Restoring an Oliver Super 88 tractor brings back childhood memories for Ray Baltes.
My First Tractor (Voyageur Press, 2010) is a collection of 25 stories from notable rural authors relating fond — or not-so-fond — memories of their first tractors, including Michael Perry, Bob Artley, Roger Welsch, Bob Feller, Ben Logan, Gwen Petersen, Ralph W. Sanders, Robert N. Pripps and more. In this excerpt from the chapter “Super 88 Versus Not-So-Super Man,” Ray Baltes tells the hilarious story of how renovating a tractor changed his life.
Ray Baltes grew up on a farm near Hampton, Iowa, but left after high school to pursue a career in journalism. He served as photo editor for the Charles City (Iowa) Press, then as editor of his hometown newspaper, the Hampton Chronicle. Deciding it was time to slow down, he left the newspaper business to spend more time with his family, write books, and help out on his dad’s farm.
This essay is part of a book Baltes is at work on chronicling the legacy of his family’s Oliver Super 88 tractors.
I grew up on a small farm in the northern part of Iowa in the 1960s and ’70s, so from an early age I was fascinated with tractors. We always had a tractor on the farm, of course, but visiting my grandpa’s farm was a special treat. My grandpa favored Oliver tractors, and at times had owned an Oliver 70, an 88 Row Crop, and a Super 88. I loved the soothing green color of these tractors, and the quiet purr of their motors.
Grandpa Baltes’s Oliver Super 88 tractor held a special place in my heart. He would hoist me up onto his lap, shift the mighty machine into gear, and take me for rides down the long, grassy lane running along the field just east of the farmyard. I reveled in the characteristic whine of the big Oliver’s gears as we bumped along. The smooth purr of the motor, along with the feeling of Grandpa’s arms wrapping around me to reach the steering wheel, gave me a sense of security and happiness that I would never forget. As I rode, I would watch the tread of the giant rear tires passing in front of the fender. I could look to my left and see the field of very tall cane that was grown as cattle feed at that time. To my right was a narrow pasture and a ridgeline covered with massive stones removed from the farmland and piled high above the creek below. If it was fall and the harvest was complete, I might get the extra special experience of riding all the way around the 320-acre farm. I always wished those rides would never end.
Years later, I would relive those glorious trips down the lane, but not before my patience, my strength, my sanity, my body, and my family had been severely tested.
As I reached my 40s, I began longing to return to the farm way of life. I began spending more time at my folks’ farm, helping out in any way I could. Chores that I once had despised, such as cleaning out the chicken house, mowing the yard, or discing the field, now became simple pleasures.
Then it happened.
One day, my dad came home with a 1954 Farmall Super H tractor. The old machine was in fairly rough shape, but after a great deal of cleaning, tinkering, repairing, and a shiny coat of paint applied by a local painter, it looked like brand new. I had hours of fun driving the antique machine around the farm and the surrounding gravel roads. A seed had been planted that would grow like the proverbial beanstalk.
Late one evening, I was surfing the Internet when I came across a website devoted to antique tractors. The site also featured photo ads of old tractors for sale, so I quickly dove in to see what I could find. I had no intention whatsoever of actually buying a tractor as I scrolled my way down the listings. Honest!
For the next month, I’d spend every available moment surfing through the old tractor ads, subconsciously hoping for that one deal of a lifetime tractor located somewhere in Iowa. Suddenly, there it was. “Oliver 88 with loader.” What’s more, the tractor was only about 40 minutes from my home. It sounded too good to be true. To this day, my family looks back on that moment as the time when Dad lost his mind.
The following evening I made the drive to the tiny town I had never heard of, and where the tractor was located. I noted with pleasure that the roads to the community were all very good, and would make the drive home an easy one.
I climbed on, turned on the switch, and pushed the starter button. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Since the seller was an auto mechanic and the tractor was sitting behind his shop, he simply wheeled out a booster cart and hooked it up. After a bit of cranking, the old girl finally fired, coughing up a good deal of smoke in the process. I didn’t care the least bit.
