Though 60-year-old John Peternell of Albany, Minn., has all 19 of the types of Rumely OilPull tractors ever made, they weren't his first tractors.
He fell in love with old iron while still in high school in the 1950s. His first old tractor was a Hart-Parr that he bought at a machinery auction in Brandon, S.D. 'Two farmers had brought it in to sell at a monthly consignment sale, and before the sale I asked them if they would sell it. It was a really nice tractor with very little wear and new parts with it. They said if I wanted to settle with the clerk and pay $300, that was okay with them. So I did.'
Before the day was over, another implement dealer found out about the pre-sale, and was upset because he had waited all day long for the Hart-Parr to be sold. He offered John $600 for it that day, but John didn't sell. But six months later, the same guy offered him $1,800 for it, so he sold it. 'You have to remember this was in the 1950s, so that was a lot of money. My dad thought it was the smartest thing I ever did,' John says with a laugh.
His second tractor was a Waterloo Boy, 'which was really my first antique tractor, since I kept it.' But his third one - a Rumely OilPull - started him on the road to collecting old iron. 'That was a 16-30 Rumely OilPull. But I don't have that one anymore, and since then I've had a couple of better ones. The one I have now came out of a museum, and still has its original decals.'
The 16-30 was one of the two Rumely OilPulls John had when he and his wife Lou Ann started the Albany Pioneer Days in 1975. 'I always thought the OilPulls were a fascinating tractor. I don't believe they were necessarily the very best big tractor, but the company sold quite a number of them. They burned kerosene quite efficiently, probably better than a lot of other ones. It's just like a lot of other things. You kind of take a liking to one or the other, and you kind of stay with it.'
The 16-30 Rumely OilPull John bought during the 1960s but then his collecting sped up a bit. 'I didn't plan on collecting them all.' But then he started making friends with other old Rumely collectors, and collecting some of the Rumelys, and when he discovered he had already bought some of the most difficult OilPulls to find, 'I thought maybe I could find the rest of the set.' The Rumelys were offered in heavyweight models, like the 30-60 OilPull, or the lightweight models, like the 30-50, which is one of the most difficult of all of them to find. Other difficult OilPulls to find include the 25-45 and 30-50 models. Though there are a number of distinctions between the lightweights and the heavyweights, the easiest to see is the gearing: heavyweights have all open gears, and the lightweights all have gears running in oil.
'I'm probably still not finished collecting them,' he says. 'If I would find one in better shape than one I have ... I've sold off some of them I had, but always when I found one with better gears or original paint or something like that. Then I let somebody else have one of mine and buy the other. I've probably had 30 of them all together by now.'
Other collectors know that John doesn't keep duplicates of any of the OilPulls, although occasionally people will ask him if he has a spare one or two.
All of John's OilPulls run. 'We left a lot of them in original condition, running as good as they were the last day the farmer shut them off. I hesitate to say we 'restored' any of them, because that means tearing them all down and replacing all the worn parts. We've put new rings in some of them, even made some new parts, but we've only done that if it's necessary. If they've had any original paint on them, that's how I left them.'
OilPull parts are very difficult to find, John says. 'Nobody out there is parting them out. If the OilPull you get isn't complete, you're either going to have to cast the parts or make your own. Chances of finding parts for these machines isn't good at all, not like a John Deere or a Case.'
The most common ones are the 16-30 in the heavyweights, and the 20-35 and 25-40 in the lightweights. 'Those would be the ones that probably have the biggest number of them left. Several of the models have fewer than a dozen of them surviving. You don't find them on farms anymore, out in the sheds like you can find the smaller John Deere and International Harvesters yet. Most Rumely OilPulls are already in the hands of collectors.'
The OilPulls themselves have a couple of oddities. The first one is paint. 'Rumely used several different colors of paint over the years,' John says. 'It's obvious they bought whatever paint was the cheapest in the market at the time. They put the paint out on bids, and took whichever one was the cheapest.'
The second oddity is the serial numbers. Serial numbers on the different parts on the same tractor don't always match. 'I talked with an elderly guy, who is now gone, about the Rumelys. He used to work for Rumely. He said that when production got going fast, just to keep the assembly line going, someone would take a crankshaft or flywheel from the parts department, which is why you'll find serial numbers that don't match. They're supposed to match, but that's why they don't.'
