Ten years of hard work. That's how long Dennis Parker thought it would take to identify and categorize 13,000 photo negatives from the Minneapolis-Moline Power Implement Co. when he began working on the project for the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul the summer of 2000.
'I wasn't sure I would live to see them all categorized,' the 61-year-old Arlington, S.D., Minneapolis-Moline aficionado says.
Trash becomes treasure
Dennis and other members of two Minneapolis-Moline collectors' clubs felt lucky the negatives existed at all, regardless of the enormous chore in store. The huge and historically important collection of black-and-white negatives was dumped from the about-to-be-bulldozed former offices of the Minneapolis-Moline Co. in Hopkins, Minn., in the 1970s. That's when John Wickre, manuscripts cataloger at the Minnesota Historical Society, got wind of the images and retrieved load after load of the firm's papers, brochures, sales literature and photo negatives from dumpsters and brought it all to the Minnesota History Center.
Though Wickre organized and cataloged many of the papers, the photo negatives lay untouched for many years. 'Nobody knew one Minneapolis-Moline tractor from another,' Dennis explains. 'So none of it was catalogued. The History Center really didn't know what to do with it.' The vast majority of negatives were the stellar work of Minneapolis-Moline's official photographer, Arthur Jensen, and dated from the time he joined the company in 1936 until he left at some point during the 1950s - prime years for Minneapolis-Moline development.
Through the years, most members of the Prairie Gold Rush and the Minneapolis-Moline Collectors' Inc. heard rumors about the negatives, and many of them, including Dennis, already had various Jensen photos in their collections. Yet, that was the extent of public knowledge about the collection until Loren Book, president of the MMCI, approached the History Center in 2000. Book convinced the center's organizers that Minneapolis-Moline club members had the expertise to catalog the photo negatives and digitize the images so they'd be publicly available.
Someone had to be first
Dennis' interest in everything Prairie Gold began in 1946 when his father, Bob Parker, bought a new Minneapolis-Moline Model U tractor. They farmed with that tractor for decades, and Dennis still owns it. He now has eight different Minneapolis-Moline tractors, including a 1937 Model Z industrial tractor, a 1941 Model U industrial, a 1953 Model U diesel row crop, a 1949 French-built Mathis-Moline vineyard tractor, a Jetstar orchard tractor, a Model 445 diesel, a Model 335 industrial and a Model R industrial tractor.
Dennis also collects Minneapolis-Moline literature and photos, which made him the perfect candidate to delve into the archive and identify the negatives. Plus, as a retiree, Dennis had much more time to devote to the task than other interested Minneapolis-Moline collectors.
'I want to make it clear that ''this was a joint effort,' Dennis says. 'People from both groups, MMCI and PGR, worked when they had time to get the photos identified. Because I was retired, I probably put in the most hours, but everyone helped who could.'
Dennis identified and categorized 740 photos in his first two days of work, largely because Minneapolis-Moline enthusiast Kim Jepson created a handy computer spreadsheet to speed the process.
'Basically, his sheet simplifies the entire process,' Dennis says. 'Instead of writing down a lot of the information, the sheet allows you to just put check marks or numbers in appropriate places. What box number the negatives came from, the negative number, the perspective from which the photo was taken (front, left, right or rear), the subject (tractor, implement, etc.), the con figuration of tractor (row crop, standard, industrial) and much more.'
Routine data was filled in very quickly. A comment box at the bottom allowed members to note interesting or unusual aspects they saw about each picture. Additionally, each person took notes on particular negatives that appealed to them for later use.
Cataloging the negatives was tedious work, Dennis says, especially sifting through 50 or more negatives of common tractors cultivating corn, or tractors in the factory.
'Then all of a sudden, you'd come across negatives of two or three proto type tractors you'd never seen or heard of before,' Dennis declares. 'Now that was exciting.'
That process repeated itself, and each person sorted through dozens of unremarkable negatives, and suddenly another unknown tractor or farm scene would pop up. Those moments made the work interesting.
'After a while, it got so you couldn't stop,' Dennis laughs. 'You kept wondering, 'What's the next gold mine?' You'd start at 9 in the morning and work until 5:30 when they closed. They almost had to throw you out. Once you set down your pencil, you realized how dazed you were from all the work. But it was really neat.'
Factory and field
The Minneapolis-Moline negatives ht into two major categories: in-house or factory negatives and negatives of tractors in the field. In-house pictures were staged photos of experimental Minneapolis-Moline tractors, prototypes, finished pre-production machines or completed production tractors. The photos were often shot somewhere in a factory, with workbenches or workers in the background.