Now, I wasn’t about to buy an old tractor without taking it for a test drive. I remembered from my Grandpa’s tractor that old Olivers had a two-range shift pattern: reverse one, first, second, and fifth gears were on the bottom half of the pattern; reverse two, third, fourth, and sixth gears were on the top. Figuring I’d start out slow, I shifted into second, revved the engine, and took off. I tried first gear, but I couldn’t find it. Same with fifth gear. Low reverse worked fine, though. Then I tried the upper range of gears, starting with high reverse. It worked just fine. So did fourth. But when I tried third and sixth gears, I couldn’t get the shifter to find the notch. In other words, only the left half of the shift pattern worked. I didn’t care. After all, this was the Oliver of my dreams! I was sure the problem had to be minor. It would probably take me just a few minutes to fix.
The tires were very badly worn, and one rear tire had a slow air leak. The seller had to put air in that tire while I was there just so the tractor could be safely driven. One front tire was completely flat. It was also missing more than a few parts. So what? When you’re looking at something you desperately want, you tend to forgive its little flaws and quirks.
My mind was made up: I was going to buy this tractor, take it home, and restore it to like-new condition. Never mind that I had never restored an old tractor, or that I had never even turned a wrench on an Oliver and knew nothing of their inner workings. I had, after all, taken many rides on my Grandpa’s old Super 88, which made me uniquely qualified to undertake this project, right?
After about an hour of hemming and hawing, a price was agreed upon, hands were shaken, and I backed the flatbed trailer into place for loading my new prize.
Looking back, right then is when I should have jumped into my pickup and raced for home. But the thought never crossed my mind.
Once again, the tractor didn’t want to start, so it was given a boost. I decided to back the tractor onto the trailer so it would be easier to get it off at my dad’s farm. I worked the shifter into low reverse, and eased back towards the ramps. That’s as far as the tractor would go. The old tires would just spin. I tried again, but the worn-out rubber refused to grip the steel ramps. Switching to Plan B (as if there had been a Plan B), I backed the trailer up to a rise so that the tractor would have less of an incline to negotiate. No go, no matter how many times I tried. Finally, I backed the trailer up to a sharp slope at the side of a road, hoping to use the steep ground as a ramp to gain momentum. Sort of like Evel Knievel used when he jumped his motorcycle.
I shifted into high reverse, took a deep breath, gunned the engine, popped the clutch, and the tractor took off like the space shuttle! I hadn’t anticipated the speed with which the old tractor would hit the trailer, and I was nearly thrown off of the spring-less seat! At the same time, I was scrambling to find the clutch and brake pedals so I wouldn’t go careening into the back of my pickup! Somehow, I managed to regain control and bring the tractor to a halt just in the nick of time. I turned around to look over my shoulder, and instead of trailer, I saw only the bed of my pickup. I never once considered just how close to disaster I had come. Little did I know the worst was far from over.
I have a full-sized, two-wheel-drive pickup with a six-cylinder engine and a manual transmission. Although it had a heavy-duty trailer hitch, it did not have light or brake hookups for the trailer. By the time I had haggled down the price and gotten the tractor loaded and ready to go, the sun was beginning to set. I would have to drive home on the graveled back roads to avoid running into trouble with the law. I began to feel a little nervous.
My truck creaked and groaned as it struggled to pull away with the tractor-laden trailer, but it had no problem getting down the four or so miles of paved road before I had to hit the gravel. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. Or maybe it would…
The sun happened to set at precisely the same time I turned the rig onto the first of many miles of graveled roads. I turned my lights on, and quickly learned that the heavy trailer pushed down on the back of my truck so that my headlights were pointing skyward. As the evening grew blacker, so did my vision. Driving on unknown roads is always bit nerve-wracking, and doing it at night while essentially blind-folded is enough to make most men cry. But the worst was yet to come.
