Kelly and Kelly Nielsen have more in common than a first name. High school sweethearts married 38 years, they also share a love of the land, residing on a farm south of the town of Bayard in central Iowa. For Christmas 2015, Mrs. Nielsen presented her husband with a gift that wouldn’t fit under the tree: a 1966 Farmall 1206 tractor.
“We rented a pasture from a neighbor and he had the tractor sitting in the grove for four or five years. I’d look at it every time I’d check the cows. When a tree fell on it and it just sat like that, it made me sick,” Mr. Nielsen explained. “I was born in 1960, and that tractor is a ’66, so that was a huge tractor as I was growing up. They sounded so much different than the other tractors, but I never could find one I could buy.”
Abandoned outside for years, the tractor needed a bit of clean-up.
Coveting it from afar, Mr. Nielsen asked the neighbor if he was willing to sell the tractor, but was repeatedly turned down. “It was like watching an old barn fall down,” Mrs. Nielsen says. “You want to save it, but it belongs to somebody else, and there’s nothing you can do. He kept asking for the tractor, and I kept telling him he didn’t need anymore. He had enough. He’s restored at least 10 tractors and owns 15 right now.”
But then she decided to approach the neighbor herself. “Christmas was coming,” she recalls. “He would never sell it to my husband, but I caught him at a weak moment, I guess, with his wife there, and I offered him a price and he took it.”
The tractor spent several years in a grove before it turned into a Christmas gift.
Sent on a scavenger hunt
She formulated a covert plan to ensure the gift would be a surprise. After the family finished opening their Christmas presents, she handed her husband a box containing a honey of a note:
“Of all the gifts that I’ve ever tried to give you, your gift this year, I’m sorry to say, will not measure up. It’s not shiny. It’s not going to mend your pants or cut down a tree. It doesn’t shoot a bullet. It won’t fit in your sock drawer. It doesn’t even smell nice or fit right or keep you warm or play fetch. It will frustrate you, make you crazy, turn you on and challenge you. It will keep you awake at night, cost you money and make you proud. If you can put up with it, it will eventually become your worst nightmare and your best dream.”
The Farmall 1206, pulled home in the snow on Dec. 27, 2015.
Mrs. Nielsen’s Christmas mischief didn’t stop there. She sent her husband on a scavenger hunt digging for clues until he was shown a photo of the tractor … his tractor.
“It was still in the neighbor’s pasture, so he and our son Kyler got another tractor to pull it home a few days later,” she says. “They chained up the front end to lift it up and then pulled it home, through the snow, a few miles on its back wheels.”
The International’s front emblem was growing moss.
Two years in the shop
Mr. Nielsen wasted no time cleaning up the tractor and taking it apart to get a better read of its condition. He had to pull a tangled bird’s nest from the exhaust and replaced fuel filter canisters that had pinholes in the bottom of them from rust. Moss and mold grew all over the front end. He took three 5-gallon buckets of grease off the tractor. Then he started the engine.
“I could tell the clutch and torque weren’t working right, then I sent the injection pump and injectors in to be rebuilt,” he explains. “It was quite a process to find parts that old in salvage yards, because they had pretty well been picked over.”
The project took him two years to complete, working out of his two-stall shop. He reached out to Farmall 1206 aficionado Kristin Gall, who put him in touch with a man who could rebuild the solar turbo to the original specs.
“A neighbor had a 1206 when I was growing up and we had much smaller tractors,” he says. “The 1206 has a different kind of a turbo and a much different sound and whistle. I love it!”
The original Hiniker cab on the tractor was replaced with a rollover canopy. The Nielsens’ oldest son, Kyler, a mechanic, also offered some assistance. Mr. Nielsen applied seven coats of cherry red paint, making the Farmall 1206 look even more shiny than it did in 1966.
Protecting a restoration
“It is really interesting to see how the tractors were developed and made, and the stuff they changed on them along the way to make them stronger,” he says. “The 1206 was the first production tractor that was over 100hp from the factory and they had trouble keeping the tires on it. Then Firestone designed better tires for it.”
His restoration efforts are self-taught. “Every one I’ve done has gotten better,” he says. “I would take the tractors apart and fix them when we first got married because we didn’t have money to hire somebody else, so I would buy the book and do it myself.”
The tractor’s fuel canisters had rusted out.
Now, the tractor is kept in his climate-controlled shop, resting underneath a plastic sheet. It received first place honors at the 2017 Yale (Iowa) 4th of July celebration, the only time the tractor has been shown in public since its restoration.
Mr. Nielsen, a lifelong resident of Guthrie County, Iowa, started driving a tractor at age 3, standing on the seat while his dad unloaded hay bales for the cows. He planted his first field of corn at the ripe old age of 8.
A picture worth a thousand words
While gifting a tractor is a hard act to follow, Mrs. Nielsen decided to paint a picture of the tractor as a gift for her husband for Christmas 2018. A noted artist, she has taught visual arts at AC/GC High School (previously known as Guthrie Center High School) for 18 years. While her students worked on assignments, she would steal 10 minutes here, 30 minutes there to complete the artwork.
Her painting is true to life, except for a few minor details only a farmer would observe. “One of my friends looked at it and saw two bolt holes missing from the front hood,” Mr. Nielsen says with a laugh. “Otherwise, it looks like a photograph.”
Mrs. Kelly Nielsen’s completed portrait of the tractor.
Mrs. Nielsen is supportive of her husband’s hobby and passion for antique tractors. “I’ve always wanted him to have everything he wanted, and this is his one downfall,” she says. “This is an investment, like the diamonds he has given to me.”
For Mr. Nielsen, his wife’s perseverance – and the completed painting – are as special to him as the tractor. They enjoy their life together, spending time with grown sons Kyler and Kody and their young families. FC
For more information: Contact the Nielsens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sara Jordan-Heintz is an award-winning writer, editor and historian. Her articles have been published by the Associated Press and in Collectors Journal and Antique Trader. Her new book Going Hollywood: Midwesterners in Movieland is out now. Follow her on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SaraEliz90 or contact her at email@example.com.