Take an Old Tractor and Call Me in the Morning

South Dakota man relieves stress by restoring vintage tractors.

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by Loretta Sorensen
The first tractor Larry drove was a 1948 Oliver 70 Row Crop like this one, his most recent restoration project. The 70 Row Crop was produced from 1935 to 1948.

The first tractor Larry drove was a 1948 Oliver 70 Row Crop like this one, his most recent restoration project. The 70 Row Crop was produced from 1935 to 1948.

Larry Kruse compares his hobby of restoring vintage farm tractors to that of pheasant hunting. “I get both the thrill of the hunt and the prize it provides,” he says. “A hunter walks through a field or through weeds looking for game. I do that to look for parts. I have to clean and prepare the parts I find, too. The difference at the end of the hunt is that I use my checkbook instead of a gun to bring home the bounty.”

Like many game hunters, Larry began his hobby as a means to relieve the stress accumulated through his work as a safety engineer. He chose his career path while growing up on a farm near Carroll, Iowa.

“My employer decided I could work from home instead of coming into an office,” Larry says. “My farm mentality led me to work at my computer like a farmer often does in his fields, way past dark.”

Old iron as a cure for stress

Nearly 20 years ago, in 2000, Larry’s wife, Dahna, suggested he find a hobby to help him get away from his desk. Soon after, an advertisement placed by Nebraska’s Elkhorn Valley Antique Power Assn. (EVAPA) caught Larry’s eye.

“When I was growing up, I spent many hours on my family’s 1947 Oliver 70 using a 2-bottom, 16-inch plow, a 4-row cultivator, or a mounted 2-row picker,” Larry says. “When I returned from the Army, I found my dad (Elmer) had torn apart our Oliver 88. The tractor had been apart for so long that Dad lost the head. It took about three years to find it so I could finish the restoration.”

Larry credits the tinkering heritage that goes back to his grandfather’s time on the farm for much of the mechanical knowledge he’s acquired over the years. “My grandfather always did his own mechanic work when he farmed and my father did the same thing,” he says. “I remember one time, when one of our tractors went to town for warranty work. We fixed everything else ourselves. The idea that ‘it’ll do’ made up for the fact that the repair job usually wasn’t professional.”

While Larry acquired much of his mechanical knowledge naturally working alongside his father on the farm, he’s relied on his brother Dwayne’s master mechanic skills. Another brother, Ron, has also played a role in restoration projects. They share a common mindset. “We all hate to see something go to the junk pile,” Larry says.

Starting with an Oliver Super 55 Diesel

A fellow EVAPA member helped Larry locate his first restoration project, a 1955 Oliver Super 55 Diesel. The tractor was in running condition but needed plenty of repair. Over about two years, Larry replaced the tractor’s broken front axle and inspected the transmission and rear end.

“Rodents had gotten into the clutch, and you can’t imagine how badly their urine corrodes metal,” Larry says. “The pressure blade was completely rusted. When I took the clutch apart, I found a gear was bad. I basically overhauled the engine, the front axle and wheel bearings.”

When it came to doing body work and painting the tractor, Larry gained an education by taking in demonstrations EVAPA put on at their power shows. One of Larry’s peers in the group also coached him through the process.

“Body work is really an art,” Larry says. “It’s likely that most people don’t comprehend what it takes for a craftsman to do this kind of work. You have to do the body work and replace metal, and then sand and paint a tractor like this. That finish work is what makes the tractor look so sharp.”

Larry believes his tractors may look more professional if an expert completed the finish work. However, by doing it himself, he believes he’s adding to the value his family places on the tractors because he’s done the work.

Setting restoration ground rules

Once he finished the Super 55, it took Larry about two years to find his second project. When he searches for a tractor, he’s looking for one that’s easy to drive and is in running condition. “I use my tractors in plowing and other kinds of farming demonstrations,” he says. “I enjoy an afternoon tractor ride, too. But I want one that’s easy to drive.”

Larry avoids taking on a tractor project if the tractor isn’t in running condition. That’s partly due to the fact that vintage tractors don’t command the values they have in years past, he says, and it’s easy to exceed a tractor’s value if it requires excessive restoration.

It’s also possible to be “duped on overhaul,” he says, meaning a quality paint job on a tractor doesn’t mean the vehicle is worth restoring. That may be especially true if a tractor has been used in pulling competitions, which stress every part of the machine.

“My dad once gave me a 77 Oliver,” Larry says. “When I tore apart the transmission, it was apparent that it wasn’t economically feasible to replace the transmission or complete the restoration. I had already bought parts that I no longer had a use for. I still have that tractor’s engine.”

None of Larry’s five tractor restorations were completed with the intent of selling them. However, he has responded to buyer offers, including selling his father’s 1946 Case VAI to his family after he completed its restoration.

“These Case tractors were industrial models,” Larry says. “They were used by state highway departments to mow areas like ditches. They traveled up to 20mph. The tractor will be used for tractor rides.”

Solving problems solves a problem

In his work, Larry is called on to resolve problems. He says his skill in that area has helped him resolve issues he encounters in restoring vintage equipment.

“Life doesn’t always go as perfectly as we’d like it to,” Larry says. “Part of the idea of escaping from the stress of my work is to find a different kind of problem to solve. In restoring an old tractor, you often have to find a solution to make the project work. Unlike some of the safety recommendations I develop, I always get to see how well my tractors run once the job is completed.”

Through his projects, Larry has gained a new network of friends, who stimulate new ideas and bring new learning opportunities. “EVAPA members all have different and very diverse skills,” Larry says. “People like that are valuable resources when you’re restoring equipment. And the club’s tractor shows give me an opportunity to show off my work.”

As far as relieving stress, Larry believes he’s achieved his goal. His hobby takes his mind to a different sphere when he’s away from his desk.

Rising to the challenge

Larry’s current project is a 1948 Oliver 70 Row Crop “exactly like the first tractor I drove.” Once that’s finished, he will keep an eye out for an Oliver 660, a tractor he describes as fun to drive and easy to haul.

He appreciates the fact that his wife encouraged him to start his tractor projects and supports his interests, joining him in driving his restored tractors. “Restoring tractors is an expensive hobby,” Larry says. “There are jokes about guys telling their wives they don’t know how a new tractor project showed up in their shop. It just found its own way.”

He remains grateful for the diversion provided by antique tractors, and appreciates the challenges each one presents. “I know many people who look at these old tractors don’t realize how much time, effort and resources are required to resurrect and restore them,” Larry adds. “Maybe this old saying is true: The true test of an artist is the ability to do it so well that it looks easy.” FC

For more information: Contact Larry Kruse at Larry.Kruse@cox.net.

Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. Email her at sorensenlms@gmail.com.

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