Tractor restorer shoots for 100
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: email@example.com