1912 Wood Bros. Steam Engine Stays in Family

Illinois collector encounters obstacles on way to restoring 1912 Wood Bros. steam traction engine.

| May 2014

Mel Kerr endured a long series of delays and troubles — including the wrath of Mother Nature — before he finally latched onto his 1912 Wood Bros. steam traction engine. Curiously enough, at one time Mel wouldn’t have touched old iron like that with an old pitchfork.

As a youth on his parents’ Iowa farm, Mel was antsy. “I couldn’t wait to get off the farm,” he recalls. “But after medical school and getting my ophthalmology degree and teaching at the University of California, San Diego, I couldn’t get that farm out of my blood.”

In 1977, against his family’s wishes, he and his wife, Judy, moved back to the Midwest from California. “I wanted to be a gentleman farmer with old farm equipment,” he offers as explanation. Today the couple is at home in Macomb, Ill.

Crazy like a fox

In the late 1970s, Mel’s uncle, Dallas Kerr, held an auction. Reminded of his youth spent operating John Deere machinery, Mel bought his uncle’s John Deere Model L. The next time Mel visited his uncle, Dallas insisted on firing his 1912 Wood Bros. steam traction engine and having Mel operate it. That did it. “It was about the time we moved back, and after he had me drive it, suddenly I thought that machine was the greatest thing going,” Mel recalls. “I wanted it.”

Dallas didn’t sugarcoat it. The engine’s boilerplate was thin and needed to be redone, many of the Wood’s flues were rusted out and the engine needed a new canopy. But it wasn’t Mel’s worry. When Dallas died of cancer in 1981, he left the Wood Bros. engine to his brother, Leonard.

Mel turned his attention to his own brand of old iron. He attended auctions to find John Deere tractors and antique automobiles to restore. He brought home John Deere corn binders, grain binders, threshing machines and corn planters (one dating to 1880) until he’d garnered 55 John Deere tractors and 35 antique autos.