Most people who restore antique farm equipment fantasize about making the perfect barn find. Few, however, would accept the challenges presented to Jim Arends, Conklin, Michigan, by his “under-the-barn” find.
This story begins in January 2017 when an employee of Burnips Equipment, Dorr, Michigan, saw a “having a bad day” photo posted online. A piece of farm equipment was just visible under a collapsed barn. He positively identified the piece as a vintage self-propelled New Holland baler.
He contacted Jim, a tractor and farm equipment restorer working part time at another Burnips location, to see if he would be interested in this piece of history. The answer was, “Yes.”
A friend of the Arends family in Wisconsin did some detective work, calling farm equipment businesses located near the collapsed barn, and discovered who owned the baler.
Contact was made and a purchase price agreed on. In March, Jim and friends Lyal and Mary Stuart headed to Wittenberg, Wisconsin, with a truck and trailer. Once there, they were joined by fellow tractor collector Jeff Schmidt.
Jim paid for the baler and the crew began to free it from the woodpile that once was a barn. Using a backhoe, tractor and a chainsaw, the team spent more than four hours freeing the baler.
A strong, straight-line windstorm had destroyed the barn on July 17, 1997. The partially stripped baler (serial no. 1166) had been sitting there a long time before that.
When members of the rescue team got the baler back to Michigan, they inventoried what had to be done. The steering wheel was beyond repair, the tinwork was rusty and bent, the gas tank was missing, the seat was destroyed, the twine box was severely damaged and one front wheel was altogether missing. The upper metal tubing structure of the baler was also twisted out of shape.
One of the two 15 hp Wisconsin engines was still on the baler, but was frozen. The other one, now in pieces, had been left outside. Ultimately, it took parts from five Wisconsin engines to assemble the pair required for the baler. Jim’s biggest challenge was getting the proper starter mounting plate and flywheel ring gear needed to convert an engine to electric start.
To get the baler’s upper structure repaired, Jim dropped it off at a welding shop in nearby Ravenna. He told them, “It looks like you will have to start from scratch.” He was wrong. It took two men less than three hours to straighten it all out, without adding any new metal.
For parts, Jim bought a New Holland Model 66 baler at an Archbold, Ohio, auction. That provided all the sheet metal needed for the right side as well as the hay pick-up mechanicals. Even a “Be Careful” warning tag mounted on the toolbox was salvaged.
In 1956-57, SP166 balers were built in New Holland, Pennsylvania, using components from several manufacturers. The front-end, steering mechanism and wheels are Cockshutt pieces, while the differential, axles, wheels and 4-speed transmission are Ford truck parts. The transmission has reverse, three working gears and one road gear. Fortunately, all of those major components were still good on Jim’s baler.
Jim and some friends worked hard on the project and had the baler completely restored in about six months, finishing it in early September 2017. Its debut, in finished form, was at the 10th annual tractor crossing of the Mackinac Bridge on Sept. 8, 2017. Unfortunately, the baler was unable to make the crossing. After travelling about a mile and half, the unit’s clutch bearing failed. But the baler still attracted a lot of attention and Jim received many compliments.
With a history of quality concerns, this just seemed to continue the SP166’s troubled legacy. Author Allan W. Shirk addresses the unit’s quality issues in Ed Nolt’s New Holland Baler: Everything Just Went Right. Ed, who had designed a reliable baler on his own, joined New Holland on Jan. 1, 1941. Balers based on his patented design led to the success of the then recently restructured New Holland Machine Co. For several years, railcars loaded with New Holland balers were shipped around the country to satisfied customers. Receiving a royalty on each sale, Ed became a very wealthy man.
He chose not to be a part of the SP166 project, however. He felt the self-propelled baler lacked the necessary investment of time and engineering prior to product launch. Despite Ed’s misgivings and those of the chief engineer, the project was rushed into production. This was the last project headed up by what Shirk refers to as “blacksmith engineers,” soon to be replaced by trained engineers.
In an unusually short production run, about 300 SP166s were built from July 1956 to April 1957.
“The SP166 sold for over $3,000,” says Don Horning of the New Holland Area Historical Society, “which was high for the era.” The rough equivalent of $26,133 in today’s terms, that was a lot of money to have tied up in a piece of equipment that was used for only a short time each year.
After introduction, the Model SP166 was also plagued with difficulties in the field and the number of customer complaints mounted. For instance, the baler was designed to pull a trailer. In fact, it did not have enough traction or power to do so on hilly ground, and on early models the front-wheel assembly often broke.
Finally, to protect the integrity of the New Holland brand, the company bought back most of the troublesome balers.
“Several ‘stories’ circulate as to what became of the repurchased stock,” Don says. “The first, and likely true, was that, at the very end, New Holland Machine Co. employees were allowed to purchase components from the now being disassembled units. Other stories have them ‘re-engineered’ as towed balers. Another story had the units being exported to other countries, where a bad baler was better than no baler at all. These stories should not be taken as fact, but likely parts of each has some basis of truth.”
Today, very few SP166 balers still exist, making Jim’s effort to salvage and restore this “under-the-barn” find more than worthwhile. FC
For more information: Jim Arends, 13130 Mt. Garfield Rd., Conklin, MI 49403.
Retired from Ford Motor Co., freelancer Jerry Mattson writes articles for newspapers and magazines. Most of his stories, he says, “focus on things with wheels.” Email him at email@example.com.