Palmer Fossum may possess the largest collection of Ford tractors in the world. 'If not, I probably have the most variety,' the 76-year-old Northfield, Minn., man says of his more than 100 tractors - 90 of them Fords.
Those 90 are all different, and cover all the Fords made from 1939 to 1965,' Palmer says with satisfaction.
The collection includes a variety of 9N models first manufactured in 1939, 2N models first introduced in 1942, and 8N models that began production in 1948. 'Let's see, we've got all the early version six-cylinder models, the V8, the ones with the cast aluminum hoods, the war models on steel with no starter or electrical system, orchard tractors, Funk conversion models ...' The list goes on ...
Ford for life
Palmer's love of Ford tractors began in 1939. He was 12, and his father took him to a neighborhood demonstration for the new 9N Fords. If Palmer could learn to plow with that tractor, his father said, the family would save enough money to buy one.
'I was 12 years old, and when you're that age, you catch on to everything,' Palmer says. 'So I figured out the three-point system, and plowed with the demonstration tractor, so over the winter we saved money out of the milk checks and bought a new 1940 9N Ford tractor.'
Palmer used the Ford on the farm until 1950, the same year the family sold its last team of horses and bought a new 1950 8N Ford tractor for $1,200. The salesman said he'd throw in a deluxe seat and put fluid in the tires, but wouldn't be able to deliver the tractor to the Fossum farm. 'So on March 10, 1950, I drove it home,' Palmer recalls. 'Eighteen miles from Faribault [Minn.] to Lonsdale, looking around to see if neighbors would see me. I was pretty proud going down the road.'
A happenstance during spring 1950 sold Palmer on Fords for life. The Faribault Motors Ford dealer came out to the family farm and saw Palmer plowing. 'He said, 'Man, that kid can really plow,'' Palmer recalls. ''He's got the adjustments on the three-point system all figured out. I'm going to furnish him a pickup truck and trailer, and a brand new tractor and plow and have him go out and demonstrate.''
That's exactly what Palmer did. With a new 1950 8N Ford, Palmer succeeded in plowing contests at Janesville, Mankato and other Minnesota towns. Contestants had to plow to a certain depth, headlands had to be even and there couldn't be any humps anywhere. A judge with a clipboard, pen and measuring stick kept Palmer under his eye. 'That's really how I got interested in Fords,' Palmer says.
Birth of a collection
Six years later, when Palmer got out of the military, he started collecting Fords, though he didn't really know it yet. He set out to find the first Ford tractor he ever drove when he was 12 years old - a 1939 9N with the cast aluminum hood.
At an auction in 1956, Palmer overheard two men talking about a rare tractor 'with that funny aluminum hood,' and asked where it was. Amazingly, he found it near Faribault, and immediately determined the tractor was the one he drove as a youth. It had telltale marks, such as a chunk broken out of the hood and certain brackets made for a three-point scraper. 'I also knew the serial number was in the 600s,' Palmer says. It's actually serial no. 617.
Sadly, the owner didn't want to part with the tractor. The owner had overhauled the engine and liked the tractor because it did the work he needed done. Undaunted, Palmer was determined to get that tractor. He went right home and painted up a Model 8N bright red and gray then hauled it to the other tractor owner. When the owner saw how serious Palmer was, he said, 'Gee, you're insistent.' They eventually traded tractors, with Palmer throwing in a plow and $250.
By that time, Palmer also owned the 1950 Model 8N that he'd driven 18 miles from Faribault, and began fixing it up. He since has added 22 separate Ford tractor accessories to his collection, including: a Sherman step-up transmission, a five-bow canvas top, a grease gun holder, a deluxe shock absorber seat and a rare leader attachment that allowed the farmer to control the tractor from beside the machine while walking in the field hauling rocks or bales or pitching bundles into a wagon.
The most unusual - and probably useful - accessories were the grinding wheel and drill press powered by the PTO. 'It's a portable shop,' Palmer says about the unique attachment. 'Rather than pulling a trailer out to a broken-down tractor in the field, you can use the drill press to drill holes in iron in the field, or take the cover off the grinding wheel and slip on a flexible shaft and sharpen sickle blades with it, or grind off whatever you need to. That's a pretty rare accessory.'
