Fifty-one years ago, while trout fishing near Winona, Minn., Frank Hansen discovered a rusty tractor that turned out to be a treasure.
The tractor’s owners, Morris and Irwin Timm, had paid $5 for what looked like a piece of junk.
But what intrigued Frank about the 3-wheeled tractor was the brass nameplate that read “John Deere Tractor.” When he returned home, he began researching the tractor. His quest lasted 13 years.
Frank, who lives near Rolling Stone, Minn., learned that the all-wheel-drive tractor had a simple form of non-slip traction, on-the-go shift and a 4-cylinder gasoline engine similar to a modern diesel engine.
“It was the most advanced engine of its period,” he said.
The tractor’s serial number revealed that the vehicle was manufactured in 1918 and was the 79th Deere produced.
The tractor, which Frank has nicknamed “Old 79,” was manufactured several years before the John Deere D, which Deere & Co. publicized as the first tractor to bear the company name. Frank also learned that this tractor, the only one of its type still intact, had been manufactured in a plant on 10th Street in East Moline, Ill. Between 100 and 200 were built between 1914 and 1919, and most of them were sold in North and South Dakota.
Frank said Deere’s experimental department began working on the tractor in May 1914. In November 1917, the company’s executive committee approved the commercial manufacture of the tractor and establishment of a tractor division.
Joseph Dain Jr. was Deere’s vice president in charge of the project. Today, toy tractors modeled after this tractor are marketed as the John Deere Dain, Frank said. But that reflects historical interest rather than reality.
“There was no tractor sold under the Dain name,” Frank said.
Ahead of its time, the tractor was not a marketing success.
“It was too expensive,” Frank explained, “and had too many advanced engineering features.”
That lack of success, he believes, is why Deere & Co. prefers to consider the tractor an experimental model, and hails the later John Deere D as the first tractor manufactured under the Deere name.
In 1960, Frank paid the Timms $1,000 for the old tractor, which he then restored. The Smithsonian Institution exhibited the tractor for one year, and since then, Frank and his wife, Irene, have toured the country, showing it at fairs and agricultural expositions. Old 79 has been appraised at more than $1 million, making it a true treasure.
This year, Menard’s is sponsoring the tractor, which is occasionally displayed at grand openings of the company’s retail stores. Wherever it goes, Old 79 always meets a warm welcome.
“We’re recognized throughout the world,” Frank said. FCDianne L. Beetler is a lifelong rural resident who enjoys writing about people with unusual collections.