to run equipment’

Out in the back 40, Dave Dobratz, Council Grove, Kansas, took the weather in stride. “You get used to the heat,” he says. “I can’t say I appreciate the dust.”
Dave worked his 1965 Caterpillar D4 like it was a paying job. Well ahead of opening day, he helped build roads for the show. “There aren’t a lot of places you can run equipment like this,” he says. “I came here to run equipment, and I’ll be on machines the whole time I’m here.”

A retired operating engineer, Dave bought the D4 as a birthday gift to himself, selecting the piece because he could haul it. “I’m only 20,000 pounds trailer-rated,” he says. “But this has been my life. If I’m going to have toys, I’m going to have something familiar.”

elderly couple standing in front of a tractor

Once he got his hands on the D4, he went to work on the crawler’s bull and premier gears, flywheel, brakes “and several other items I’m picky about,” he says. At The Big Dig, the crawler’s shining blade proved that the D4 was more than a pretty face.

Dave’s collection includes a 1952 Caterpillar D2 he bought out of Valentine, Nebraska, and a 1932 Caterpillar Twenty, the first new model built under the Caterpillar name after the merger of Holt and Best. He used the D2 to start an elevating grader on the first day of the show.

man in a white hard hat outside

Pan scraper ditches retirement

Nearby, Mike Waggoner, Cushing, Oklahoma, hitched his century-old Baker-Manning pan scraper to an International crawler. “I always had an interest in construction equipment,” he admits. Mike had never seen or used a Baker-Manning pan scraper until adding one to his collection, but HCEA videos filled in the gaps for him.

The 1-yard scraper was complete and in working order when he found it in the Texas panhandle. All he had to do was add a platform. Dating to the 1920s, the scraper made its post-retirement working debut at The Big Dig. The piece was a follow-up to Baker-Manning’s horse-drawn scraper. “This would have been a step up from that,” Mike says.

Back in the day, Mike says, a Caterpillar Thirty would be used to pull three Baker-Manning rigs at once. “They’d load the first one and get off,” he says. “Every one of them had a hitch on the back, and they’d jump to the next one. I think they ran two Cats with six scrapers.”

a drag line cleaning up a pond

Bringing a Cat Sixty-Five back to life

Jeff Moyle, Fairmont, Nebraska, toured the grounds at the controls of his 1932 Caterpillar Sixty-Five pulling a well-used Euclid dump wagon, one of 500 built in the 1920s. The wagon was originally used during construction of Highway 34 in Iowa. Nearly a century later, Jeff loosened a few moving parts, put on a new cable and greased everything – and the wagon was back in business.

Buying the Sixty-Five was a challenge in itself. Fifteen years passed as Jeff tried to buy the piece, abandoned for years in a cow lot. “It was stuck,” he says. “I’d stop by and put diesel and oil in it, and the owner would tell me I was wasting my time.”

a caterpillar wagon and elevating grader

Eventually the owner turned it loose and Jeff began the process of bringing the gas crawler back to life. Incredibly, the crawler was complete. “It’s hard to find one with the side sheets still on it,” he says. The Sixty-Five’s design was a shade before its time. “It was early for a styled tractor,” Jeff says. “It had a futuristic look that most people back then didn’t like.”

middle aged couple standing outside

But the original owner clearly did. “It has some special things on it, like guards, and a heat gauge, and a little gas tank under the seat to use running an elevating grader,” Jeff says. “It was his pride and joy.”

A 35-year career in road construction gave Jeff the opportunity to scour the landscape for old iron. “I’d run around at night after work with binoculars,” he says.

overview shot of yellow and green tractors digging

20hp Case gets in on the action

Not everything navigating The Big Dig was on tracks. Doyle and Kelly Bohl, Phillipsburg, Kansas, were at the wheel of Kurt Kocher’s 1919 20hp Minneapolis 20-60 steam engine. The single-cylinder Minneapolis was a stand-in for the Bohls’ 75hp Case steam engine that was in the shop getting a new boiler.
At The Big Dig, the Minneapolis took a turn pulling a three-shank construction ripper built by Slusser-McLean Scraper Co., Sidney, Ohio. “I thought the Minneapolis would play with that,” Doyle says. “It didn’t: It worked it.”

couple standing outside in front of a trailer

Doyle attended his first steam show as a boy and was instantly hooked as he watched a shingle mill powered by a steam engine. “I was amazed that something with no motor, something nice and quiet, could run that sawmill,” he says. “I’ve been fascinated by steam ever since.”