I had also neglected to consider the fact that a relatively light, two-wheel-drive pickup would have a very difficult time stopping a 2,500-pound heavy equipment trailer loaded with a 5,000-pound tractor and 2,000-pound loader on gravel. After just a mile on the gravel road, I came to a T-intersection. Unfortunately for me, the intersection came at the end of a long downward slope. Thinking ahead, I applied the brakes early, but all they did was lock up! The truck and trailer continued its forward motion straight towards the deep ditch ahead as if it were a sled speeding down a snowy hill. I pondered screaming as I imagined my pickup being pushed straight down into the deep ditch, with the tractor crashing down right on top of me. I already knew my wife would be a bit angry when I showed up with a rusty old tractor; she would be madder than a wet hen if I came home flat! Thinking quickly, I decided a better course of action would be to let up on the brakes and try to slow the rig by downshifting. I shifted into a lower gear, gunned the engine, and gingerly let out the clutch. The wheels skidded a bit as they tried to find traction, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when, just as I was ready to bail out the door, the tires grabbed and began to slow the rig down. The truck, trailer, and tractor came to a stop so close to the edge that as I looked over the hood of the pickup, all I could see was the cornfield on the other side of the ditch. I had to back up about 50 feet just so I could make the turn onto the next stretch of gravel. Whew!
With a valuable lesson learned, I went no higher than second gear during the rest of the trip, crawling along at a snail’s pace. Working against me was the fact that none of the roads I took seemed to go more than a couple of miles before coming to another T-intersection. And, it seemed as if every one of those T-intersections was at the bottom of a steep hill. Because of this, what should have been a 45-mile trip stretched into something more like 140 miles. Or so it seemed as I inched along at about 20 miles per hour, straining through the blackness to see what cruel hazard awaited me up ahead. I don’t remember the exact time I pulled into my dad’s farm, but I’m pretty sure it was well past midnight, and I did it with another terrific sigh of relief. I pulled the trailer into the farmyard, turned off the truck, got out, and barely resisted the urge to kiss the ground. I felt almost like I had just successfully scaled Mt. Everest. With my eyes closed and one hand tied behind my back!
I was exhausted, but at the same time as giddy as a schoolboy. I owned a real tractor!
I arose early the next morning so I could get right to work on my tractor. Step one was to closely inspect the machine for the first time in the bright daylight. I began to see things I had missed the previous evening—before I had written out the check. Things that I probably should have seen as red flags. There were a lot of them.
My dad pointed out the first problem. A typical old farmer, he gets right to the point, and doesn’t like horsing around.
“You know, it’s got two different rear wheels,” he said.
I hadn’t noticed before, but he was right. One rear wheel was pressed steel, likely from an old Minneapolis-Moline tractor, and the other was cast iron, which was correct for the Oliver.
I also couldn’t help but notice the radiator had a leak, and hydraulic fluid seeped from every seam in the hydraulic system. Both of the front wheels were missing at least one mounting bolt. The steel frame holding the seat had somehow been bent downward on its left side, making the seat tilt down on that side. The gearshift knob was missing. The front grill halves were so badly bent they wouldn’t even come close to mounting on the tractor. A rusty old muffler from an old car sat perched over the exhaust manifold.
Before I saw more than I really wanted, I decided to hop onto the tractor and see if I couldn’t get it fired up. The battery was completely dead, so I hooked it to a charger.
While the battery was charging, my dad and I managed to manhandle the tractor forward just enough to get the trailer ramps into place. This meant that I could now simply drive the old girl off, once the battery was charged.
Sure, the battery turned the starter, but as soon as the engine would sputter to life, it would promptly die.
Finally resorting to Plan B (which should have been to turn the truck and trailer around and head straight back to where the tractor came from), my dad got out his big International tractor, and we pulled the old Oliver off the trailer.
I then began the intricate process of figuring out why the old tractor wouldn’t start.
