A passion for restoring Cockshutt tractors sets Molly Bradley apart
When Molly Bradley was 6 months old, she began attending tractor shows with her grandmother, Kay Norheim, and Merle Nordeen. To young Molly, Merle became “Merz,” and together they attended six tractor shows a year until his death in 2009 – so it’s no surprise that the 19-year-old’s favorite hobby is old iron. Cockshutt tractors, in particular.
In fact, to show the world her love of Cockshutt tractors, Molly had her high school graduation pictures taken with her 1952 Cockshutt 20. “The photographer was confused as to why I was taking my pictures with my tractor,” she says. “For senior pictures we were told to put what you liked most in the picture with you. Some people put in basketballs, footballs or musical instruments. I put in the Cockshutt 20.
“When I was 3 years old,” Molly recalls, “Merz taught me to steer his Cockshutt 20 and Cockshutt Golden Arrow and ride with him during parades. It was fun for me then and it still is now, so I’m really excited for tractor shows when that time of year comes around.”
Merle used a Cockshutt 30 on his farm, but after he sold the tractor, he must have regretted it – because six years later, when he spotted a Cockshutt at a threshing show, he decided he wanted to start collecting. Soon after, he heard of a pair of Cockshutt 20 tractors for sale at an auction and bought both of them. “That was the start of his Cockshutt fever,” Molly says. “Once you have one, you need more.”
Eventually his collection included 14 Cockshutt tractors: two Model 20’s, five Model 30’s, a Golden Arrow, three Model 40’s, a Golden Eagle and a 50. Other Cockshutt machinery in his collection included a Cockshutt 422 combine, a mower, cultivator and plow.
As Molly grew older and Merle saw her interest in tractors grow, he decided to teach her the mechanics of working on a tractor. But it was a complicated process. As a result of a 1984 stroke (well before Molly’s birth), he’d lost feeling in his right side and his speech was affected. “He could still say a few words,” Molly says, “but it was mostly just tractors, Cockshutt, and the city he was from. He couldn’t speak in sentences any longer.” If Molly was to learn how to work on tractors, she and Merle had to find a way to communicate. They did so in a unique way: through charades.
“Without words, we had to improvise,” she says. “We had to play charades so I could understand what he wanted. I didn’t know the parts of the tractor when we first started working, and he couldn’t tell me which ones he wanted, so he would have to explain it in a way I could understand, by using hand signals and pointing. Sometimes he would try to say the word, because he could think of it in his head, but he had trouble articulating it.”
Merle restored most of the 14 Cockshutts before Molly came along. Since he no longer lived on a farm and didn’t have enough buildings to house all of the tractors, some sat outside, eventually deteriorated and needed to be reworked.
Molly was just 7 when she and Merle first joined forces on a tractor project. Communicating by charades, they took on a 1952 Cockshutt 20. But the biggest restoration work they tackled together was on Merle’s 1950 Cockshutt 40. “Since Merz had done the restoration on the 40 many years ago, it needed to be fixed up again,” Molly says. “We started working on it together two months before he died. At that point it wasn’t running at all, so he and I did the restoration together the second time around.”
Between Merle, Molly and her dad, Darin, they tore the tractor down to the pistons several times. “We replaced the points, condenser, coils, gaskets, spark plugs, battery cables, clutch and battery,” she says. Then they got it to run again.
“Merz left my house happy after getting it to run on July 27, 2009,” Molly recalls. The Cockshutt 40 ran well, and Molly drove it on a 25-mile tractor caravan on Aug. 2. Less than an hour after she returned and reported to Merle that the 40 made a good showing, he died.
Ron Doerfler, a member of the local Cockshutt Club, took Molly under his wing. Under his tutelage, Molly continued restoration of the 40. She replaced the throw-out bearing, steering gears, brakes and pilot bearing. Then she decided she wanted to paint the machine. “Merz had wanted to paint his own tractors,” she says, “but he couldn’t because of the stroke.” Ron stepped in and taught her how to paint. “The tractor wouldn’t look like it does now without him,” she says.
Molly says people are really impressed when they find out the tractors were restored by a girl. “When I say I just finished painting the Cockshutt 40 a month ago, they think I had someone else do it,” she says. “I tell them, ‘No, I did the painting.’ They’re used to it being a guy’s hobby.”
