Pedal tractor collection born when dumpster yields rare relic
Ron Fratzke owes his pedal tractor collection to a dumpster. “People cleaning out a house were throwing a lot of stuff into a dumpster,” he recalls. “As we were going by, we saw this old pedal tractor in there.”
After talking to the people who’d pitched the pedal tractor, Ron (who lives in Mora, Minn.) offered $10 for his dumpster dive, figuring the old pedal tractor might prove interesting. “When I pulled it out, I thought it was an old Allis-Chalmers,” he says, “but when I took it to a guy who knows pedal tractors, he said, ‘No, that’s a Case.’”
And not just any old Case, either. Ron had stumbled onto a rare and valuable Case VAC pedal tractor. Once he realized what he had, he decided to have the piece restored. It is the only piece in his collection of more than four dozen pedal tractors to get that treatment. “I don’t usually do that because often they lose value if they’ve been restored or repainted,” he explains. “But I had a guy who really knew what he was doing and I wanted the Case to look really nice.”
That lucky discovery set Ron on the hunt for more pedal tractors. Despite the fact that he hit the jackpot with his first pedal tractor, he’s since veered away from those made by big manufacturers like John Deere, International Harvester and Ford. Most of those are built of cast aluminum; Ron’s taken a different direction. “I like the tin or steel pedal tractors because they are different from what everybody else is collecting,” he says. “And nowadays it seems like it’s harder to find the tin ones than the cast aluminum ones” — although the pedal tractor hardest for him to find was what’s called a John Deere small 60.
Many of the pedal tractors Ron unearths at auctions, flea markets and garage sales are produced by now-obscure manufacturers he’s never heard of. “When I find a new and different one, I do research on it so I know something about it,” he says.
His Power Trac Model 502 pedal tractor is a classic example of that. Made by Universal Mfg. Co. Inc., Olney, Ill., the tractor sold for $37.95 ($293 today) when it was produced in 1961. It was promoted as the companion to the Deluxe Go Trac and a Buggy Buddy with trailer. According to an old catalog Ron found, the company also made scooters, trailers and a palomino horse model. Universal also manufactured Ron’s AMF Power Trac pedal tractor, which is identical to the Go Trac.
His Powerama pedal tractor is an unusual piece. Like most of the other pedal tractors in his collection, this one is chain-driven from the pedals to the back wheel.
Unlike many others, though, this one is finished in a two-tone scheme, white over orange. It has a single front wheel and small fenders over the rear wheels. Almost nothing else is known about it. A recent online auction ad showed an identical “Antique — rare — Garton Powerama” pedal tractor, along with photos of a child at the wheel.
Ron has four Murray pedal tractors: a Murray Big 4 (mostly yellow with green), two Murray Diesel 2-tons (one is mostly green with yellow highlights, the other is maroon) and a 2-ton (green). “They all have different lettering and different colors, and some of the hoods are different,” he says. “I don’t know how many variations were made.”
Another of Ron’s unusual steel pedal tractors is a BMC Kiddie Tractor, which he picked up at a Mora garage sale. Old advertising literature for the Bike & Motor Club shows that the company also made bicycles, dolls, teddy bears and model cars. No other information is known.
Ron also has a pair of Castelli pedal tractors made by F.C. Castelli Co., Philadelphia, in the 1950s and perhaps into the 1960s. Other than that, little is known of the company. “One of the pedals has a chain drive for the rear tires and the other one’s got the old push dial, with the axle on the back offset,” Ron says. “When you push one foot, the wheels turn.”
Though his Kubota M-120 pedal tractor isn’t rare or unusual, the way Ron got it is. A waitress at a café he and his wife, Betsy, frequent knew of his hobby. Sharing his interest for antiques, she began keeping an eye open for pedal tractors and other items. “She goes to a lot of auctions and flea markets too, so we’ve had this agreement that we’d find stuff for each other. It’s like trading, you know? I found out she was into old dressers. When I found one, I called her and she went and bought it. With the Kubota, she called me to tell me what she’d found at a garage sale, so my wife went and bought it.”
Pedal tractors were only the tip of the iceberg for Ron. Wanting to create a more complete and realistic display, he built a set of implements to go with the pedal tractors: a disc, plow, hay wagon and hay rake.
“For the disc, I took a 4-inch saw, cut out the metal pieces for the discs, made a jig on my press and bent the disc out double so it would look like a real one,” he says. “The frame of the disc is half-inch angle iron. I made it a wheel disc so I can pull it without having the discs down on the ground.”
He used wheels from a push-style lawn mower for the hay wagon. For the frame, he cut wood to make slats resembling small boards. “Then I nailed and glued it all together and made my wagon,” he says.
To make his disc plow, he copied a full-size John Deere disc plow. He repeated the process he followed in making the wheel disc so the discs wouldn’t drag on the ground. “First I made a jig and made steel wheels on the plow,” he says. “Then I started building them, welding and grinding, welding and grinding, so I have solid steel wheels.”
Ron made his hay rake from scratch. “I used a picture and it turned out like a real one,” he says. “I made teeth rakes and everything for it out of springs.” In the future, he hopes to make a silage wagon and a hay chopper. “Then I’d have all the implements I worked with when I was a kid on the farm,” he says.
Ron and Betsy attend nine tractor shows a year. It only makes sense to take some pedal tractors along. A pair of retrofitted relics makes it easier to get around large show grounds and show off the collection at the same time.
Conversion of a pedal tractor into a unit driven by a gas engine is not an activity for the faint of heart. “They took a very long time to make,” Ron says. He began by setting a weed whip grass cutter alongside the body of the pedal tractor. He traced the size of the engine and began cutting the pedal tractor open to get the engine to fit, hard and exacting work.
Where a belt formerly connected the pedals and the rear wheels to make the foot-powered pedal tractor go, Ron added a jackshaft with two sprockets (one small, one large) to get the gears to turn slower under power from the weed whip. A second chain goes down to the rear axle to get it geared down low enough for the 1-speed machines. “To get them right, I did a lot of experimenting,” he says. “I’d try one sprocket and if I didn’t like the speed of it, I’d take it all apart and put a different sprocket in. I kept changing sprockets until I was finally comfortable with the speed.”
When it comes to collecting, Ron prefers a category like pedal tractors that’s a little off the beaten path. But he has one thing in common with others in the farm collectibles hobby: He really enjoys the people he meets. “Talking to people about the different kinds of pedal tractors, and getting additional information on the ones we have, that’s really neat,” he says.
He takes every opportunity to share his hobby. “There’s a lot of enjoyment in this,” he says. “Like the little kids: They see the pedal tractors and want to sit on them. I generally let them, to a certain point. It depends on the size of the kids.” He even lets adults sit on the motorized units.
People gravitate to the Case VAC that started his collection; an Allis-Chalmers WD-45 is another crowd pleaser. But the tin pedals are the main attraction. “People like them because they’re all so different from anything else,” Ron says. “Those who remember them from childhood really enjoy the display.”
Ron gets plenty of offers to sell tractors in his collection, but they’re not for sale. “Not yet anyway,” he says. “When I get older I’ll probably sell them, but not now. I’m having too much fun.” FC
For more information: Ron Fratzke, 2195 270th Ave., Mora, MN 55051.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: email@example.com