Much of the next day, too, was spent on resuscitation efforts. The day after that, the same. My dad and I tried just about everything we could think of. We carefully removed each wire, one at a time, and tested it to see if it was good. We drained, cleaned, and refilled the gas tank, just in case bad fuel was the problem. We checked the starter and the ignition switch countless times. We even tried pulling the tractor to get it started, but even that failed.
“Did you check the gas?” my wife, Julie, would ask. “It sounds like it’s out of gas.”
“I’ve already checked it, and there’s half a tank,” I would answer.
Sheepishly admitting failure, I finally towed the thing under a shady tree and began the tedious process of removing parts for cleaning and restoration. My dad was looking the tractor over as I was removing the grill, and he suggested I might want to empty and clean the glass fuel filter reservoir.
“Make sure to close the fuel valve before you take it off,” Dad cautioned.
I reached in and grabbed the valve.
“It’s already closed,” I said.
We looked at each other. I have rarely felt more foolish. When the seller and I were cinching down the tractor, he had apparently turned off the fuel flow because it had a slight drip. He didn’t tell me, and I never thought to check to make sure it was on. Like I said, I was no mechanic.
I opened the valve. I turned on the ignition switch and hit the button. The old tractor fired right up. Three days of nerve-racking struggles, and all I had needed to do was turn on the gas!
Before I shut the motor off, I made sure to give my young son, Tommy, an obligatory ride around the farmyard on the old Oliver. At that point, I had no idea when—or even if—he would get another chance to go for a spin with me.
Now, my stupidity only runs so deep. I knew the engine needed a little work, so I purchased the necessary shop manuals that would help me do it myself. All they did was show me that if I ever wanted to see this tractor run again, I had better leave the work to a trained mechanic.
Every few days I would drop by the repair shop to see how things were going. Each time, I found the tractor taken further apart, and with one or more freshly discovered problems.
It didn’t take long before the “couple of repairs” I had hoped for turned into a long list of major work. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the more often I stopped at the shop to check on the repairs, the more repairs I learned were needed. Unfortunately, staying away did little to reduce the amount of work required to repair the tired old tractor. By this time, I knew the repair bill was going to rival the Gross National Product, but I didn’t mind. The tractor would soon be running like new.
Where I live, the highlight of the year is the county fair. Our fair is one of the best small fairs in the state, and draws visitors from across the country. It’s the folksy, “Charlotte’s Web” kind of county fair that is rarely seen today. Women from across the county bring in their best pies, vegetables, or fruits in the hopes of taking home a coveted blue ribbon, just like in Mayberry. Only the names are different. I can’t recall an Aunt Bea or a Thelma Lou ever being on the list of winners.
One of the truly neat things about our fairgrounds is that it has a massive, free parking area in a hayfield just across the road from the main entrance. A number of years earlier, the fair board purchased covered shuttle wagons for hauling people from their cars to the gate. These trailers are pulled each year by antique tractors, and I had foolishly promised myself and Tommy that I would pull shuttles this year with a freshly restored Oliver 88.
When the tractor was finally ready to be taken home from the shop, there was less than a month until the start of the fair. I really needed about 12 months to complete all the work required to restore the old tractor, but I decided to plug onward towards my goal. I would simply start work earlier in the day, and wrap things up later in the evening. If my family wanted to see me, they knew where to find me.
Prior to restoring my old Oliver, my mechanical background consisted of tinkering with lawnmowers, completing minor repairs around the house, and the occasional repair of small items. I had never before worked on a tractor, but how different could it be? It was simply a matter of scale. A lawn mower used gas and oil. So did a tractor. A lawnmower had a sparkplug that caused a spark that ignited gas fumes, causing a cylinder to move. Same with a tractor. I could fix a lawnmower with a screwdriver and a couple of wrenches. Not so with a tractor.
