In retirement, Jerry Toews has seen life slow to a, uh, crawl. And he couldn’t be happier. A collector of steam engines, gas engines and tractors for 35 years, he has no difficulty picking out the prize of his collection: a 1915 Holt 75 tracklayer.
“That Holt 75 is one of my favorites,” he said. “I just like the way it looks. It’s not like a traditional tractor – it’s open. You can see all the operating parts. It’s real primitive looking, but it’s functional, a real workhorse. And I like the way the engine works: it has tremendous torque at low RPM. People think it’s going to die, but it just continues to pull.”
The Holt 75 tracklayer, of course, wasn’t always picture-perfect. Jerry bought the tractor in California in 1994, and had it delivered to his home in Kansas.
“When it arrived, I was in shock,” he said. “Doug (Doug Dauterman, the seller) had placed all the small, loose parts in a large aircraft engine container. The container of parts weighed about 10,000 pounds. And let me tell you, when you look at a tub of tractor parts that weighs 10,000 pounds, it is a bit overwhelming.”
Fortunately, along with a mountain of parts came a parts manual, complete with detailed listings and illustrations of all of the tractor’s parts. Jerry spent the winter categorizing parts, becoming familiar with the tractor. “It all started making sense,” he said.
Although he’s retired now, when he bought the Holt, he was teaching school. That meant he had the summer free, allowing him to clean and repair parts.
“I worked on it from dark to dark,” he said. “That’s all I did. And at the end of the summer, I had a lot of it together. But I hadn’t started it yet.” That would come early the following summer.
A lifetime as a collector and tinkerer (by the time Jerry left home for college, his father ordered a sale of Jerry’s fleet of fixer-uppers that filled the yard) prepared him well for the Holt. The project held no overwhelming challenges, Jerry said.
“Oh, there were a few parts missing,” he said, but replacements or castings were readily obtained through another collector on the west coast. The tractor does have an almost completely new undercarriage: the original track pads were made from stamped steel rather than cast pad, and were worn out. New pads were stamped and installed.
Jerry’s Holt was manufactured in Stockton, Calif., in 1915. The tracklayer was Benjamin Holt’s answer to the rich, soft peat soil of the San Joaquin Valley, which routinely swallowed up steel-wheeled steam tractors.
“The engine that emerged used wheels seven feet in diameter, and six feet wide,” Jerry said. “These were mounted in groups of three on each side of the engine. Although the machine was cumbersome in the extreme, it was capable of working 44 feet of ground at one pass.”
Production of the gas-powered Holt tracklayer began in 1908. C.L. Best built a tracklayer very similar to Holt’s, and they were in fierce competition for a time. In 1925, though, they joined forces through a merger, forming the Caterpillar Tractor Company, based at Peoria, Ill.
The early Holt tracklayer was used in many applications, including the timber industry in the northwest, and on World War I battlefields, where it was used to pull artillery. Pulling has always been the tracklayer’s strong suit.
“It’s a very powerful tractor,” Jerry said. “It’s a 75 hp, with drawbar horsepower I’m guessing in the neighborhood of 40-45 hp. The thing that’s impressive about it is, with that horsepower, it’ll pull a 12-bottom plow.”
Jerry’s interest in large gas tractors dates to 1991, when he got his first: an Aultman-Taylor 30-60. Since then, he’s picked up nine more.
“Ten of them is an awful lot to maintain and keep running,” he said. “It almost becomes a job after a while. Last summer, I took four of them to a local show, and by the time I got them cleaned up, hauled over and back, and drained for winter, it had almost consumed three or four weeks. I’ve almost come to the reality that I have enough, but one never knows …”
And besides, the retired instrumental music teacher has a few other dreams to pursue.
“One thing I would like to do sometime, but I don’t know if I will do, is build a band organ. It’d be pneumatically controlled, and run off big rolls,” he said. “I have a 1915 Packard truck, a flatbed, and I could put a steam engine on there that would run a crankshaft that would run a set of bellows that would make air and also a vacuum to run the band organ. It’d be kind of like a calliope; kind of a Rube Goldberg deal.” FC
For more information: ferry Toews, 619 E. Main, Goessell, Kan. 67053; (316) 367-8257.