Tenacity takes the tractor
More than once in his Ford-collecting career, Palmer has been the recipient of the same tenacity for one of his tractors as he was in going after one that he wanted. A woman from Illinois once stopped in his yard with a trailer behind a pickup. She said she was there to get a 1941 9N with a single front wheel. Palmer explained he really didn't want to sell it. She raised her offer, and Palmer again said no.
She conferred with her husband, offered more money, but still no deal. Then she got angry and drove off, but stopped at the end of the driveway. She came back with a larger offer, and Palmer kindly said he didn't want to make enemies, but the answer was still no. 'That sugar cane and cotton special is the only one on the national registry, as far as I know,' Palmer says of the special tractor. 'And I just don't want to let it go.'
Palmer has a number of other rare Ford tractors, including one that people travel thousands of miles from Canada and distant U.S. states to see: a 1949 Model 8N flathead V8 with a Funk Aviation Co. V8 conversion kit. Only 200 were made and only 14 remain, Palmer says.
Palmer looked in vain for one of those 8N tractors for 12 years. 'When you think about how they are scattered across the U.S., the chances of finding one are pretty thin.' Yet, chance was clearly Palmer's friend, because he found one mentioned in a small farm auction listing near Minneapolis. Eager to bring home his prize, he stuffed $2,200 in his pocket and told his wife, Harriet, he was bringing home a tractor.
At the auction, he discovered another Ford-collecting friend also wanted the rare machine. The other collector bid, but dropped out at $1,200. Once he was out of the running, he made Palmer promise to bring the tractor to the Worthington, Minn., tractor show the following summer. Naturally, Palmer promised he would. Finally, at $1,450, Palmer got his wish and hauled the tractor home.
'I was determined to get it, even though it was in pretty rough shape,' he recalls. 'The guy who owned it was an older fella who chewed tobacco and spit it all over the hood, so there was gobs of rust on it.'
Two months later after some restoration work, another collector offered $7,500 for the rare tractor. 'Wherever we take it, bids come rolling in,' Palmer says. The last bid was $20,000. Remarkably, Palmer and his son Loren together now own a second of these rare machines. The tractors are good for belt work, Palmer says, but these powerful engines each create 100 hp, which often ruins rear ends designed for mere 25-hp engines.
Palmer finds rare Fords anyway he can. A few years ago, Palmer told a friend headed to California to look around for Ford orchard tractors. Palmer's friend agreed to look, and pulled into Palmer's driveway with a surprise a few months later. To Palmer's amazement, there sat a 1941 Ford Model 9N orchard tractor - a machine not found in Minnesota.
It was kind of beat up around the hood, had incorrect front wheels and stuff like that,' Palmer says. 'So I had to change the hood, put the correct front wheels on - using original 600-16 tires I found - correct the steering wheel and do quite a bit of cosmetics to make it presentable.' Now, Palmer has one of the few vintage Ford orchard tractors in Minnesota.
Besides the early N Series Ford tractors, Palmer also has later red-painted models, like the Model 661 Workmaster, Model 801 Powermaster with wheel weights, Model 961 with a Dearborn blade and many more through the 1964 model year.
Palmer owns dozens of Ford implements, including one of every implement Ford ever made through 1964, except the cotton picker, which was only sold in the deep south. He once had 40 different plow variations alone, although he doesn't buy as many implements these days because he's out of storage space.
Palmer enjoys the variations of all the details on the Ford tractors in his collection more than anything, he says. 'Then it's interesting to see the rise in the power of the models. The silhouette remains the same, but you get a lot more power under the hood.'
In addition to all the Fords, Palmer also has one each of all the American-made Fordsons, almost all the English-built Fordson variations, a few Ferguson tractors and several Allis-Chalmers tractors.
'I married into an Allis-Chalmers family, so I need a few of those to keep my wife happy,' Palmer chuckles.
Palmer helped establish the national Ford/Fordson Collectors Assn., now serves on the club's board of directors and works closely with the Minnesota Chapter of the Ford Collectors' Assn. His interest has carried over to his three sons and two daughters, who helped acquire some of Palmer's collection.
A person doesn't even have to know Palmer to see his love for old iron. Once he's with his tractors, starts a few up and moves them out into the sun, it's obvious that the number of tractors and their rarities are all secondary: A true-blue Ford collector, Palmer is just having fun.
- Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact Bill at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56369; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org