By the time antique tractor collector Steve Bauer of Hastings, Minn., started thinking about different makes of tractors, he already had 50 John Deeres in his collection. "Like any other collector, I started getting interested in other things," he says, "and my interest turned to Minnesota-built tractors."
After checking to see what tractors had been built in Minnesota, Steve saw that Minneapolis-Molines were the most popular, and were found all over the state. "Then I found out about the Big Four Emerson tractor, which was built right here in Minneapolis, 35 miles from my front door." It was first built by Gas Traction Co. of Minneapolis. Later, the company was sold to Emerson-Brantingham Implement Co. of Rockford, Ill., but the Big Four continued to be built in Minneapolis. To Steve's surprise, he discovered the Big Four (also known as the "Giant Horse" as a gateway between steam traction engines and tractors) had a John Deere connection as well. "In 1911, when our Big Four Emerson was built, John Deere didn't yet have a tractor of their own," he notes, "so the company got John Deere dealers hooked on the idea of selling Big Four tractors."
The idea was simple: Deere & Co. wanted to sell plows, and if farmers bought Big Fours, they'd want to buy big John Deere plows to go along with them. Steve subsequently found John Deere advertisements for the Big Four-John Deere plow combination.
One thing that Steve really likes about the Big Four Emerson is its uniqueness. "If you take the Big Four to a show," he says, "it will probably be the only Big Four there."
Steve began collecting tractors when he was 15, buying a 1936 John Deere Model A with the original 2-bottom plow from the original owner for $75. "I was born in 1949, so I grew up with the two cylinders, and they never left me," he says. "We used two-cylinder John Deere tractors on our farm from the 1930s up through the 1960s." Collecting was the major focus in Steve's life at the time: He had that Model A for 25 years before he thought of restoring it.
Steve's second tractor, an unstyled John Deere Model BW, came to him when he was 19 years old. He was doing mechanical work for a John Deere dealer when a farmer brought the BW in to get it running. As it turned out, the block was cracked. The farmer didn't want to buy a new block, so he sold the tractor to Steve for $75. From then on, the progression was what might be expected, one tractor after another, until eventually Steve had 50 John Deere tractors, some duplicates, most different.
When Steve learned about the Big Four Emerson in 1991, he began thinking about his collection of 50 John Deere tractors. "I had to ask myself, 'Do I want 50 of them, or would I be satisfied with 40 John Deere tractors, and one Big Four Emerson?'" The answer came when he sold 10 "pretty good" John Deere tractors, including a Spoker D, a good G and a variety of GPs, to come up with the funds to pay for the Big Four Emerson. "People look at the thing and are just amazed," he says. "They say, 'Why would they build something so big?'" In 1911, though, the Big Four was state-of-the-art technology. While steam engines required a crew of several men, the Big Four demonstrated that one person could fuel the tractor, go to the field and work all day, plowing 40 acres, without hauling water, straw, wood or coal. "This was a labor-saving device," he says. "It was cheaper to have one Big Four Emerson than a steam engine."
In 1992, Steve heard about a big tractor sitting in a pasture near Humphrey, Neb. A friend stopped to look at it and was surprised to see a Minneapolis, Minn., tag on it. "He thought it was a steam engine," Steve recalls. In fact, it was a Flour City 40-70, manufactured by Kinnard-Haines Co. of Minneapolis, and it was a basket case. The big tractor had been completely disassembled and the pieces sat on sheets of galvanized steel in the pasture, waiting, as it turned out, for the U.S. government.
During World War II the federal government held scrap metal drives. The owner of the Flour City in that era took the government's need seriously: He drove the old relic out to the pasture, disassembled it and waited for a government truck to bring an acetylene torch to his farm. The government offered that service to help farmers break the scrap metal down into manageable, easily-transported pieces.
But World War II ended, the scrap metal drives ended abruptly and the government truck never came. After that, the disassembled Flour City 40-70 never moved, staying in that pasture for 47 years until Steve came to get it. "It took me 10 more of my John Deere collection to buy that one," he says.
