10 Reasons to Trust in Rust: Explanations for Collecting Old Tractors

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Photo by Lisa Linnemeyer
Roger Welsch.

As this country’s reigning ambassador of antique tractors and farm equipment, Roger Welsch speaks on old iron and small-town life with equal amounts of authority and irreverence. Author of 38 books on topics ranging from old tractors to outhouses, he lives with his wife, ‘the Lovely Linda,’ on a tree farm in central Nebraska. His articles and essays on tractor restoration and small-town life have appeared in Successful Farming, Esquire and Readers Digest, and he’s been a regular guest on CBS’s Sunday Morning. Need more credentials? ‘I’d rather collect old tractors,’ he says, ‘than pay for therapy.’

One of the most common questions faced by those of us who acquire huge amounts of scrap iron – uh, I mean historical agricultural treasures – is ‘Why?!’ I hear that question almost daily, mostly from my wife, Lovely Linda. I have therefore developed a repertoire of snappy answers that speak to her curiosity, confuse her enough to send her away mumbling or annoy her enough that she retreats to the kitchen to perfect her recipe for cold, lumpy gravy.

Here, then, are 10 practical reasons for collecting, restoring, loving and pouring fortunes into old tractors and farm machinery:

Reason No. 1

Buying old tractors and machinery is a good investment. As they say about land, they aren’t making any more. We can ignore for the moment that, well, yes, they actually are making new tractors, and they are better and sometimes even cheaper. Often people who ask such questions don’t think of this, so with any luck, you’ll get away with the investment idea. Tell your spouse you are only thinking of her and the children and building up a huge estate in antiques and tangible goods (that sounds better than ‘scrap iron’). Sure, it’s dumb, but it might work.

Reason No. 2

Even if you collect Internationals or Allises, you can use the new catchword ‘green’ as an easy way out. With solid confidence, even if you have to fake it, explain that you are not actually an obsessive-compulsive pack rat hauling in useless pieces of junk, but rather, you are (learn to say this so glibly that you don’t hesitate or giggle) recycling.

The next couple of excuses – er, logical rationale – are related to Reason No. 2, so you may want to develop a package that you can rattle off whereby you make yourself into an ecological world-hero while at the same time pouring so much hooey into the conversation that your antagonist will be unable to get a word in edgewise.

For example, Reason No. 3

All those wrecked old tractors out behind the tool shed and hidden back in the trees are major elements in your work to combat air pollution and global warming. How? Well, none of them run. Therefore, they don’t waste fuel, produce exhaust or require maintenance.

They just sit there … leading to Reason No. 4

Old tractors provide habitat for all manner of wildlife from mice and birds to squirrels and alligators (an explanation not valid north of the Gulf Coast).

In a similar vein, and Reason No. 5

My own land here in Nebraska is very fragile and easily eroded sand and loess. Tree and grass plantings go a long way toward stabilizing the surface and preventing wind and water erosion but, hey, so does all that machinery sitting around. According to my quick and inexpert calculations (I only got up to the sixes table in grade school), roughly 30 acre-feet of water are held up there behind all those rusting hulks after a 1-inch rain, or in technical shop talk, a full face cord of foot-pounds of psi’s and dozens of square gallons of muffler hydraulics.

It is, in fact, easy to find reasons for banging on old iron from the smallest and most personal gratification to the grand­est and most glorious patriotic duties.

On the personal level, Reason No. 6

The Hindu spiritual concept of the imperfection of man. As mortals we are not perfect and should never presume we are … a real blasphemy against the gods who are, after all, perfect. Take a look at some of my shop work. See? Proof that man is not perfect. Not even close, in fact, especially if you look at my welding.

Reason No. 7

Diversion of Perversion, or in the spirit of the Nebraska state motto, “It Could Be Worse.” I was once working in my shop under a tractor up on jack stands when Linda said to a friend standing nearby, “I just wish Rog had a hobby that didn’t weigh quite so much.” My friend settled the issue by asking in turn, “You mean about 120 pounds with high heels and a great figure?” Linda instantly saw the logic of his question and decided that for all the mess, danger, expense, stink and noise of my work in the shop … it could be worse.

Reason No. 8

On a national level of thinking, what is one of America’s current and greatest concerns? That’s right: terrorism. Imagine the dismay of the terrorist, thinking he will bring America to its knees by wiping out this nation’s supply of antique tractors. Where would he start? It’s taken Linda almost 20 years just to find all the tractors I have hidden around our place, under tarps, behind buildings, tucked under trees, dismantled, doubled up, stashed and crashed.

Reason No. 9

Similarly on the scale of national service, another problem we face today is the need for economic stimulation. I have been known to open a Harbor Freight catalog, or stroll through Jim Stromp’s salvage yard north of here, and spend even more money than Lovely Linda can unload in two days with three credit cards during Crazy Days sales at the mall. And that’s saying something: We are the only people in the county who’ve had to invest in water-cooled credit cards for Linda’s exclusive use. You want economic stimulation? Get more people into old tractors.

Reason No.10, and my favorite reason for working with old iron

I’m getting up there in years, into my 70s. More and more of my parts are wearing out or breaking, my paint is getting thin and there are lots of dings in my sheet metal. I’m slowing down; I don’t run nearly as smooth as I once did and some of the horsepower has gone missing.

But when I feel like I’m too old, all I have to do is turn the crank on my very first tractor, Sweet Allis, a WC that was born the same year I was, 1936. She starts every time, roars, leaks a little here and there but is still ready to go down the road, letting everyone know she is on her way somewhere. If Sweet Allis can do it, so can I. And I do.

The secret is to get an old tractor at least as old as you. That way you will never lack for inspiration, and that’s the best reason for embracing old iron! FC

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