In Ida Grove, Iowa, it’s nothing out of the ordinary to see a small tractor pulling a wagonload of kids around. The locals there know it’s just Dan Schroeder and his relatives having fun in the country.
But there is one thing extraordinary about Dan’s activity: Both the small tractor and the trailer he uses are homemade. “My dad (Wayne Schroeder) saw that little homemade tractor at the Audubon, Iowa, flea market in 1982, and it was quite inexpensive,” Dan says. “The seller said he’d used it for a lawn sprayer, with a little pump mounted on the side and run off the fan belt pulley.”
Wayne bought the tractor as a novelty – sort of like holding onto the horse-drawn equipment used on the farm decades earlier – and Dan adopted the tractor after his father’s death. “My wife, Dana, thinks it’s nuts that I like messing with the old farm equipment,” he says with a laugh. “I tell her it’s good for my mental health, to get away from things, to slow down and simplify things, to get out with nature. I can appreciate things better at a slower speed.”
For Dan, that little old homemade tractor also provided a natural transition from his childhood. “I grew up with old iron,” he says. “My father grew up on the farm where we currently live, so we had old equipment around everywhere. He liked old stuff and used it around the place, so he taught us to tinker with it and repair it. He had old tractors and draft horses and played around with the old stuff.”
The tractor was probably built in the 1980s, Dan figures, but he has no specific history on it and doesn’t know who made what the family has come to call the “little green tractor.” “When we got it, we used it for years around the farm,” he says. “We lived half a mile from our grandparents, and I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I used the tractor to haul feed back and forth from farm to farm with a little 4x4 swivel trailer that wouldn’t jackknife. We used it to do chores, kind of as our four-wheeler.”
In the 1990s, the tractor was put out to pasture. Eventually, the engine got stuck. “Dad took the head and other pieces off, and then he got sick and passed away in 2006,” Dan says. “For 10 years the parts sat in a bucket in the shed. Putting that together was beyond my skill level, so I asked a friend, Bill Jensen, if he would look at it. He started working with it and made some trips to the local parts store. He didn’t have to do anything drastic, but he did replace all the gaskets and stuff like that.”
In the process of reviving the little green tractor, the two men discovered that it had a 1947 Plymouth rear end, the master cylinder came from a 1960s Pontiac and the engine came from a John Deere pull-type combine.
“I’ve seen a couple of power units that resembled the engine,” Dan says. “It looks like the radiator, gas tank and exhaust all came as one. Someone spent a lot of time to get it to all work together so well and hold up for so many years.”
The 4-speed transmission remains a bit of a mystery. “Some people said it’s an old truck transmission, and some said a Chevy and others a Dodge,” he says. “The guy we bought it from kind of ran through which pieces were from what, but that’s been 30-some years already.”
The little green tractor is easy to start with two or three turns of the hand crank. “It drives down the road pretty nice at 12-14mph with those little duals on it,” Dan says. “The kids use their cell phones as a speedometer to see how fast they’re going. I’ve thought of putting tractor tires on it for better traction, because sometimes when we’re pulling a load it will start spinning.”
That can occur when the tractor pulls a little Datsun pickup box trailer loaded with 850 pounds of feed. “It’s not a problem with the power,” Dan says, “just the traction sometimes.”
A unique piece, the tractor gets plenty of second looks. “My son drives around doing donuts to demonstrate it,” Dan says. “We live right on US 59, so when we’re driving back and forth doing chores, a lot of people look at it as it’s driving down the road.”
When Dan’s older children are around – Caleb home from his job at a local bank, Malachi and Karina from college – they fire up the tractor and have fun with it. They’ll hook on the homemade trailer and give other kids a ride.
But the rig is not just a pretty face: It is a working part of the farm. The family uses it to empty hayracks during chore time and it comes in handy for other jobs as well. “It’s been a family heirloom around here for the last 30 years, and we use it when we can,” Dan says. The family farm is still being operated by Dan’s oldest sons, Malachi and Ezra. Dan also has the cows and hay ground, and the tractor and trailer are useful there, too.
The primary advantage of the homemade tractor is its convenience. “It’s so handy to use,” Dan says. “We never did buy a 4-wheeler, so to put feed around or drive out and check cows, or to do some fencing and stuff, it’s perfect. We still use the unit for working around the place.”
Three years ago, Dan’s son Ezra (then 13) saw an advertisement for a trailer. He wanted it to use with his ponies. The homemade trailer came to the Schroeders in pretty decent shape, Dan says, though it did need some work – like a new tailgate.
“I used what was left as a pattern and made another one out of wood we picked up at local lumber yard,” Dan says. “I like doing some of those projects, because I get to spend time with my son. None of the projects are very challenging, but it’s nice to see the progress as you go.”
Dan and Ezra built a new tailgate and a seat similar to the spring seats once common on horse-drawn wagons. “Ezra accompanies me to farm shows, helping with hauling things around, or just going to look,” Dan says. “Now that his older brothers are gone from home, he’s probably driven that tractor now as much as anybody.”
The wagon’s front tires are solid; the spoked rear tires are from an implement.
“We don’t use it a lot,” Dan says. “We never rigged it up to make it something to show off; it’s more of a novelty thing.”
The homemade trailer is always a hit at shows. “Parents put little kids up on that old spring seat and take pictures of them,” he says. If they go to a local show, the Schroeders take ponies along and let kids ride the ponies, “but we have not got them pulling the wagon much with the wagon,” he says.
Dan has worked with a team of horses, plowing and hauling manure, and he still uses a tractor his granddad bought. “My grandfather bought a 730 Case tractor new in the 1960s,” he says. “We still use it on the same farm. This spring we used it with a 2-bottom Case to plow alfalfa. I like using the old stuff.”
Even more important for Dan, every time the family takes the little green tractor out for a spin, or loads it up to take it to a show, it’s a reminder of his father. “It’s a good memory of my dad,” he says. FC
For more information: Dan Schroeder, 3291 US 59, Ida Grove, IA 51445.
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; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.