Once all the parts were back at Hastings, Minn., and the 21,000-pound tractor was ready for reassembly, Steve and his crew discovered part of the manifold was missing, as well as one of the pistons, which are 7-1/2 inches in diameter. Steve thinks the piston might have been carried off by a souvenir hunter.
Not long afterwards, at a swap meet, he saw a couple of pistons that seemed about the proper size for the Flour City. "The vendor didn't know what machine they had come from," he recalls. "I'd had the Flour City's piston dimensions memorized, and after I measured the vendor's pistons, and found out they were the right size, I figured they might be for the Flour City." He bought two for $25 each.
The 40-70 was restored and repainted, then reassembled with new bearings. Today it is run every summer at the Little Log House Antique Power Show (near Hastings, Minn.) the last weekend of July.
Next was a 1912 Sawyer-Massey 25-40 tractor, which had been used (with a Sawyer-Massey rock crusher) in a Canadian gravel pit since 1912. Even after retirement, it remained in the gravel pit. "The guy who owned it was a John Deere nut," Steve says, "so I traded him some money and five more of my John Deeres to get it." Steve says he's never regretted selling or trading the John Deere tractors from his collection, not only because he got good tractors in return, but also because he'd acquired his John Deeres at good prices. Since then, their value had appreciated a great deal, enough that he could afford to spend more on new acquisitions.
His next addition was a Fairbanks-Morse 15-25, a unique machine of the open radiator screen-cooling type, Steve says. When the restoration team - Ray Nicolai Jr., Bob Geiken, and Chris and Maynard Romnes - saw the FM, they decided to make a baby one. "It didn't take nine months, either," Steve says with a laugh. It was dubbed a 2-1/2-5 Fairbanks-Morse, made entirely of scrap metal, and modeled after the fully-restored 15-25. The small one even has a working Fairbanks-Morse engine in it.
Steve says the dedication of those four men - and others - has resulted in well-restored tractors. "They have a love for this equipment, and know how it should work, and how to put it back together even if they find it in pieces," he says. "They like what they do, and that's why they're good at it."
About 25 years ago, Steve and other family members started spending one Sunday afternoon a year running old equipment, and especially threshing. "Dad had six brothers and sisters, all of whom grew up during the threshing bee era," he says, "so we started threshing each year as a little something for them to look forward to."
The Sunday afternoon expanded into a full day, then into Saturday and Sunday, then Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with about 50 spectators. One day, Steve heard about a modern house that was going to be torn down, and then discovered the building contained a complete little log house. He decided to move it onto his land. "There's a lot of history in buildings like that," he says.
Steve went on to collect other old buildings, like a Catholic church built of 40,000 bricks. The structure was completely dismantled, and the bricks cleaned. Then they were used to build a smaller twin of the original structure. Weddings, booked months in advance, are held nearly every weekend all summer at the rebuilt, nondenominational church.
The collection of buildings grew and grew, until today 160 acres of grounds contain more than 50 buildings, including a blacksmith shop, town hall, millinery, train depot, jail and more. All had been slated for demolition before Steve got hold of them.
Instead of 50 spectators, 10,000 people now show up at the yearly event, which includes much more than threshing. One of the show's unique features is the flower garden, which contains thousands of blooming annuals, perennials and wildflowers. It is often featured in magazines. "People can view the flower garden and show grounds on our website at www.littleloghouseshow.com," Steve says.
Visitors come from all over the country to the yearly extravaganza, and are rewarded with old-time activities, as well as four superbly-restored old tractors: a Big Four Emerson, Flour City 40-70, Sawyer-Massey 25-40 and Fairbanks-Morse 15-25. The show draws tractors of all brands from exhibitors, neighbors and friends. It's a number Steve would like to add to. After all, he notes, "I still have 10 more John Deere tractors left!"
- For more information: Steve Bauer, 13746 220th St. East, Hastings, MN 55033; (651) 437-2693.
- Little Log House Antique Power Show and Restored Pioneer Village, July 29-31, Hastings, Minn. Feature: The Red-Green Tractor and Engine Show, International Harvester and John Deere. Also, IMCA Old Timers Vintage Auto Races. Six miles south of Hastings on Highway 61, then east 1 mile on 220th Street. General information: (651) 437-2693; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.littleloghouseshow.com
- 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