A unique family hobby: restoring vintage tractors
Let this serve as a warning: what happened to the Bickel family could happen in your household.
Once a normal, extended family spanning three generations, this group of relatives has become nearly consumed by – how else to put it? – The Lust For Rust.
"Oh, they'll haul in stuff with flat tires, and bushel baskets full of parts," says Dolores Bickel, the matriarch of the clan. "You name it, they've got it."
It all started innocently enough. One day 10 years ago, Bill Bickel – Dolores' son – borrowed a tractor from his father-in-law.
"Well, I had some spare time," he says, "so I decided to paint it."
One thing led to another. Or, to be more precise, to about 50 others. Today, Bill Bickel, his sons, Jason and Josh, and his father, Gayle, ride herd over more than four dozen vintage tractors. Some are restored; most aren't.
"I do a lot better job collecting than I do restoring," Bill says.
It's not unusual for all three generations to get involved in the collection.
Gayle, Bill's dad, brings more than three decades' experience working with sheet metal and welding. "And I chase parts, too," he says. Dolores offers a steady hand in decal application. Bill scans the horizon from the bucket of a utility company truck, often spotting treasures in the tall grass. He's also the resident specialist in body work and paint jobs. And then there's the youngest generation.
Bill and Jolene's sons, Jason and Josh, probably don't realize that other people go at collecting and restoring as a hobby. For them, it's practically part of the daily routine.
Jason, 18, has translated that experience into two champion's trophies from the Kansas State Fair. In both 1997 and '98, he took top honors in Future Farmers of America restoration competitions held there. He also was named one of two state winners in a national Amoco Oil contest for tractor restoration.
Barely 15, Josh is fast on his older brother's heels. He's at work on his first restoration project: a Model A Farmall.
Practically everything else the family collects is a Case.
"We call my youngest son the oddball," Bill says. "He's working on an International."
Jason's first prize winner was a 1940 Case D.
"When we got it, the rear end was froze up and full of water," he says.
He set to work in January of '97, and finished it just days before the State Fair deadline in September.
Barely a month later, he began work on his next tractor: a 1941 Case VI.
"When we got that one, it had a cracked block, and it was full of water, too," he recalls. "It must have had five gallons of water in the rear end. We replaced all of the bearings and seals."
Restoration of the VI, like the D, came down to the wire.
"We finished it up at fair time this summer," Jason says. "It was harder, because I was getting ready to go to school (he's a freshman in mechanical engineering at Kansas State University)."
The biggest challenge of the project, he says, was getting the crank gear timing right.
"We had to take it all apart," he says, "after it had been painted. That was a little frustrating."
At the State Fair competition, the highest marks are reserved for those who do their own restoration work.
"The more work you do yourself, the better off you are," Jason says.
On his projects, he did everything but the body work and paint.
"I didn't trust him with the paint gun," Bill says with a laugh. Jason responds with a crack about runs in the paint, and the grandparents smile and shake their heads.
But it's clear that Jason and his brother know their way around restoration.
"We've been to a lot of shows – we've gone as far as Madison, S.D. – and after a while, you can recognize whether a tractor's the right color or not," he says. "Sometimes it looks like the paint's been brushed on, and sometimes it looks like they didn't even dismount the wheels before they painted."
With college classes now swallowing up great chunks of his time, Jason admits that it may be a while before he takes on another project. He has a '66 Ford in the garage, awaiting restoration, and he'd like to get his hands on an LA with the old Hesselman diesel. "It's kind of unusual," he says.
In the meantime, there's at least one or two "fixer uppers" on the back forty.
"Well, we've got this DI with a crane," Jason says. "It came from a barge plant in Kansas City, and it probably went through the '93 flood."
"Probably went through the '51 flood," notes grandpa.
"And we've got one of the first four-wheel drives made," Bill adds. "A 1200. It runs, but it needs a little work. Very few of them had a factory cab, but this one does. It's like the sixth or seventh off the line."
"And we're starting to get into Case garden tractors," Bill says.
Gayle has his wish list, too. "I've got a CC 38 narrow front," he says. "I've been wanting them to get started on that."
It's a relic with an ornery streak: Josh broke his wrist, just trying to crank it.
At the Bickel house, the family hobby means that good things don't always come in small packages.
A couple of tractors arrived on the second Sunday in May. "Happy Mother's Day," Bill and boys said to Jolene. Another came on Dolores' birthday.
Then there was the DI. Gayle spotted it at a small town junkyard. Later, when he decided he needed it, he had Bill check on it for him.
"I told him it was sold," Bill says. "Well, it was: I'd bought it (in partnership with his sister) as a surprise for his birthday."
When the Bickels head out to a show, they're fully prepared for a road trip. Seasoned exhibitors, they take a semi-load of tractors (with the semi painted the same color as the tractors).
"It was cheaper to buy the semi than a new truck and trailer," Jason says.
Other times, they'll travel lighter and look for new treasures.
"We're always driving the back roads, seeing what's setting in the weeds," Gayle says.
They're constantly on full alert.
"Oh, I can remember when Jason rode the school bus to a track meet one time," Dolores says. "When it was over, he was wanting to ride home with his mom, because he'd seen something in the grass that he wanted to check out on the way home."
The family also enjoys participating in parades, and, to a lesser degree, tractor pulls. But their tractors are basically retired.
"Oh, we might use them for a demonstration," Jason says, "and we may use the D for mowing, if we can find a sickle bar mower. But no more heavy work."
That news comes as little consolation to Jolene. Her involvement in the family's hobby shows little chance of slowing any time soon. Her role is short on glamour, but long on job security:
"I just clean up after them," she says with a laugh. FC
For more information: Bill Bickel, 8504 Butler Road, Meriden, KS 66512; (785) 484-2288.