Iowa State University Antique Tractor Club members learn fine points of old iron.
Some Iowa State University students have a rather unusual credit on their resumes: “Member: ISU Antique Tractor Club.” Although they don’t earn credit and some have to squeeze meetings into heavy class loads, ISU students at Ames have been enjoying the benefits of their own on-campus tractor club for the past several years. This fall they’ve begun restoring a 1951 Massey-Harris 22 that was recently donated by an area collector.
Club President William Frels says the club has been so popular that it’s outgrown its original shop location. Loren Book, who farms northeast of Ames, owns the shop where the group painted the last three tractors it restored and where members worked on their 2012 tractor project. A Minneapolis-Moline enthusiast, Loren got acquainted with the group when members worked on a MM ZTU three years ago. He allowed the club to work in his shop since then, but the club’s growth has necessitated a move.
“We’re moving into a university-owned building just off campus this fall,” William says. “Our only dilemma with that is that we were using the tools in Loren’s shop. Our plan this year is to work with tool companies to obtain donated tools and raise funds to buy the rest.” The club will also be responsible for utilities at the new space.
William joined the club two years ago when he moved to Ames from his hometown of Guthrie Center, Iowa, to begin his academic career. Now a junior majoring in animal science, the idea of restoring vintage tractors was nothing new to him.
“I had quite a bit of experience with antique tractors,” William says. “My grandfather and father were both interested in working on old tractors and gas engines when I was growing up. Dad actually heard about the ISU tractor club before I did and encouraged me to check it out. Since I’ve been playing with old tractors all my life, I’ve found it refreshing to have an extracurricular activity here that allows me to take a break from classes and homework.”
Many tractor club members have similar backgrounds. Others are getting their first taste of vintage equipment and restoration work through the club. “Some members grew up in town,” William says. “But they have a genuine interest in learning about old tractors and how to restore them. Each member finds their niche, whether that’s mechanics or painting or other types of restoration work. We always try to share what we know with each other. Anyone who’s willing to learn will find a lot of opportunity for new experiences through our restoration projects.”
The club usually meets once or twice each week through the school year. All that’s required of club members is that they be enrolled at ISU. Each year they try to complete their tractor restoration project in time to take part in an on-campus festival, the VEISHEA Parade, an annual spring celebration held at Iowa State and one of the school’s oldest traditions. The parade showcases Iowa State’s varied educational and entertainment activities.
“That’s one way we showcase our restoration project,” William says. “We also take the tractor we restore to an area tractor show, one that’s related to the type of tractor we restore. That helps us spread the word about our club.”
The club doesn’t limit restoration work to any one brand. As members complete a restoration project, they meet to discuss which brand of tractor they want to tackle the following year.
“Once we decide on the type of tractor we’re looking for, we contact that brand’s national club and ask them to help us locate regional clubs,” William says. “By contacting those tractor clubs in this region we’ve been able to locate a tractor project each year. Not all our tractors have been donated. Some years we had to raise funds in order to purchase one.”
William stepped into the role of organizing the tractor restoration project this past year. Members found it necessary to have someone head up their plans so that the restoration is completed in an organized fashion.
“With a large number of people involved in the work, it’s easy to misplace parts or tools,” William says. “We’ve also had someone take things apart and then be absent when we put them back together. That can pose a real challenge. We’ve gotten much better at taking pictures of everything we’re working on so we know how it should look when it’s finished. We also work together to help keep parts and tools well organized throughout a project.”
Preparing tractors for painting — grinding off old paint and grease — intimidates some club members. “Typically, we don’t have as many members show up for those work nights when we’re cleaning parts and getting ready to paint,” William says. “That kind of work isn’t much fun. But it has to get done. Most of the time we have more help than we really need. But part of the fun of club membership is the camaraderie we share, so people still hang around and socialize even if they’re not actively working on the tractor.”
Once a tractor is restored, the students identify tractor shows where they can display their completed project. During that show they solicit bids for the tractor, eventually selling it to the highest bidder.
As anyone who’s restored a tractor knows, parts and paint and tools aren’t cheap. Structured as a non-profit, the ISU group relies on donations and proceeds from restoration projects to keep the club afloat. “Our funds come from the sale of the tractor we restored the previous year,” William says. “Even that might not be enough to complete another tractor and fund our trips. So we try to get as many things donated as we can. Titan tires donated the tires. Arnold Motor Supply in Ames donated the paint. Hy-Capacity in Humboldt, Iowa, donated the majority of the parts we needed that they make for our Oliver 880, and they also donated tools for our new shop. Steiner Tractor Parts also donated parts, and the Iowa Cornbelt Oliver Collectors Club gave a grant to help purchase our 880.”
William expects the ISU club to face its most difficult challenges ever this year as members seek to stock their new shop. “Buying the tools we need will be a big challenge,” he says. “Restoring a tractor takes quite a few tools and a number of specialty tools. And over summer, when most everyone goes back home until classes start again, it’s not easy to keep the club moving.”
In spite of growing pains like those, William knows that he and his fellow club members are reaping many benefits from their experience. “It’s been like having a little piece of home with me here,” he says. “It’s fun and a good way for me to get out of my shell. I’ve met a lot of people at the university and made friends with members of other area clubs. It’s much easier to make new friends when you have a common interest.
“We always try to take an annual trip to a tractor museum, especially if the museum features the brand of tractor we’re working on,” William adds. “It’s a lot of work to get it organized and complete each project, but our members agree that it’s well worthwhile.” FC
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information:
— William Frels, (617) 757-9250; email: email@example.com. Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Read more about youth tractor education programs in California International Harvester Collectors Foundation.