Oliver Hart-Parr Reunion Brings Together More Than Tractors

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On parade: Olivers and Hart-Parrs were the order of the day at a recent show celebrating "A Century of Tractor Power."
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Classics like this drew the attention of collectors and former factory workers alike.
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Wayne Wiltse, a devoted Hart-Parr tractor collector from Racine, Wisc., with his fulled restored 1925 18-30 Hart-Parr. It is his favorite in his collection of about 12 tractors.
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Close inspection: Those who attended the show at Charles City saw a comprehensive collection of Hart-Parrs and Olivers.

Generations came together to celebrate “A Century of Tractor Power” in Charles City, Iowa, recently.

The unique tractor show took place on the grounds where Charles Hart and Charles Parr first laid the groundwork for the Hart-Parr Company of Iowa, the founders of the first gasoline engine tractor production factory.

Over the past century, the production factory helped shape the lives of thousands of people in the Floyd County region. Thousands of tractors made from scratch were produced on the very grounds where the tractor show took place June 12-13.

From Hart-Parr tractors to Oliver (and later, White Farm Tractors), the once-small foundry and workshop (established shortly after the turn of the century) built a living agricultural history in the Charles City area.

More than 100 collectors attended the weekend event, and nearly 120 tractors were paraded through downtown Charles City and  shown on the flat cement pad where the tractors once were built.

Merilee Monroe, an organizer of the event, said the tractor show was initiated to show that the people of Charles City were proud of their past.

“We are very proud of the product we built here,” Monroe said. “We want to show our children what we had here, and that we are proud of our heritage.”

Bolstering a renewed interest in history is frequently the theme of antique tractor shows but in this instance, the show had a special meaning and connection to Charles City. All of the tractors shown at the event were built on the very site where the show was held.

The history of this particular tractor nameplate also made the show unique. The Hart-Parr Company of Iowa was first established in 1901, and built its first tractor in 1902. The first tractor was sold to a farmer in Clear Lake. The first production tractor built entirely from scratch by the Hart-Parr company established the new business as it grew and later merged with other firms.

In 1929, Nichols and Shepard (a harvesting equipment company), American Seeding, Hart-Parr and Oliver Plow Works merged to form Oliver Farm Equipment. Over the next 45 years, Oliver became one of the most popular tractors built.

Wayne Wiltse, a former factory worker at the Oliver plant, now resides in Racine, Wis. He said generations of Floyd County residents were affected in some way by the huge tractor company.

“I came here because of the history of the event,” Wiltse said of the weekend show. “My grandfathers, my dad and I worked here over the years. We, as collectors, feel we need to show the employees who used to work here how important their contributions to agriculture are, and how much the collectors love their product.”

Wiltse, an avid collector, brought seven fully restored Hart-Parr tractors to the show, many dating to the 1920s.

But Hart-Parr tractors were not the dominant tractor at the show. Oliver tractors were paraded around the grounds on  Sunday. Many were fully restored, lacking only the finishing touches typical of a dedicated restorer’s efforts.

The Charles City tractor plant was closed in 1993. The last locally-produced tractor went off the line there in 1988. Allied Products now owns the property, and is the last company to produce parts at the factory. The closing of the plant, a facility which at one time employed more than 3,000, left deep wounds in this close-knit community. Many at the recent show remembered the days when the factory was in full production.

Chuck Stanbro, who worked at the plant for 42 years, said it was a good place to work, and provided his family with an excellent income.

“At one time, we had it all,” Stranbro said. “I raised eight children through my efforts here. I’m here today to meet old friends, greet them and wish them well”

Former union representative Buzz Hendrickson said he worked at the plant right up until its final day of production.

“When the building went down,” Hendrickson said, “it was tough.”

But that was secondary to closing the factory.

“Toward the end of production, we had 468 employees who we had to explain it all to,” he said. “The inevitable future and what was to happen was tough for many to understand.”

In the end, the factory could not compete and was forced to close. After two bankruptcies and the farm crisis of the late 1980s, White quit building tractors in Charles City, and the rest is history.

“For me, it brings back good, good memories,” Hendrickson said. “When I worked here, I lived in Plainfield, and when I pulled out of my driveway each morning, I could have turned right and gone to John Deere, or I could have turned left and come to Oliver. I chose to work here.” FC

Randy Mudgett is a staff writer for the Farm News in Fort Dodge, Iowa, where this article first appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.

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