'Sometimes the pictures were taken with guys holding white sheets up to blot out the background behind the tractors,' Dennis says.
The photos were taken to document work progress, but also to use for brochures and advertising literature and booklets. Most negatives were sent to the company's art department for further work. Sometimes the touch-up work was relatively simple, as photos were lightened and scratches removed.
Other times, the artwork was more comprehensive. Tractor parts were sharpened (rear tires often have a surreal look after retouching), decals were added where none had been or were merely altered, fenders were changed from one style to another, or entire backgrounds were eliminated, deleting men holding sheets or background clutter. Essentially, anything unsightly was removed from each negative, which often changed the tractor's overall appearance.
Tractors in action in the field comprise the second category among the thousands of archived negatives and photos. Tractors were photographed on company farms, on farms owned by farmers who cooperated with the company or on farms owned by satisfied customers.
Some photos were taken in the Twin Cities area, others in Arizona where Minneapolis-Moline employees could work during the winter. Those latter images include views of corn shelling, cultivating, threshing and other working farm scenes that weren't staged.
Many Minneapolis-Moline facilities were also depicted in the negative collection, including aerial shots of factories, branch houses, dealerships, dealer showrooms, fair scenes and ag show displays. Other negatives and photos portray the pre-Jensen days of steam tractors manufactured by companies that united to form Minneapolis Moline, including Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co., Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Co. and Moline Plow Co. Some of the Minneapolis Moline negatives and photos also show scenes from the 1960s, after Jensen left the company.
Dennis and other club workers discovered many unusual and different kinds of Minneapolis-Moline equipment, including early experiments with diesel engines, unusual-looking proto type tractors and combines that never saw the light of day. Some machines that never made it into production included a mid-1930s Model 2132 FTA industrial tractor with a six-cylinder diesel engine, a Model NTU six-cylinder gas tractor, a Model 2XP tractor and others.
'The company was always messing with different ideas, and captured pretty much all of that on film,' Dennis says.
An urgent task
Because negatives make up almost the entire collection, Dennis and other club members wanted to categorize and identify the cache as quickly as possible.
'That was a key part of the urgency of doing this now, because negatives don't last forever,' Dennis says. 'Some of them were starting to go bad, to get moldy or whatever, so it was important to get to the ones worth saving, and get them actually printed so we have a permanent copy that isn't subject to deterioration.'
The negatives are now kept in cold storage in one of the four underground levels below the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul to protect them. Most negatives in the collection are 8 by 10 inches, although some were 4 by 5 inches. Many are black and white, but a few of the later ones are color images. Even though most of the negatives are black and white, many of the exact same views from the exact same black-and-white negatives turned up in color in sales literature.
'One of the best examples is a neat set of photos of a UDLX Comfortractor that show blotchy, bare, unprimed and unpainted metal,' Dennis says. 'In sales literature, the tractors were perfectly-painted, having been colorized in the art department. You could see a lot of the really interesting things they did in the art studios.'
The large-plate photo detail is phenomenal, Dennis says. 'You can actually read the serial number plates of the tractors on a number of the negatives,' he adds. In fact, the images are so clear that one collector discovered that his restored Minneapolis-Moline Model R tractor was the same tractor photographed by Jensen because the serial number was easily readable.
Besides the routine information plugged into the History Center's data base, each club member scrawled notes about tractors, implements or scenes that interested him so they could copy the photos later for their personal collections.
'When we compiled all of that information,' Dennis says, 'we saw better descriptions in more than 30 pages of such notes. That set us on fire.'
The work that began in 2000 didn't take a decade as originally feared. In fact, Dennis and crew finished in 2002. The last cataloging session occurred after a reunion of ex-Minneapolis-Moline employees in the Twin Cities, where they reminisced about the good old days, renewed friendships and had fun discussing the cataloging project.
'It boggles my mind that we got that all done,' Dennis says. 'Now we have an actual hard copy of the whole business, and the Minnesota Historical Society has all that, too. They are all cataloged and in print.'
Dennis credits Loren Book for starting the project, and keeping the momentum until the final collection was accepted by the History Center.
'I can't say how important it is for everyone to know that this was a group effort. But on a personal level, it was a privilege to be able to go in there, see so many fascinating Minneapolis-Moline pictures, and do that work.' FC
- Contact Dennis Parker at (605) 983-5825. Reach him by e-mail at
Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906; (651) 296-6126.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414;