A man never forgets his first love, or his first tractor (sometimes they’re the same), especially a boy who feels like he’s a man at 4 years old when he drives his first real and exciting machine.
When Jack Kinzenbaw returned from World War II, and started farming near Ladora, Iowa, he obtained a veteran’s permit to qualify for any available tractors. There were few due to the war shortage. But in the spring of 1946 he found one, a brand-new Farmall H, says his son, Jon Kinzenbaw, CEO of Kinze Manufacturing of Williamsburg, Iowa.
“I was only 2 years old at the time,” Jon says, “so obviously I don’t remember that.”
But he does remember the first time he ever drove a tractor – that Farmall H – two years later when he was only 4.
“My dad stepped off the drawbar and left me alone to steer the tractor while he walked along behind,” he recalls. “We were in low gear and I was only 4 years old, but I remember it plainly. It’s quite a deal when you’re sitting on an idling tractor and driving and steering it, and dad’s stepped off on the ground, walking right there where he could grab the wheel at any second, but the idea was that I was driving and he was walking. I don’t remember much else from when I was 4 years old, but I could take you out to the home farm and show you within 20 feet where that took place.”
After that, Jon drove that Farmall H a lot.
“I put the loader on for dad, took it off and put the cultivator on, took it out to the field.” he says. “This was the tractor we used for everything: We loaded manure, hauled it, hooked the spreader on the back of it. Dad was a conservative, hard-working guy, and he couldn’t afford another tractor, so he used it for everything.”
And Jon with him. In fact, to make sure Jon could use the tractor, his father fitted a brake lever from an old Chevy truck to the throttle of the old H, so Jon’s short arms could reach it. Then he fashioned a block of wood to the clutch pedal and fixed it with a double hinge, so Jon’s stubby kid legs could reach it, and, of course, drive the tractor.
But time changes all things, and by the time Jon was 13 years old, the old H was no longer new. By this time they had a second tractor. Its rods went out while they were planting corn, so John’s dad, on the spur of the moment, traded both of those tractors for a shiny new Super M Farmall tractor.
“Of course, being a kid, the H was old hat to me, and I was interested in something newer and bigger, so I was glad to see the old H go,” Jon says. “I had no sentimental attachment to it at the time.”
That would come later. All Jon saved of that old H was that block of wood that lengthened the clutch pedal, and its half of the hinge.
For the next few years, Jon knew the whereabouts of that old H, partly because Ladora was a small town, and partly because he worked for the local IHC dealer who had taken that tractor in for trade.
“That was my first job out of high school,” he says.
But then 20 years went by while Jon started his own business and family, and he lost track of the tractor. Then, at about the same time in 1982, three things happened: he started collecting antique International Harvester tractors; his father died; and the IHC dealership where he had worked went out of business, and all the records were destroyed.
“By then, I was interested in that H again, but nobody had a clue what had happened to it,” he says. “I looked for it off and on many, many times, but couldn’t find it. For the next 10 years, I looked for it in earnest. Every time I spotted an H Farmall within a hundred miles of home, I took a second look, without any luck. I thought it was permanently gone.”
In 1992, Jon attended the Iowa County Fair in Marengo with his son Jonathan, then 13 years old.
“We’d restored a Cub Cadet tractor together, and we entered that project for him,” he says. “The last night of the fair, it started raining, so we took shelter in the 4-H building before we decided to head home. But my wife got to talking to one of her friends, so I was just killing time waiting for her. We were the last three people in the building at about 9 p.m., when I walked over to look at some photos of Farmalls pinned to a wall. They were the blue-ribbon photo entry of five tractors on a mounting about three feet square. Each was an old faded tractor sitting in weeds. I had to move a desk away so I could get closer to the wall to really look at the picture with my bifocals. The photos were rustic photos of some old area tractors taken for a project for the fair.”
His eyes were passing over the photos, when suddenly, he caught sight of a lengthened throttle on a Farmall tractor. An H tractor.
“I saw that throttle sticking up, and in a second, I was back on that H,” he says. “I saw the throttle, the tires, the seat, and I said, ‘Son of a gun, that’s dad’s tractor!’ I couldn’t believe it. It was like finding an old friend that you hadn’t seen for 35 years.”
Jon learned the name of the young photographer, and when Jon found out his dad’s old H belonged to the photographer’s family, he asked if they were willing to sell the tractor. The photographer’s father was gone for a while, but the mother said they never used the tractor anymore, so she figured they might sell it.
“When the husband came home Sunday night, I called him,” Jon says. “I told him I knew it was a 1946 Farmall H, and that I would like to have it for my collection. But I didn’t tell him how badly I wanted it, or why. He said he wanted $400 to $500 for it, and I said I’d give him $400, and we agreed on that price, and I said I’d be over to pick it up the next day.”
The next day Jon went out to the farm, loaded the old H up, and the farmer said to make the check out to his wife. Then, from his truck, Jon retrieved the only remembrance he had kept of that tractor from 35 years earlier: the wooden block his father had made so young Jon could reach the clutch when he was 5 years old.
“So I was standing there with this wooden block that dad had made,” he recalls. “Then I reached up to the clutch, and mated up the half of the hinge on the block I’d brought to the half of the hinge still on the clutch pedal. Then I demonstrated for them how that block folded around and had made me about a five-inch extension on the clutch.”
Suddenly the farmer and his family got real excited and the farmer looked at Jon and said, “This is the first tractor you ever drove, isn’t it?”
“I said, ‘You bet it is.’ And they were just real tickled that I could get the tractor back.”
By this time, Jon says, “I was thinking that now the farmer knows I would easily have given him the higher offer, the $500 for it, if he had known it was the first tractor I had ever driven.
“So I thought I’d just give him the other $100, because he knew I would have paid it anyway to get the tractor,” he says. “As I was writing out the check for the other hundred, out of the corner of my eye I realized the 11-year-old who had taken the photo of that old H was standing there, and it had been his photo project, so I made out the check in his name, and handed him the check. ‘This hundred dollars is called a finder’s fee,’ I told him, and the kid was just totally delighted with getting the hundred dollars.”
Hugely satisfied, Jon then took the tractor home.
But it’s not quite the end of the story. For a fair project for the next year, Jon and his son, Jon Jr., decided to redo the engine of the old H. They took it all apart, “cooked” the block and head to clean it, put in new parts, and set it back together. They had the engine setting on blocks, and when it was finished, they put in some gas, and because the starter was still in the bell housing, hooked up a belt and pulley from another tractor, cranked the engine with another tractor, and after 15 turns, it took off.
“The emotion of hearing that old H …” John says, gazing into the distance. “It took me back. It was very, very distinctly a Farmall H.”
And while that tractor engine was running in the shop, Jack Kinzenbaw, his son Jonathan, and his son’s son Jonathan, were connected once again. But there’s still more.
“The next year at the county fair,” Jon says, “I ran into the mother of the son who had taken that photo, and she said, ‘Guess what my son asked me about a month ago? He says, Mom, what do you think I could take pictures of this year that Kinzenbaw might buy?'” FC
Bill Vossler has written on a variety of collectible farm equipment, and is the author of Toy Farm Tractors, published last year.