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Topeka Hi-Way Mowing Tractor

Father-and-son duo uncovers little known mowing tractor.

| October 2014

  • The Topeka on display at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The 1938 Topeka Ti-Way Model C4 tractor's sickle (or mower) was built by John Deere. Meredith and Norbert Witt built a holder to keep it upright and never run the sickle at shows, partly out of safety concerns.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The hand-crank for the Topeka's sickle is shown in the foreground of this photo; there is another sickle belt in the background.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • The Topeka is surprisingly streamlined for its age. The main pulley that drives the sickle is shown at the bottom center; belt tensioners are on either side of the pulley.
    Photo by Bill Vossler
  • Meredith Witt (at the wheel) and his father, Norbert Witt, with their 1938 Topeka Hi-Way Model C4 tractor.
    Photo courtesy Carolyn Witt
  • Norbert (in the driver’s seat) and Meredith with their 1940 Cletrac General tractor. The General is Norbert’s favorite tractor in the collection, but he’s also partial to an International Harvester 350 high utility and an earlier F12.
    Photo courtesy Carolyn Witt

For two years, Meredith Witt and his father, Norbert, kept an eye on a mowing tractor parked at a pawnshop near their homes in Palmyra, Missouri. “One day we stopped in and talked to the pawnshop owner about it,” Meredith says. “He had bought the tractor at an auction, brought it back and parked it outside his shop. It was rough; nobody could tell what it was. To us, it looked like a homemade thing.”

Curiosity got the better of the father and son. In 2000, they bought the hulk. The tractor didn’t have many strong suits, but its engine — a flathead Ford V-8 — was at the top of the list. Norbert, 75, had worked with Ford tractors years earlier and liked their engines. If nothing else, the two reasoned, they would get an engine out of the deal.

The first order of business was to figure out what they had hold of. A serial number tag solved that mystery: The tractor was a 1938 Topeka Hi-Way Mower Model C4 tractor. At that point, the mowing tractor became a prime candidate for restoration. “Seeing the serial number and tags,” Meredith says, “we knew it wasn’t manufactured by a homemade company and it was probably pretty unique. So we decided to restore it.”

But it had to take its place in line. The Topeka was pushed aside for four years while Norbert and Meredith worked on other projects. “We have about 20 tractors and the same number of stationary gas engines,” Meredith says, “so we always have work to do. I work in construction and my dad is retired, so each winter we choose a project and work on it together for three or four months. Working that way, we’ve restored some fairly rare tractors, like an International Harvester High Crop MV, and some other IH and Ford tractors as well as gasoline engines.”

Design ahead of its time

The unusual Topeka tractor came with a sickle cutting bar. Even more unusual for that era, the sickle could be used at any angle. It could cut hay on level ground and then the bar could be lifted to cut weeds on a steep ditch while the tractor stayed on comparatively level ground — or anywhere in between. Most sickles produced in the late 1930s could be used only in a flat position.

Nearly the entire Topeka Hi-Way Model C4 tractor is made of Ford truck parts, which may account for its “homemade” appearance. The drivetrain is from a Ford truck, as is the flathead V-8 engine. “The frame is a shortened Ford frame, and the steering column is from a Ford truck,” Meredith says. “Except for the sickle, which is from a John Deere, all of the parts are from a 3/4-ton Ford truck.”


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