Remembering the Rock Island Tractor

Classic Rock Island tractor is fond reminder of granddad’s pride and joy

| October 2010

Thirty-five years had passed since Jim Schultz last drove a Rock Island tractor. But when he heard a 1929 model was for sale, he jumped at the chance to buy it. "I grew up on a Rock Island," he explains. "My grandfather had horses for light field work and a 1928 Rock Island 18-35 for heavy field work. It could pull a 3-bottom plow and 10-foot tandem disk, and that's about all it was used for in the 1940s. I was 6 or 8 years old and I'd sit on the platform and hang onto the fender and ride along."
As a boy, he was occasionally allowed to drive the tractor. "Not by myself," he quickly admits. "My grandfather was usually with me, and by the time I was old enough to drive alone, he had gotten rid of the Rock Island in favor of a newer tractor on rubber. In 1947 he bought a Minneapolis-Moline and an H Farmall, so I was probably 10 years old when he got rid of the Rock Island. I was pretty young, sitting on it and going into the fields with him, plowing and discing."

Tracking a treasure
By the early 1970s, Jim had become interested in working on old gas engines. A few years later he began restoring antique tractors. His first projects included a McCormick-Deering 10-20, a WK-40 and a Farmall Regular. But he always had a yen for the Rock Island, because it held a slew of good memories for him. In 1982, when he heard about a 1929 Rock Island Model G-2 15-25 that might be for sale, he got excited. 
"Word passed around that if you were interested in buying some old tractors, contact one of these two brothers from Montgomery, Minn.," Jim recalls. "Another guy and I went out to see what they had. Money was tighter in those days and you could hardly afford to buy any of these tractors, although the prices would be considered cheap today. Still, they weren't so cheap in those days."
The owners were reluctant to sell the Rock Island. "They had a bunch of other tractors that they wanted to sell first," Jim says. "I think this one was a draw to get people to come out and look at the tractors, so I had to wait a while to get it. But one of the brothers was moving to a nursing home, and he finally decided to sell it."

Restoring a classic 
Jim's Rock Island was in decent mechanical condition, with the engine, transmission and rear end in good shape. "I had to do a little work on the front axle," he says, "and the fenders had a few wrinkles in them, so I took a hammer and straightened them out, then added Bondo to fill a couple of spots."
The radiator, though, was in bad shape. The core was leaking and it had been repaired several times. "Corners were already closed off on it," Jim says. "When I first got it, the engine would heat up pretty easy and fast. I knew I had to get it fixed." That work necessitated removal of the top and bottom tanks, which were bolted to the core and side panels. "The bolts were all rusty," he says, "so they'd break off when I tried to take it apart." He ended up taking the core to a radiator shop, where gaskets and other parts were fabricated.
Jim believes early restoration work (including decals) was later covered by a coat of paint. "It was painted dark blue and I knew that wasn't right," he says, "but I used it that way for a while, plowing with it at tractor shows in the fall and running it in daily parades at shows. I kept working on it, fixing an oil leak here or other little things there, and finally got it cleaned up the way I wanted. In the late 1980s I knew it was time to paint it the right colors."
An Iowa collector who'd restored a Rock Island shared paint numbers. The original tractor was light gray with red wheels striped in yellow, and the radiator and pulley were red. Jim cleaned the tractor and a neighbor did the painting. Decals were hard to come by and expensive. "It took a little while to get them," Jim says, "and I paid a little extra, but it was worth it." Those on the gas tank and each fender measure 3-1/2 by 30 inches. Smaller decals were used on the clutch lever and the canister that holds oil for the air cleaner.

Rare as hen's teethJim says there aren't many Rock Island tractors around. "I go to a lot of shows and only once in a while do I see one," he says. "I've seen one at Pioneer Days in Albany, Minn., at the threshing bee put on by the Butterfield (Minn.) Threshermen's Association and this fellow in Iowa has two of them."
Rock Island got its start in the tractor business via Heider Mfg. Co. Rock Island began selling Heider tractors in 1914 and bought the line in 1916. "Earlier models were called Rock Island-Heiders and had friction drives allowing seven different speeds," Jim says. "You moved the engine to get it to go." Slide a large drum forward and the tractor went forward – the further ahead, the faster it went. Slide the drum backward, and the tractor moved backward. Neutral was in the middle.
Today, the Rock Island is a crowd pleaser at shows, standing apart from more familiar tractors. "People stop and give it a look," Jim says. "They ask a lot of questions about when and where it was made, and who the manufacturer was. A lot of people have heard of Rock Island Plow Co., because they made a lot of horse machinery and got into tractors in later years."
The engine plate on Jim's Rock Island lists a manufacture date of April 1929. The tractor has a 4-cylinder Waukesha engine with 4-1/4- by 5-3/4-inch bore and stroke. Although earlier models' throttle and magneto handles were made of steel, Jim's Rock Island features brass handles. "I think they made a few little improvements from time to time as they went along," he says.
The Rock Island is a fond reminder of days gone by. "I grew up on a farm, and I've always been interested in old iron," Jim says. "It's fun to see what makes these tractors run, and it's thrilling when one of them first starts up for you. I just like the sound of those older, slow-running, lower rpm engines. My grandfather passed on when I was about 25. The only reason I bought this Rock Island is to bring back the good memories of those days with him. For that reason it's my favorite tractor." FC 

For more information: Jim Schultz, 34043 316th St., LeSueur, MN 56058; (507) 665-2813.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; e-mail: 


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