Old iron is reborn in Idaho's Snake River Valley
Collections of born-again tractors and other farm implements are cropping up all over Idaho's Snake River Valley. Old, tired, worn out and junked tractors are being hunted down and turned into near-new working machines by several happy restorers, mostly retired farmers. Branch 7 of the Early Day Gas Engine and Tractor Association, comprising mostly restorers of farm equipment, was founded to bring these restorers together. It issues a newsletter rather whimsically named "IRON," an acronym for Idaho Rusty Objects Nuts. Three of its members are particularly avid collectors.
One of them, D.J. Baisch, calls his place D.J.'s TOIS (pronounced "toys"), for Tired Old Iron Stuff. D.J.'s shop and playpen are located a few miles north of Idaho Falls, Idaho. His mailbox (the housing and crankcase of a stationary gasoline engine) sits across the road from his house. A huge, circular saw blade with a painted scene hangs from a frame at the entrance to his driveway.
D.J. grew up on a farm near Idaho Falls and really hasn't left it. Although the family farm ceased to operate many years ago, he swears a Farmall H front-end loader he recently bought belonged to his father. He's a man who loves his toys, and he lavishes all the attention on them that a little boy might give his first toy tractor. As he talks, it sounds as if he can't wait to show you his next project. And the projects he's completed are outstanding. His enthusiasm for his subject is as unbounded as is his knowledge. He can tell you the history of practically every tractor manufacturer that ever started a factory.
One of his favorites: a 20 hp Aultman-Taylor steam traction engine he acquired in Montana and rebuilt to look like new.
Last spring, D.J. used it to plow a ten-acre field with an eight-bottom plow he brought from Canada. He's also shown it, with some pride, at fairs and other gatherings. It uses about 200 gallons of water per hour (his water tender has a 1921 Sears undercarriage with a tank of uncertain lineage).
Another of D.J.'s toys and probably his favorite is an Eagle 20-35 Model E tractor.
It bears serial number five (100 were built). He bought it from its former owner in Alberta and claims it's his favorite because it was the most difficult restoration he's undertaken.
"There were so many missing parts that had to be borrowed and new castings made and broken parts I had to repair," he said. "Only three of the original 100 of these tractors made are know to exist, and mine is possibly the only one that's been restored."
D.J. doesn't specialize: his collection is broad.
"I've got 41 tractors including crawlers, steel-wheeled and rubber-tired and steam, and 90 stationary engines of all types and sizes, flywheel and a few air-cooled, 77 cast iron seats, and thousands and thousands of miscellaneous."
And that's an understatement. His large shop and storage buildings contain an overwhelming array of just about everything old.
"The tractor collection alone includes a complete set of standard Farmalls including a Farmall Cub, an A, a B, C, H and an M," he said, "and a couple extra Hs and Ms, plus a selection of horse-drawn machinery, including about eight pieces of John Deere."
Also in D.J.'s collection is a most unusual tractor, a Rumely Do-All Convertible, that he hasn't restored yet. Although it's a tractor, it's so constructed that an implement can be attached behind, the steering column extended, the drive wheels swung forward and the front wheels removed so the tractor becomes a power unit for several types of "trailers" designed to perform various farm operations.
D.J. has tapered off his restoration projects as a consequence of two accidents resulting in injuries, the latest one late last spring. Most of his current projects involve buying and selling rather than actual restorations.
Robert Remsburg, who also lives near Idaho Falls, restores old John Deere tractors. Proudly he pointed to one of them and said, "This one I took to Pinky's to a pulling contest and I took first in the class." (Pinky Williams is another restorer who lives near American Falls, Idaho.)
Robert has a well-stocked inventory of parts for restoration. A pile of old machines fill the back of his shop in a corner of an old pasture.
"Spare parts, ladies in waiting, bone-yard and probably just junk," he said, surveying the stock. "Three of them are old John Deeres, one of which fell off the truck carrying it and was severely damaged."
He's partial to John Deere.
"I've worked on them," he said.
"They're real simple, and easier to find parts for, and they're cheaper."
Robert plans to take parts from these three old John Deere tractors and combine them to build another one for his next project.
"They didn't change very much from one model to another, so many of the parts fit several models," he said. "Parts will fit for six or seven years. Every once in a while, you'll find a part that looks the same but isn't, so you have to experiment a little 'til you find out. I'll buy an old tractor for parts once in a while if they're cheap enough."
Robert takes on all comers. His collection ranges from an 18 hp to 59 hp. One finished project is a combination of three models: a '48, '49 and '50.
"I just picked up pieces and put them together," he said. "First, I took each of them all apart and replaced the seals and gaskets and everything ... "
And there's always another project waiting in the wings: A small John Deer crawler tractor is on his "to do" list.
Perhaps the television commercial is right when it says, "No matter how old they get, they just keep on running."
Robert's collection isn't limited to John Deere tractors. A 28-inch Case threshing machine shares the boneyard with a side delivery hay rake that is, according to Robert, "ready for the field."
