Butch Simmons of Holts Summit, Mo., discovered his rare 1953 Massey-Harris Army tractor less than 20 miles from his home and under a coat of industrial yellow paint.
He’d been collecting Masseys for a couple of years and was trying to track down a Model 44 when someone told him, ‘I know where there’s a yellow Massey-Harris.’ He didn’t think the company ever made yellow tractors but called the owner, who thought he had an ‘industrial’ model.
‘I went out and looked at it, and he had the motor torn down,’ Butch said. ‘It was sitting there with four bald tires and a sorry look on its face. The tractor was in very sorry condition. The hood and grill were smashed, and the tires were smashed.’
What intrigued Butch, though, was that beneath the yellow paint, he could see green. And some decals were bleeding through too. ‘When I looked at it, I knew it was different.’
He paid $400 for the tractor, and by the time he picked it up a couple of weeks later, he had figured out what a treasure it was.
Butch learned the tractor was one of only 25 made by Massey-Harris for the U.S. Army in 1953 at Racine, Wis.; the contract date was Oct. 1 of that year, and the tractors were produced to pull trailers, generators and the occasional airplane.
Of the 25 made, six were reportedly shipped to Granite City, Ill., nine to Lathrop, Calif., and 10 to New Jersey. Butch’s tractor went to California and then made its way to Missouri, passing from the Army to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who painted it yellow. Later, the state of Missouri took possession and sold it at auction to the man from whom Butch bought it.
‘As far as we know, there are five known to be ‘left alive,” Butch said. ‘As of this date, mine is the only one restored.’
In 1997, Butch met a man who had worked at the Massey-Harris plant in Racine. ‘He had inspected all the military tractors,’ Butch explained. ‘I said it would be nice to have a black-and-white photo of that tractor coming out of that plant.’ Three months later, a Priority Mail package arrived at Butch’s home. ‘I open it up and it finally dawns on me what I’m looking at – all 25 original shipping papers, all certifications from vendors who supplied parts for the tractors. There were certifications for tires, tubes, spark plugs, spark plug wires – all the stuff. Originals. I’m freaking out.’
According to the documents, the 25 tractors had to pass a few special tests before they left the factory. Butch’s was sprayed with water and placed in an icehouse for three days. After that time, it failed to start as required. ‘Literally, the motor froze,’ he said. Subsequently, the tractor was thawed, run continuously for a weekend, sprayed with water again and returned to the icehouse. This time, it passed the icehouse test, and was moved on to the hot-room test.
Later, the tractor was transported to Nash Motor Works in Racine and placed in a paint booth for three days. ‘There were no leaks in the seals, radiator hoses or anything that contained fluid,’ Butch said. ‘It passed there.’
After Butch took his prize home, he let it sit for a couple of years, but 1997 was the 150th anniversary of the original Massey company, so he decided the time had come to restore his find.
‘It is an industrial tractor, so it has a bigger radiator and a bigger length hood,’ he said. ‘I have 80 hours (of work) in the grille and 80 hours in the hood. They were terrible.’
He could not buy authentic Army olive drab paint but was able to obtain some through the Missouri National Guard. He also put new tires on the tractor, which has aluminum rear rims. The wiring and 24-volt generator are both original.
Butch’s fondness for Massey-Harris can be traced to the first tractor he ever drove: a Massey named ‘Big Red.’
Then, 12 years ago, while looking for a tractor to do some brush-hogging with, Butch learned about a 44 Massey wide-front sitting at a Case IH dealership. It belonged to a customer who hadn’t paid his bill.
‘I called the guy and made a deal to pay his bill, which was $400,’ he explained. ‘The dealer had to make a profit, so I paid $401. (The tractor) needed some parts, so I picked up another one, and it continued from there. When I had six or seven of them, I thought, ‘I’ll start collecting.”
And he did. Butch travels extensively in Missouri during his regular work week, so he started looking out for tractors when he was on the road. If he came across one at the right price, he’d buy it. Soon, he owned 50 tractors, including seven crank-starters, but after breaking a hand trying to start one of the crankers a couple of years ago, he sold those, reducing his collection to 43.
‘I have every model that Massey-Harris made with an electric start except for the 200 series,’ Butch said. ‘They’re really hard to find; they were strictly made in Canada.’
Other rare production tractors in his collection include a 33 diesel, for which Butch said Massey-Harris kept no records but he estimated 100 to 200 were made.
He also has two rare 33 Standards, one a short frame and one a long frame. ‘The long frame was a factory production error,’ he said, ‘and there’s no count of how many of those were made.’
Butch also said he thought he owned the last 555 tractor to roll off the production line, and he’s got a U.S. Air Force Magnet 1-244 as well. The 1-244 was used to pick up debris on roadways and runways; several hundred were made, with and without cabs.
To go along with the tractors, Butch owns plows, disks, drills, a restored manure spreader and rooms full of memorabilia too. He said his Massey-Harris hobby had provided a great deal of satisfaction. ‘I’ve met a lot of interesting people collecting these, and I’ve met some real characters.’ And, he’s still looking for another rare find just down the road. FC
– For more information about Butch’s Massey-Harris collection, contact him at 2325 Massey Lane, Holts Summit, MO 65043; (573) 896-4849.
– Dianne L. Beetler is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about antique tractors. She lives in rural Altona, II.