Aiming for the Century Mark

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Right: The machine that started it all: Ernie’s first tractor, this 1954 Minneapolis-Moline R, came to him in exchange for an unpaid bill, and sat outside for 11 years before he decided to restore it. He has 87 tractors today, many of them restored.
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Below: Ernie Wollak on one of his favorite tractors, a 1948 Oliver 70 row crop. The tractor is in a climate-controlled storage area, which Ernie hopes to enlarge this year.
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Above: Ernie Wollak’s collection includes the large and (shown here) the small. This pair of 1/3-scale tractors – a Rumely OilPull and Twin City 40 – were handmade by a since-deceased Wisconsin man. Ernie’s obtained photographs of each tractor when first completed, and plans to restore each to that condition.
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Above: This 1947 Oliver 60 industrial is a classic example of the beautifully restored machines Ernie Wollak prizes. Not everything Ernie owns is rare or valuable. He bought this Oliver and a 1948 Oliver 70 row crop at an auction. “One of the guys who restore tractors for me had restored both of them … Because I like his work so much, and they went for a reasonable price, I bought both of them.”
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Below: A close-up of this 1939 John Deere AR gives a sense of how particular Ernie Wollak is with his restoration work. His interest in tractors extends well beyond color. He enjoys the challenge of seeing if an MM will start after one crank, or an F-12 after four cranks, or whether the John Deere AR will pop off on the first crank. “It’s interesting to see how different tractors start,” he says. “There’s no rhyme or reason to any of them.”
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Below: A hard-to-find 1930 John Deere GP, lovingly restored by Ernie Wollak.
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Left: Ernie Wollak mixes work with pleasure, displaying his collection of 150 farm toys in the office – and a few in the entryway – of Wollak Construction Co., Sauk Rapids, Minn.
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Left: A 1928 Hart-Parr 12-24, a difficult tractor to find in any condition, awaiting complete teardown. When Ernie Wollak and his crew finish with it, it’ll look better than new. He says if he ever decides to sell any of his tractors – a highly unlikely prospect – the buyers won’t be disappointed. “The buyers would find out we didn’t skimp on anything,” he says. “We’ve gone through everything from the tires on up, and if something isn’t right, it gets fixed.”
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Left: This lot is the opposite of the tractor graveyard. When Ernie Wollak brings home a tractor, he stores it in this lot adjacent to his construction company where it sits until winter, when he tackles restoration projects. This Canadian-built 1947 Cockshutt 50 isn’t an easy tractor to find.
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Below: This 1929 Wallis 12-20 is one of the rarest tractors Ernie Wollak has restored. His first restoration, it remains his personal favorite.

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.”

But that’s not all. Ernie takes Cadillac-care of his restored
tractors. Though some are currently sitting outside, those are the
ones in line for restoration. The restored pieces, about 60 of them
right now, are housed in a climate-controlled shed: It’s heated
during the winter and cooled during the summer, and the humidity is
kept low. “What that takes is going into the shed every day and
making sure everything is okay,” Ernie says. “In the winter, I go
in there once a day, and in the summer, normally twice a day, early
and late evening, to dump the dehumidifiers.” The shops are
security-protected, as one would expect.

Each time Ernie attends a farm show, he makes a list of
prospective additions to his collection. “At the recent Albany
(Minn.) Pioneer Days, I kept my pencil and paper handy as I walked
through the show, and picked out what I would like to get for the
next two (acquisitions). Now we’re getting into a lot more
expensive tractors, the more rare tractors, like the Waterloo Boy.
Those are very, very hard to find, very expensive, and would be a
pride and joy. I don’t have a Waterloo Boy today, but someday I
will.”

Ernie says he’s continually surprised by tractors he’s never
heard of. “I knew about the John Deere AR and BR and OR and OB, but
now there’s the OBI, another one out there. I have to research and
find out why I didn’t know about it, and what it really is.”

The tractor he had the most difficulty finding was a 1953
Minneapolis-Moline LP high crop, while the one that came the
greatest distance (a 1940 Oliver 70 industrial) was hauled up from
Booker, Texas. “I took a thick checkbook to an auction,” Ernie says
with a laugh, “and we went after the Minneapolis UDLX, but it sold
for more than $100,000. I lost the bid on that one, but I had an
empty trailer setting there, and I wasn’t going home empty.” That
was when the Oliver 70 industrial came up for bid, and Ernie bought
it.

Each of his tractors has a history and a story, Ernie says. “I
made a deal one time with an older gentleman for a
McCormick-Deering F-12. A couple of weeks later he called and asked
when I would pick it up. While we were loading it up, he started
crying. He said he and his good friend had spent five years
restoring the tractor, and his friend had died, so it was just a
tough thing to have that tractor leave his yard.” The restoration
on that one was magnificent, Ernie says. “They really did a good
job.”

The word “restoration” means different things to different
people. “You can never tell about a tractor until you’ve had it for
a while,” he says. When he bought a 1939 John Deere AR, he thought
he had a dream tractor. “It looked pretty decent, but when we
started tearing it apart, we found nails holding the clutch plates
together, and it was just a real basket case,” he says. “It can
sound good and look good, but you don’t know what’s inside until
you take it apart.”

Though the 1918 Fordson in Ernie’s collection isn’t a hard model
to find, it was a difficult one to restore. “It took us at least
2-1/2 years. It just sat in the corner of the shop while we found
different parts we needed, waited until we got them, found we
needed another part, ordered it, waited. It has a brass carburetor
cup, so there were some pieces in there that were really difficult
to find. Most of it we did find through magazines and word of
mouth, bone yards and things like that.”

All of Ernie’s finished tractors feature complete restorations
and original parts, unless none are available. “Occasionally we’ll
have to make a part because there aren’t any,” he says. “Regardless
what brand it is, we try to get as many original parts back on them
as possible, from the muffler to the steering wheel to the hood.
Sometimes it’s impossible, but usually if you have enough time to
do the research, you can find almost anything out there.”

While Ernie’s collection is operated on a large scale, he
manages it with a firm hand. “Once we get 100 of them, I’m not
going to buy any more until all 100 are restored,” he says.
Restoration work takes place only during the winter when the
housing market slows, and when, by coincidence, the three men who
restore for Ernie are laid off from seasonal work. “From December
through April we work on those tractors, but after that I don’t see
another one until about eight months later.”

Part of Ernie’s quest for perfection stems from his childhood on
the farm. “We were brought up to fix everything,” he says. “When
something broke down, we grabbed a pipe wrench, crescent wrench or
welder and fixed it. If anything was broken on the combine or plow,
or if a belt broke, we fixed it. But we never restored anything:
Those were work machines.”

Today, work machines of the past retire in style in Ernie
Wollak’s collection. Passionate about preserving a piece of
Americana, Ernie’s committed to these relics. “I want to keep the
history of the old iron going, and share my tractors with the
public, eventually with a museum,” he says. “It just gets in your
blood.”

For more information:
Ernie Wollak, Wollak Development Inc., 6225 N. Highway 10, Sauk
Rapids, MN 56379; (320) 252-2115 (office); (320) 250-4043
(cell)
.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several
books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372,
400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail:
bvossler@juno.com

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