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Homemade Tractor Built From Scratch

Homemade tractor, nicknamed “Katydid,” restored after 40 years in the scrap pile.

| April 2012

  • Homemade Tractor
    The restored Katydid is not exactly the same tractor that my dad, Francis Whitesell, built, but it’s close. Toward the end I enlisted my brother Jerry to help wire the ignition and alternator, and we fired her up and backed her out of the shop. Dad drove her for the first time 67 years ago, and 50 years ago he drove her for the last time.
  • Homemade Tractor From Behind
    Restoration of the homemade tractor has been a fun challenge. I don’t have the best tools but I certainly have a lot more to work with than Dad did, not to mention that he came up with the idea from scratch.
  • Homemade Tractor Old Photo
    My mother, Maxine, took this photo in 1955 or ’56. From left to right: My grandpa Morton on the Avery (Wards Twin-Row), Nell hitched to the wagonload of seed with me at the reins, along with my cousin Glenda and Grandma, as well as my dog, Tippy. Jerry was on the Allis-Chalmers, Dad on the Katydid and Jim on the planter. Jim’s job, besides filling the seed boxes, was to put the planter in and out of the ground, as well as jump off at the end and grab the marker to make sure it changed sides each time. Jerry and Grandpa worked the ground and Grandma and I dumped soybeans in a tub, then sprinkled water and inoculator on them and stirred until they looked somewhat black. This was one of the few photos of the Katydid at work and served as a resource in restoration.
  • Katydid's Scrap Pile
    Not a promising start: The Katydid lay in a scrap pile for 40 years before I rescued her — and then sat for another 10 years before I began restoration. This photo was taken Nov. 2, 2009, just before the tractor went into the shop.

  • Homemade Tractor
  • Homemade Tractor From Behind
  • Homemade Tractor Old Photo
  • Katydid's Scrap Pile

In 1944, my father, Francis “Doc” Whitesell, was a young farmer in Vigo County, Ind. He and my mom were expecting their first children (my twin brothers, Jerry and Jim). My folks were farming for a living, and needed a farm tractor. But at that time nearly all manufacturing was devoted to the war effort and almost no tractors were being built — and even if one was available, I’m sure it would have cost more than my folks could afford. 

Homemade tractor

Dad was a bit of a mechanical genius, so he decided to build a tractor from scratch. His uncle, Homer Haymaker, had a welding shop, and he agreed to do the welding on the project. The engine came from a 1936 Chevy with a 3-speed transmission going into a 4-speed transmission going into a truck rear end. The 20-inch truck tires were replaced by 24-inch tractor tires on the rear and 19-inch car tires on six-hole spoke rims on the front. The front tires almost touched at the bottom; this would aid in steering.

For ballast on the rear, Dad took burlap bags and laid them over the angle iron drawbar that stretched across the width of the rear end and part of the frame to make a bottom form over the differential. Then he mixed concrete and poured it down onto the differential and laid bricks and rocks to form a block. This was the weight for traction, but it also served as a seat for us boys for many years.

A need for speed

With two transmissions, the tractor had a wide range of speeds. It would go slow enough to pull a tomato setter (also made by Dad). On those occasions, the tractor had to go very slow as two people sat near the ground and placed plants as it traveled along, making holes and filling them with water and tomato sets.

The tractor could also travel very fast. My brother Jim remembers Dad telling him of running 55 mph once, before shutting it down a bit for fear of the rear tires coming apart. My brother Jerry tells about coming home with Dad on the tractor from the elevator at Paris, Ill., and being passed by a moving van. Jerry remembers how long it took the truck to pass them as Dad decided to have a little fun and speed up to about 50 mph. Dad had a thing for speed.

When Dad drove his homemade tractor home for the first time from Uncle Homer’s and Mom saw him coming down the road, she said, “That looks like a Katydid coming down the road.” I’ve researched Katydids and frankly don’t know how she came up with that, but the name stuck and it’s been the Katydid ever since.


Farm Collector April 16Farm Collector is a monthly magazine focusing on antique tractors and all kinds of antique farm equipment. If it's old and from the farm, we're interested in it!

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