Walt Schoen, living in Paul, Idaho has a collection of 13 completely restored tractors, enough to provide pictures to make his own calendar, and they're most impressive. With a show of great modesty, he claims that his success "isn't so much a matter of the work I do, as it is the will of the tractors to go on living."
His collection includes a 1945 John Deere LA, 1938 John Deere General Purpose B, another John Deere B, 1949 John Deere A (which he bought new and has been in his possession ever since), an Oliver Row Crop 60, Massey-Harris 30, 1936 Farmall F30 All purpose (also designated McCormick-Deering Farmall A), 1944 Farmall H, 1936 Farmall F30, 1939 Farmall F14, 1937 Allis Chalmers WC, 1936 Co-op No. 2 (which he describes as probably his favorite "because it gathers a crowd wherever it's shown,") and a 1926 Fordson with a self-leveling Ferguson plow attached.
Walt keeps quite complete records on all his restorations in computer files which he periodically updates (and prints for the curious). In addition to technical information, the records include special notations: problems he had finding parts, what was wrong with the tractor in the beginning, and what he did to restore the machine.
A vintage Deere was Walt's first project. "I'd seen some people restoring them, but what got me started was this John Deere B," he said. "It was about three-quarters of a mile away, and had always been owned by the same man. I thought it might be a good one to restore, and I was fortunate to find new tires to fit the narrow rims. That was kinda the start of it." Once workhorses on the farm, the collectible tractors now look like new.
"I've owned this tractor since it was new," he said of a John Deere A, "but I never considered it a play tractor at first. It was always just something I used on the farm."
A gray Farmall F30 with the McCormick-Deering designation on it is an interesting oddball in Walt's collection. Before 1936, Farmalls were painted gray, and Walt's restored Farmall follows that pattern.
"It was running when I got it, but I found out there were a lot of things that had been repaired by the original owner that, for a restoration, would have to be taken apart and redone," he said. "The previous owner was pretty good at patching things up and some repair jobs were quite crude. Other things were welded and had to be taken apart and repaired properly for a restoration project.
"It took much longer than I originally thought it would, and I put more time than parts and money into it," he added. "There are still a few things that should be done to it."
Walt also has a Caterpillar D-2 crawler that has been put into working order, but because of the difficulty of transporting it and just moving it around, he's decided it would be better in someone else's collection, so it's for sale.
Walt doesn't spend all his time restoring old tractors. He's also the vice president of the board of directors of the Minidoka County Historical Museum a mile or so east of Rupert, the county seat of Minidoka County. Although one would expect a museum in a farming community to be a farm museum, this one is basically historical in nature with a wide variety of exhibits. One of its most unusual items, carved by a man living in a neighboring town, is a wooden chain 117 feet long. A visit to the museum is well worth the time spent.
Sometimes information we'd like to keep gets away. With only a little extra effort, a restorer and/or collector of any kind of farm equipment can keep an invaluable record of his work. This form is ideally suited for a computer application, but a computer is by no means necessary. All that's necessary is a desire to keep the record, and some sort of format in which to put it. Here's a format that can be used on the computer or in hand-written form, and is easily adapted to individual needs.
Use it as a guide. You might want more or less information, depending on your needs. Consider adding photographs of the piece – before, during and after restoration.
Briefly, a description of the form: Project Number starts with number 1 for the first piece in your collection, and continues sequentially, whether the piece is finished or not. Purchased From and Other Owners provide the historical ownership of the piece prior to your acquisition. The Price and Cost line are estimated figures; a more detailed record should be entered in Restoration Notes.
Restoration Costs should include the individual costs incurred as you proceed, and it should include everything – even phone calls and postage – as well as parts and labor you pay for. Cost So Far is an up-to-date total of project costs. Also important is the time you spend on the project. And finally, Restoration Notes allows space to record final disposition of the project: Sold, abandoned or kept.
Mark Jennings, also living near Idaho Falls, doesn't restore tractors, but he's done a fine job restoring this black-and-red buggy which he called a doctor's buggy, and which was built in the late 1800s. A brown cabriolet which Mark purchased already restored was probably built at about the same time. Both buggies were destined to be picked up by a new owner later in the day.
Mark spent 265 hours restoring the doctor's buggy. He said it should have a white top but the buyer didn't want to wait for it. He has a set of wheels he purchased in Amish country, and intends to build an Amish buggy next. He also raises horses bred especially to pull buggies. FC
For more information:
D.J. Baisch, 6230 E. 81st N., Idaho Falls, ID 83401; phone (208) 525-2071; fax (208) 525-6104. E-mail: email@example.com
Robert Remsburg, 2842 South Bellin Road, Idaho Falls, ID 83402; phone (208) 522-1876.
Walt Schoen, 500 West 60th North, Paul, ID 83347; (208) 438-5968.
Mark Jennings, (208) 528-7599.
M. V. (Maury) Hansen was born and grew up on a farm near Idaho Falls, Idaho. World War II, he says, rescued him from the farm and made it possible for him to attend Idaho State College. After working as a geologist in Idaho and Colorado, he accepted a position with the United Nations in Vienna, Austria. He and his wife currently live in the southern Alps.