I figured the best way to learn how the old Oliver worked was to simply take it apart. I would have to dismantle it eventually for painting, so with socket set in hand, I went to work.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I was in way over my head. In fact, it only took about three bolts. Admitting defeat would have been too unmanly to bear, so I plugged along, trying desperately to remember the place for each bolt as I removed it from the tractor. I even had a clever system for helping me to remember where the bolts went. I used cans to hold bolts from each part: one can would hold the radiator mounting bolts; another would hold the gas tank mounting bolts; and so on. It was only later that I realized I had forgotten to label each can so I would know where its bolts went.
It was time to paint. This was my baby, so I had determined right from the beginning that I would do everything the right way, regardless of difficulty, time or cost. Okay, not cost, but I did want the final product to be one I could be proud of.
One by one, each piece of sheet metal from the tractor was taken to my backyard, where it was sanded, hammered into shape, and polished. This was done primarily using wire brushes and an electric drill. Well, actually I went through three electric drills and about two dozen brushes before the job was done. I also learned that wire brushes, when used on electric drills, can be dangerous weapons. Those tiny little wire bristles tend to come loose, and fly like an arrow to the nearest thing. I now know what a porcupine feels like, and even days after a sanding session I would find those little wires in my socks, shirt, and even my shorts!
While the large, flat pieces could be fairly easily stripped and prepped using power tools, there were still hundreds of corners, curves, cups, holes, and other odd shapes that required hand sanding and polishing. This was the really hard work, and required the use of steel wool, sandpaper, files of different shapes and sizes, and lots of elbow grease. At first, I had tried using paint stripper, but all that did was make a huge, smelly mess. I would have to do it by hand. Each night I would find myself barely able to lift a glass of water to my mouth because my hands and arms were so tired. My son would giggle at me as I grunted and struggled to hoist anything heavier than a cookie.
After spending what seemed like 17,000 hours prepping the tractor, now I could begin the fun part: painting.
Mistake number one was attempting to paint my tractor outdoors. Mistake number two was choosing to paint my tractor outdoors in the heat of summer. Mistake number three was waiting until evening to paint so that I would not be working in the hottest part of the day.
Mistake number four was even thinking I could come close to a professional-looking paint job by doing it myself.
Summer evenings in Iowa mean one thing: bugs. Millions of them. At times they are so thick that they look like small clouds drifting across the farmyard. They range in size from huge June bugs that sound like helicopters passing overhead, to what we call “no-see-ums,” tiny little black bugs that bite like the devil.
Every one of them had the same mission: get stuck in my paint.
I would take great care to adjust the paint sprayer so that I was putting on the perfect coat. I worked slowly, being careful to avoid runs or thin spots. Each evening I painted a few parts. One evening it was the wheels. Another, it was the fenders and sheet metal.
The trouble was, each morning, when I’d inspect the previous night’s work, I’d find thousands of bugs stuck in my masterpiece. Some could be carefully removed with a tweezers without leaving much of a mark. The vast majority would leave a sickening hole in the paint when pulled off.
Each day, then, I would have to strip all the paint off of most of the parts I had painted the previous evening, carefully sand them down to the primer, then paint them again. After a several days of this, I decided to skip removing all the paint and simply sand the surface around the bug spot smooth, then paint only that area again. This meant that different areas of a particular part might be painted over the course of several different evenings, with different wind conditions, temperatures, and humidity. You know that kind of velvety look that soybean leaves get when the wind blows them like waves on water? That’s sort of how my paint job looked. Actually, I think the cheap quality paint I was using actually helped at this point. The overall finish was dull enough that many imperfections were difficult to see unless the light was just right.
All of this went on the week before the start of our county fair, so time was quickly ticking away. I was forced to take a shortcut here and there that I shouldn’t have, but I was determined to have the tractor ready for pulling those shuttle wagons at the fair.
Opening day of the fair found me starting the intricate process of putting the tractor back together. I had no way of knowing if I would be able to get everything back in the right place, and I suspected my family had a pool going on the question.
