The New Deal Model T conversion tractor by Johnson Mfg. Co. offered Depression-era farmers an affordable alternative to pricey mainstream tractors.
Every once in a while a person finds himself drawn to an item that seems of great importance in his life. Most of the time it's an absolutely irreplaceable family heirloom. To the average person most of this stuff wouldn't fetch $5 at a yard sale, but to one individual, it's priceless. When I first saw my grandfather's tractor, I found myself in this situation: I knew the tractor was special.
My great-grandfather, Herman Peterson, owned a 40-acre farm in Nye, Wis. He had minimal funds for extras and luxury items. I never knew my great-grandfather but if he were anything like my grandpa Burt, he would classify a nice new Farmall as a luxury item. Nevertheless, a tractor is a necessity on a small farm and I'm sure Herman shopped for a deal.
My grandmother recalls Herman buying two New Deal tractors from the Johnson snow fence factory in Wyoming, Minn. Herman used those tractors until he moved our family to Spokane, Wash., in 1965. One of the tractors had been used as a parts tractor to keep the other one running and I'm told it was left in a field in Nye. I can only hope it was salvaged and restored as one of the 11 New Deal tractors known to exist today.
It wasn't until I was 16 that I even knew my grandpa had a tractor. All I ever saw while growing up was a lump behind the tin shed with a heavy canvas tarp over it. For all I knew it was a stack of wood. One day while I helped Gramps with automotive bodywork, he started talking about this fantastically rare tractor he had out back. I asked to see it. I immediately fell in love with it and offered my services to help in its restoration. My grandfather accepted with great delight. We would restore the tractor together and parade it in the local fair for all to admire. I was working steady and my grandfather was busy, too. At every family function we eagerly discussed our restoration plans: We were like kids at Disneyland. The years came and went, and we continued to make plans, until one day my grandfather became ill.
My situation was becoming precarious: One of my uncles was claiming possession but he did not share our values nor future plans for the tractor. He expressed no interest in the restoration of the tractor, only the value of it. While my grandfather was sick, I straight-out asked him for the tractor. Grandpa felt it was his obligation to pass the tractor down to his children and believed one day I would receive it, but I knew that would never be the case. In desperation, I asked my uncle about the tractor. He offered to sell the tractor to me so I could keep it as an heirloom. Because I was family, he said, I deserved first chance. I was young, working for a living and didn't have the money at the time. Dumbfounded, I had to decline.
After my grandfather passed away, I had the sinking feeling this was the last of the New Deal tractor. The tractor was passed down to my grandfather's three siblings. It was decided that the New Deal was to be sold and the proceeds split three ways. My mother pleaded with my uncles to give the tractor to me. Finally it was decided by majority vote that the tractor would stay within the family. Fortunately I had the skills, equipment and desire to restore it. The tractor was given to me so I could care for it as Granddad did. The one stipulation was I could never sell it and that was fine by me. I never had any such plans anyway.
I took possession of the New Deal in 1998. With enthusiasm I dove right in. The tractor was a mess: rotten tires all the way around, every piece of sheet metal looked like used tinfoil from last night's leftovers, broken axle housing and rotten radiator. I started by disassembling the tractor for sandblasting. After a frame-only paint job and replacing the tires I was out of money again. It was time to shelve the project. It wasn't until 2006 that I found time to get back to my project. I told my wife, 'This is the year our New Deal is going to the county fair, no matter what the cost.' This time I needed to spend the big bucks for a new radiator, steering wheel, engine parts, exhaust and all new tin. The rest of the project went fairly smoothly, as long as I kept my wallet open.
In October 2007, the tractor made its first public appearance after more than 40 years in the shed. I entered it in the Spokane County (Wash.) fair. The Inland Empire Steam and Gas Buffs control the agriculture part of the fairgrounds, so I had to join the club to participate. I was a bit concerned I might not fit in as I'm younger than almost everyone in the club and I'm also a technology programmer-type person, not a farmer. My feelings were unfounded; the IESGB has a great bunch of people. I made friends almost instantly and everyone was very supportive.
The New Deal tractor was something no one there had seen before, so I made a plaque with the little bit of information I could find on the manufacturer. Brothers Wilber and Vernon Johnson built New Deal tractors at their snow fence factory (Johnson Mfg. Co.) in Wyoming, Minn. In 1932 they built several experimental tractors to use in the manufacture of snow fence, their primary commodity. This 'school of hard knocks' approach to tractor building laid the foundation for the New Deal tractor.
Looking to supplement their income, the Johnsons used their tractor building skills to produce an affordable tractor for Depression-era farmers and tagged it the New Deal, an unmistakable nod to President Franklin Roosevelt's economic relief program.
Essentially a Ford Model T conversion, the New Deal was built around a Model T engine and chassis.The 1935 New Deal sold new for $265 (on rubber tires) or $230 (on iron wheels and lugs). The Johnsons hired the Martin-Bush Mfg. Co. in Anoka, Minn., to cast the large iron front axle and rear drive gear reductions. The front axle is very beefy and utilizes Model T spindles and steering joints to help reduce cost. A Chevrolet Model 490 transmission helped keep speeds slow enough for agricultural use without unneeded stress on the Model T's bands. The connects to the Model T transmission through a married Ford and Chevrolet U-joint combination. The Chevrolet transmission and output shaft are machined to accept the Model T rear axle pinion gear and then bolt directly to the axle housing.
The number of tractors built is unknown, as no company records are known to exist. It's been said that the Johnsons experimented with a few Model A tractors, too. To this date, 11 New Deal tractors have been found, including 10 in Minnesota.
Occasionally I perform Internet searches on 'New Deal tractor' just to see what comes up. I was very disappointed with the lack of information on these tractors and vowed I'd try to resolve the situation. One day while on the Internet I found an archived article in a Minnesota threshing magazine that referenced a rare New Deal tractor. The author put me in contact with Don Zachrison, a curator at the Chisago County (Minn.) Historical Society. He was absolutely delighted to hear that another New Deal tractor existed.
Don sent me all the data he had on New Deal tractors. I decided to help make these tractors and their history more available to the general public. I designed a start-up website and asked all known owners to participate. Much to my disappointment, no one has responded yet. Currently, I'm waiting for more online information from the Minnesota Historical Society. Someday, someone - a grandson possibly - will be surfing the Internet looking for New Deal friends and I'll keep the light on for them. FC
For more information:
-Daniel Pickard is a lifetime resident of Spokane Valley, Wash. He works as an environmental laboratory photometric technician for Columbia Lighting, a division of Hubbell Lighting Corp. Contact him at email@example.com; www.newdealtractor.com.
-Inland Empire Steam and Gas Buffs, www.iesgb.com.