She keeps the tractors as close as she can, but space is at a premium at her home in the city. “I keep two in my one-car garage and one in my great-grandma’s garage a block away,” she says. “I can’t wait to move out of the city and buy more Cockshutts.
“It’s the most fun thing I do,” she says. “I would rather work on a tractor than go to a movie with friends. I like being active. I like figuring out how to fix a tractor, even though I don’t own a socket set yet, and then the satisfaction of saying, ‘It wasn’t running when I started working on it, but it is now.’”
Patience is the biggest challenge. “Having patience to wait for the parts is difficult,” she says. “I like to get things done. When I start working on a tractor, I like to do a whole bunch. So I have to be careful and have patience when I can’t get a part right away. I can’t move on and get too many parts thrown all over the garage floor and make it harder for myself.”
Molly enjoys the camaraderie of tractor caravans. “We unload the tractors somewhere around 25 miles from the show,” she explains. At a recent show, for example, tractors were unloaded at a local winery. At about 9 a.m., 89 drivers set out on back roads. “We had four pit stops,” she says, “and it took us until 3 p.m. to get to our destination, the show grounds in Almelund.”
The outings don’t always go as planned. Then Molly has to fall back on hard-learned lessons in patience. Three years ago, the 1952 Cockshutt 20 she was driving stopped running during a 25-mile caravan. “I was upset, so I sat in the truck while Merz went back to try to get it started, and the wiring caught on fire from a short in the wiring at the starter button,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to finish the caravan, but he and my mom did a lot of the wiring while I was in school that week so it would be ready for the show the next weekend.”
People often ask Molly if she wants to sell her tractors. That’s the farthest thing from her mind. “My answer is and will always be ‘no,’” she says. “I want to keep the four tractors Merz had, and possibly buy back the other 10.”
She knows where several of them are, like the Cockshutt Golden Arrow (serial no. 3) he bought from a man without knowing what it was, except that it was a Cockshutt. “It turned out to be that Golden Arrow,” she says.
After Merle restored that tractor, Molly got to ride on it to her heart’s content. But when she was 9, he sold it. “That day I rode with him, and the entire ride I cried because I didn’t want him to sell it,” she recalls. “He was getting older and lived in the city so he didn’t have a place to keep it.”
Molly knows where the Golden Arrow ended up. “In fact, I saw it last weekend, and seeing it made me really happy,” she says. “The owner, who is a director in the International Cockshutt Club, keeps it really nice, and he’s heavily involved in Cockshutt activities. When he hauls the Golden Arrow to shows on a trailer, he protects it with a cover so no rocks will strike it. I’m really happy that someone is taking good care of it, instead of it belonging to someone who might tear it apart and wreck it.”
Molly’s current project is the 1948 Cockshutt 30 Merle left to her. She’s making good progress. “I just did the rear axle seals, and got it running when it hadn’t been running for three years,” she says. “I haven’t painted it yet, and there’s a lot of work to do yet, but I don’t mind. As I’m working, it gives me a chance to think about Merz. Whenever I’m working on a tractor I think of him. Most of the Cockshutt people knew him well, even though he couldn’t talk. They knew him as a real friendly guy. Now people come up to me and say how proud he would be of me.”
Recently elected a national director, Molly’s become an active member of the International Cockshutt Club. “My grandma and I traveled to Canada for the international club’s Spring Meet, where I acted as proxy for a director who couldn’t make it,” she says. “Afterward, I was nominated and elected a director. I had no idea that was going to happen.” During the trip, she also got to see the building where Cockshutts were produced in Brantford, Ontario.
Molly says she’s surprised how many times people come up to her and ask about Cockshutt tractors, saying they’d never heard of the brand before. She’s glad to act as an unofficial ambassador for the line. Remembering how Merle got her involved in the hobby, she encourages other collectors to reach out to a new generation. “Clubs need to focus on getting younger people interested in old iron,” she says, “so groups like the International Cockshutt Club can keep going.”
Molly has fond memories of Merle and his friendly, welcoming manner. “He had so many friends from the tractor shows and he was just a really great person,” she says. “We spent a lot of time together; we had a connection.”
His legacy lives on in her future plans. Now in college, she’s narrowing down her career goals. “I either want to go into mechanics – because the one thing in life that I love is working on tractors – or working with stroke patients,” she says. “I connect with those people because of Merz. Merz made me who I am.” FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.