The temperature rose well above 90 degrees as I reassembled the tractor bolt by bolt. This is when I discovered I had forgotten to label my bolt cans. I had a large jug of cold water with me, but not even that was able to cool me down. I worked very carefully; I sure didn’t want to put another big scratch in the paint now! By some miraculous stroke of luck, everything found its way back into the right place, and by late in the afternoon the old girl was together once more. I don’t know if I got every bolt in the right place, but I managed to find a place for each one, and there were none left over.
That night I fell right to sleep, knowing that the following day would mark the public unveiling of the Super 88. As I slept, I had dreamt of a star-studded Hollywood-style premier, complete with paparazzi and lights searching the sky.
Lots of folks around the county had been following my restoration progress through a series of columns I had written as editor of the local newspaper. I often wonder just how much wagered money changed hands when I proudly drove my Super 88 through the fairgrounds gate. The first person I saw as I drove in was Wendell Miller, the mechanic who had brought my old tractor back to life. He was pulling a shuttle wagon with his own antique tractor, a Massey Harris 33, and when he gave me a “thumbs up,” I couldn’t have been happier.
The paint on the tractor was not even completely dry, and there were no stickers or nameplates to make the tractor complete, but that didn’t matter. For the next four hours, I found myself accepting countless handshakes, “thumbs-up,” congratulations, and words of encouragement from just about everybody who set foot on my shuttle. The old girl purred like a kitten as she tugged the shuttle behind, and I didn’t even notice the extreme heat or dust. I was also glad I had put a padded, adjustable-suspension seat on the Oliver. Or at least my backside was.
Alas, the end of my shift came far too quickly, and I had to drive the old girl back to my house before it got dark because I had not yet installed the lights. That night, the loud whine of the rear end was barely noticeable as I sped down the highway towards home. I was too busy basking in my glory.
The next several months were spent completing the restoration. Decals were applied, and a rearview mirror and a cup holder were mounted on the dash. With the fair over, I could take my time, and for once, I actually found myself having fun working on the Oliver. That didn’t mean the work was easy—or painless. The tractor caught fire not once, but three times (hey, I’m not an electrician, either), I broke two ribs when I tripped and fell on a steel tool box, I suffered second degree burns on my backside when I fell asleep on a heating pad after straining my low back, and I nearly lost the tip of a finger while foolishly trying to bend part of the fan shroud while the engine was running.
It had been a very trying spring and summer, but all of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears finally paid off that fall.
On a gorgeous, golden autumn day, I decided I’d take Ollie for her first real ride through the countryside. I gassed her up, and off I went down gravel roads, with no particular destination in mind. After about an hour on the road, I realized that I was only a couple of miles from my grandpa’s old farm. Had I unconsciously pointed the Oliver towards its destiny, or had Ollie somehow led me there? I steered the old Oliver in that direction. It was time for the main event.
My excitement began to grow as I drove the Super 88 into the farmyard and past the numerous buildings and sheds. There it was ahead of me: the very lane on which my grandpa used to give me rides with his Oliver Super 88. I stopped the tractor for a moment, thinking back to those happy days so long ago. I set the brake and climbed off so I could savor the moment. I felt like a kid again.
I could stand it no more. I climbed back on, shifted the tractor into fourth gear, which was my best guess as to what gear my grandpa had used, and let out the clutch.
It was perfect. Here I was, on the same kind of tractor, on the very same lane. Forty years disappeared in a heartbeat. The lane was exactly as it was back then, and the purr of the engine and hum of the gears were precisely as I remembered them. All the trials and tribulations I had endured until now suddenly did not matter. My dream had finally come true. I drove all the way down the bumpy lane, savoring every inch. The tall cane had long since been replaced by corn, but the pasture and ridge overlooking the creek below were unchanged. Not all of the corn had been harvested yet, so I wasn’t able to drive around the full 320 acres. That didn’t matter one bit. I felt a special sense of satisfaction, of achievement. I had fulfilled the promise I made to myself so many years ago.
As I turned the tractor back towards my dad’s farm, I cast one more look back at the old lane. Somehow, I just knew that Grandpa Baltes had been with me on that ride, and the smile on his face and joy in his heart were as big as mine.