Aiming for the Century Mark

Tractor restorer shoots for 100

| December 2005

You could say that Ernie Wollak, Sauk Rapids, Minn., is shooting for 100: 100 tractors at 100 percent restoration.

His passion for old iron started when he was a child on a farm near Rice, Minn., where his family used International Harvester tractors … until the day his father bought a John Deere 3020. "After that we went to green. We filled silos and swapped equipment with my uncles, who used Minneapolis-Moline machinery. That's why I love all the colors. I'm into color," Ernie says, sweeping his hand around a building filled with dozens of different makes and colors of tractors. "And I don't have any duplicates. Not a single one."

As an adult, Ernie turned his attention to developing his construction business, Wollak Construction. With the economy in dire straits in the early 1980s, his company shifted from residential construction to agricultural buildings. One project went sour. "The farmer said the only thing he could give me (in payment) was a 1954 Minneapolis-Moline R tractor," Ernie recalls. "I had it out in the woods for a few years until it got all rusty. Then my brother-in-law said he wanted to use it, so it went over to his place for a few years."

Meanwhile, some of the itch returned. Ernie bought a 1929 Wallis 12-20 tractor at an auction for $300. "It ran good, so I brought it home, but it just sat in the woods again for five years until it was a bucket of rust. Luckily I had a tin can over the muffler."

About 10 years ago at an auction, Ernie ran into Pete Schwinghammer, and mentioned the Model R. "He said he loved Molines, so he restored it, and did an excellent job. Then he did the Wallis, and after that, it got into my blood, and I started collecting tractors by the bunch."

Ernie's initial goal was 50 tractors, but he reached that number so quickly he decided to double it, to 100, because he had the space to house that many. Soon he had 87 tractors, with his sights set on others. He figures he has people willing to offer him another 40 tractors, although he wouldn't buy all of those. Still, it's more than numbers. What makes Ernie's collection so unusual is his ultimate goal: 100 percent perfect restoration of each tractor. "A lot of people have 50-plus tractors," he notes, "but only 20 of them are restored, and the rest are sitting outside."