John doesn't claim a favorite among the OilPulls 'I like them all.' Each year at the Albany show he lines up all 19 of them, along with his other Rumelys -the Rumely 6, the Rumely GasPull and the Rumely DoAll Tractor
John likes to inform people about those 'other' Rumelys. The 6 was a new step for Rumely, he says. 'They went away from their usual 2-cylinder with the hand clutch to a 6-cylinder tractor. That was a well-designed tractor, the last one they made. Only 600 of them were made, but most of them are still around.' The Rumely GasPull was a rare and difficult one to find. And the Rumely DoAll Tractor.
John says, didn't do much well. 'A piece of junk,' he says. 'It was a cultivating tractor. When you added a cultivator on back, the wheels tipped forward. It was not a good design. If I had to pick the poorest of the bunch, that would be the one. Some people will probably be mad that I said that,' he shrugs.
His OilPulls have come from such diverse places as Dickinson, Voltaire, and Crosby, N.D.; White Lake, Wis.; Emmetsburg, and Strawberry Point, Iowa; Mitchell and Madison, S.D.; Saskatchewan and Alberta, Canada; Truman, Lake Elmo, Osakis, and Alexandria, Minn., the last two towns almost in John's back yard.
Rumely OilPulls were manufactured by Advance-Rumely Thresher Company of LaPorte, Ind., from 1910 to 1931. About 57,000 OilPulls were manufactured during that time. The company ran into trouble when they sent tractors overseas, especially to Russia, and didn't get paid for them.
John's best story involving old iron also involved a Rumely OilPull, if only peripherally. It was wintertime and coming out of Canada, he had a full load of four old tractors, including an OilPull, on back of an almost-new semi. 'One of the tractors we spent all day getting out of the mud. It was frozen in about a foot. We went to town and got charcoal briquets and put them in the wheels and covered around the briquets. We spent half a day just getting that dirt to thaw out.'
But that wasn't the end of the adventure. 'Coming down one of the hills, I started out in low gear, and by the time we got to the bottom, I was scared to look at the speedometer, because I didn't want to know how fast I was going. But we never did make the next hill.'
So they hooked up his friend's brand-new Ford pickup to the front of the semi, and together they burned through the ice so they could climb the hill. 'By the time we got to the top of the hill, the transmission in the pickup had caught on fire, so we had to crawl under and throw snow on it to put it out.' The pickup transmission was, of course, ruined.
At the Canada-U.S. border, he was told that he had to remove 600 pounds of weight off the back axles because they were too heavy. John moved some farm engines and other small items to the front of the semi-trailer to redistribute the weight, but it wasn't enough, so he took parts off the four tractors, and was still short. By that time, he was getting frustrated and angry, so he used a screwdriver to puncture holes in the rubber tires of one of the tractors so the fluid could drain out. But he was still about 100 pounds over the weight. So he climbed under the truck and chipped ice off the axles until he got the proper weight.
During all this time, neither the Canadian authorities nor John and his friend noticed a tool box pushed far back under one of the tractors. When John got back home and found it, he pulled it out, opened it, and received the shock of his life: It was full marijuana. 'It was a full sackfull, like a loaf of bread,' John shakes his head. 'If the Port of Entry had caught me hauling marijuana, I'd still be in jail,' he laughs.
John finally figured out how the drugs had probably gotten there. A high school was located right across the tracks from the junkyard in the little town where he'd gotten that tractor.. He figured that that's where the kids stashed their marijuana and would slip off to the junkyard to smoke it. They probably figured that tractor would never be moved. So the joke was on them. 'I called the local highway patrolman who lived here in Albany, and he came and picked it up. That is one trip I will never forget,' John says. 'I'll always remember all the details.'
John says his four sons have gotten involved with his OilPull collection. 'We're hoping they will keep them, but you never know. I've heard collectors say, 'My collection will never be sold,' but I think 'never' is too big a word. If my sons choose to sell them and scatter them, then they do.'
John says he hears a lot of young people thinking that collecting any farm-related stuff has gotten too expensive now. 'I say that's not true. There are all sorts of things you can collect. It doesn't have to be tractors right off the bat. I started by collecting other things. People laughed at me in high school when I started collecting spark plugs, but I ended up with a collection of them.'
He also sold them for a pretty penny a few years ago, when he decided some of them had just become too valuable to keep around the house. 'There are tractors from the 1950s that will be very collectible some day. Or common engines. It's also a very good family hobby to get into.'
John has no intention of ever selling his Rumely OilPull collection, though. 'I started collecting them a long time ago, and I've enjoyed it, so I don't see any reason to quit,' he says.
Bill Vossler's latest book, is The Complete Book of Farm Toys & Boxes