A rare and unique Wisconsin tractor is brought back to life after sitting for more than 40 years
The word "rare" gets plenty of use when vintage tractors are discussed. But Frank Wurth's fully restored 1918 Wisconsin lives up to that billing.
The Wisconsin Tractor Company started out in 1917 in Sauk City, Wis., as the McFarland and Westmont Tractor Company. When production ended six years later, the result of stiff competition and a challenging economy, about 600 tractors had been produced. Survivors are few and far between.
"I talked to some guys at the Badger, Wis., show, and they estimated that there were 22 Wisconsins they knew of. There could possibly be 25," Frank says. "And of those 25, there's probably just three or four restored."
"It's a unique tractor, very well made," Frank says. "But Henry Ford put 'em all out of business. Wisconsin couldn't compete at $2,000-$2,200 per tractor. But in '53, this Wisconsin was still used on a daily basis, while those Fordsons were long gone. It's really a very well made machine.
"It was so far ahead of its time for 1918: It had a full pressure motor; it used gas; it was lightweight but it could pull four or five plows," Frank says. "John Deere was not even out of the gate yet. And Henry Ford built a cheap tractor. If he'd gone $500 better, there'd be no other tractor today."
The Wisconsin's biggest downfall? "There was no parking brake," Frank says, "just a pulley brake on the clutch. The theory was that, with the iron wheels and lugs, it wouldn't roll. But that seems kind of short-sighted, for a tractor designed for use in the hill country in Wisconsin."
A hill in Wisconsin is, in fact, where Frank found his vintage classic.
"My wife, Rita, and I were on our honeymoon in Wisconsin," he recalls, "and we were driving in the country when I saw this old iron."
Owner Art Ritzenthaler (since deceased) of Merrimac had a couple of Wisconsins. Both had been "retired" for more than 30 years. He and Frank talked about the Wisconsin line for quite some time. Finally, Art announced that he was ready to sell the 1918 Wisconsin. For Frank, it was great news, but poor timing.
"I told him I didn't have the money right then," he says. "But he said 'That's OK. It'll be here when you're ready.'"
Later, Frank returned for the tractor. He got more than a vintage classic.
"That tractor came with a ready-made grandfather," he said. "We've had a lot of fun with Art, me and my wife and my boy. He came down and stayed with us once and drove the tractor in a parade."
The Wisconsin was purchased new by Art's father in 1918, when Art was a teenager.
"His dad kind of set him up in business, set him up with the county with a rock crusher," Frank says. "He said they had a ring and valve job done on that tractor after three years of running the rock crusher, but that's all that's ever been done to that engine."
A workhorse for more than 30 years, the Wisconsin was last used in 1953. Time took its toll.
"When Art parked it, he had taken the radiator, carb and mag to the barn, and that was good," Frank says. "But he'd left it open, so mice had gotten into it, and it was full of mattress stuffing and walnut hulls. The hood had fallen over the motor, and that saved the motor, but cattle had about rubbed the sheet metal off."
"We spent a summer restoring it," he adds. "The motor wasn't stuck. The biggest challenge, really, was cleaning the mouse nest out, that and getting the cooling system cleaned out and running. But it runs good now. Basically, that motor hasn't been taken apart since it was three years old."
Most Wisconsins were used close to home, although Frank says he's heard that some were shipped to Argentina in the '20s. Tractor production ended sometime around 1923, but the company supplied Wisconsin replacement parts and reconditioned tractors until World War II (The McFarland company remains in business today, as a dealer of large farm equipment). After the war, Frank says, all remaining parts were loaded up to sell for scrap. After being tipped off, Art was on the scene almost immediately, salvaging two truck-loads of parts.
Parts are critical in restoration: Frank's been fortunate to obtain a parts tractor from Art's estate. His Wisconsin collection includes the restored 1918 Wisconsin rated 22-40 ("It's a little bit heavier and a little bit longer than a 22-36 McCormick, and it has as much or more power," Frank says); a 1917 Wisconsin (unrestored but running); and a 1923 Wisconsin in rough shape.
A tractor collector for 30 years, Frank counts the Wisconsin and a 20-40 Rumely OilPull among his favorites.
"When you get the early stuff, there's no parts around," he says. "You've got to make whatever you need. But I like stuff that was made before 1920. That first generation of tractors was just real colorful. They're real hard to find anymore."
Frank's collection includes a friction drive Heider, a 15-30 cross motor Huber, a 20-35 Eagle, a 25-50 Baker, two Rumelys (a 20-40, and a 30-60 model S), and an Emerson Brantingham 12-20. More than a few are candidates for restoration.
"I look for the really early and unusual tractors," he says. "I have an 18-36 Hart Parr I brought home in a box from North Dakota. The guy that sold it to me told me it was rough, and he didn't lie." FC
For more information: Frank Wurth, 5365 Kraft Road, Freeburg, IL 62243; (618) 539-5789.