Doyle completed steam school training five years ago. In 2021, Kelly took the program. “It’s a lot of information to take in,” she admits. “But if we are going to own a steam engine, I better know what to do. We figure we both need to know how to run it. And there’s just three things you need to know: Where’s the water? Where’s the water? Where’s the water?”

a red and black minneapolis pulling a three-shank construction ripper

Turning diesel fuel into noise

As a boy growing up near an interstate highway, Dave Geis was mesmerized by the equipment he saw used in road construction. Later, he became a welder, “and a welder loves steel,” he says. The stage was set for a collection, and his 1954 Euclid S7 scraper fits in perfectly. “It has a 4-71 Detroit engine and it’s a two-cycle diesel,” he says. “That’s why it screams. The Euclid turns diesel fuel into noise.”

The Seward, Nebraska, man restored the S7 five years ago. “It was completely dilapidated,” he says. “It took 2-1/2 machines to build one.” Dave disassembled the scraper, sandblasted and painted it (coating it in 6 gallons of eye-popping green paint), and installed all new hoses, tires and brakes. He had the engine, transmission, cylinders and hydraulic pump rebuilt.

caterpillar tractor on treads pulling a dump wagon

Dave had another show-stopping display at The Big Dig: a 1941 DW10 Caterpillar with a 1943 belly-dump wagon also built by Caterpillar. “This belly-dump was the first piece of Caterpillar equipment that could actually move dirt,” he says. “And the DW10 was the first Caterpillar with rubber tires and a steering wheel.”
The 1941 DW10 has an aerodynamic appearance. “It looks like it’s doing 40mph when it’s sitting still, but Caterpillar decided the look was unnecessary,” Dave says. “After World War II, it was out of production for six years, and then it was completely redesigned.”

At some point in the past, the 1943 belly-dump had been converted to a semi-trailer used to haul road gravel. It was a highly versatile piece. “It can go everywhere and it could go at 18mph,” Dave says. His current project is a 1939 International Harvester TD18. Dave loves taking things apart and putting them back together – and making them work. “I want to see it working,” he says. “That’s the most fun: having it run.”

a yellow caterpillar sixty-five tractor

A sweet memory of the past

Today, we take sugar for granted, but there was a time when it was an unimaginable luxury. “The homesteader didn’t have sugar,” says John Mick, Carleton, Nebraska. John’s display at The Big Dig demonstrated the common alternative in pre-Civil War years: sorghum syrup. At The Big Dig, John and his wife, Darlene, demonstrated the process of crushing cane to extract juice. The juice would then be boiled down until it thickened into syrup.

The working display featured two sorghum presses, each more than 100 years old. The small press, manufactured by Brennan & Co. (which also manufactured cannons for the confederacy during the Civil War), Louisville, was designed for small volume production such as that for a single household. Powered by one horse, the three-roller vertical press was capable of producing 60 gallons of juice per hour at full capacity.

woman wearing blue shirt putting sorghum cane in to a press

John’s larger press, built by Chattanooga Plow Co., was designed to run at 6-8hp, belt-powered by a small steam engine, water power or a large stationary gas engine. The three-roller horizontal press could produce up to 200 gallons of juice per hour at full capacity.

John bought the Chattanooga from Duane Priest, Runnells, Iowa. Duane was the third generation of his family to own the mill that was purchased new by his grandfather, Earl Priest, Arispe, Iowa. Earl first used a 6hp Witte to power the press; later, he used a 10hp Fairbanks-Morse & Co. engine.

For Earl and his family in Union County, Iowa, pressing sorghum was more than just a way to put sweetener on the table. During the Great Depression, he’d tell people, he produced sorghum syrup on shares. Ultimately, the mill saved his farm. FC

railroad vises a group of men and women standing in front of a sign reading

Leslie McManus is the senior editor of Farm Collector. Email her at Lmcmanus@ogdenpubs.com.

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