One of several homemade tractor kits sold to farmers looking to replace their horses, the Thieman tractor was an unbeatable deal.
Bill Thelemann and his father, LeRoy, were dismayed when a truck pulled up at their Le Sueur, Minn., farm in the early 1980s and dropped off a Thieman tractor. At least it was supposed to be a Thieman tractor.
"That was kind of a funny deal," Bill says. "Dad answered an ad for the Thieman, and the tractor was supposedly ready to go. But when we got it, we found that it was a basket case. It was a disaster. You should have seen the look on my dad's face. It was not quite what he figured on. It was just a bunch of parts. The engine was out of it, and everything else was all in pieces."
In the end, the tale was more than a little ironic. The Thieman tractor, manufactured by the Thieman Harvester Co. in Albert City, Iowa, from 1936-1942 or so, originally came in pieces as a kit, to be assembled by the buyer, who had to provide an engine, driveshaft and rear axle. Bingo! New tractor!
The Albert City company was organized in 1921 by brothers Henry D., William B., Herman, Charles and Warren Thieman, to make ensilage harvesters. Eventually they produced livestock feeders and waterers, end gates, plow guides, saw frames and power units, as well as steel burial vaults.
Beginning in 1936, Thieman tractors were offered in varied types: $185 kits, like the Thelemann tractor; or a complete tractor with a Ford Model A engine for about $500. With the kit, the farmer had to procure his own engine, driveshaft and rear end from a Ford Model A, 1928 Chevrolet or Dodge Four, and then build a tractor. The object was to cobble together pieces of used equipment to make an inexpensive tractor.
Those low prices were a welcome relief during the Great Depression. Thieman offered several options, including a governor ($15), combination drawbar ($9), air cleaner ($7) and rubber wheels ($122.75 for all three). Any 2-row horse-drawn cultivator could be adapted to the tractor with a cultivator attachment ($15).
Specifications for the Thieman found on a company brochure recommend a Model A motor "with new or reconditioned block, Model A Ford HD truck radiator, four-blade fan." The brochure also noted that "Full instructions for assembling (are) included."
In his Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, C.H. Wendel notes that sales of Thieman tractors and kits were so brisk that as many as 150 people were employed 24 hours a day during peak seasons. The need for steel for essential World War II uses ended company operations in the 1940s.
Norby Holm, rural Sauk Centre, Minn., says his father, Gordon, who died in 2004, would be very pleased to know that his Thieman tractor was going to be mentioned in a magazine. "It was his pride and joy," Norby says.
The red Thieman tractor the family keeps in Gordon's memory was not their only Thieman, however. Gordon got his first Thieman, a very early model with steel wheels and open chain case, in the 1950s. Originally a kit, it came to the Holms with a Model A engine; people thought it was a 1935 model. The tractor was destroyed by a tornado that hit the farm in the 1950s.
Gordon bought the second Thieman in 1978 from a neighbor who was the original buyer. The gas tank needed attention (gasoline had been left in it for years), and the carburetor also needed an overhaul. "I went through it and sandblasted and painted it, threw in a battery and it ran like a top," Norby says. "It still does." The tractor has the blue Ford emblem on the front.
Gordon recorded information on the second Thieman, including a historical footnote dating to the 1930s. In his records, he recalled that sleeping sickness had killed many horses in central Minnesota during the mid-1930s, when he was 10 years old. The Thieman tractor was a welcome and cheap alternative to buying new horses or an expensive tractor.
Though the Holm Thieman tractor is used just for show today, the first one was put to work on the farm, recalls Norby's mother, Betty. Norby says none of them realized how small the Thieman was until the day Gordon drove it in a Sauk Centre parade, and it was dwarfed by a large 3-wheel Terragator chemical applicator following behind.
Norby treats the Thieman with respect: Its front end is so light that it's prone to backflips. And that's not all. "When I was painting it in the garage, I had it running, and the shaft on the side of the tractor was turning. As I walked by, it grabbed my shirt," he says. "I hung onto the windowsill with my fingernails until it tore the shirt off my back."
Still, the Thieman remains a favorite around the Holm household. 'When my dad drove it in a parade, he was so happy all you would see was his teeth,' Norby recalls. 'That tractor was his pride and joy. Nobody else had one like it.'
The Thelemanns' Thieman tractor had definitely been used, Bill says. "They must have dragged it out of the woods somewhere. It was not new by any means. You could see parts were worn from use. I don't know if it was the original engine, but it fit."
The biggest problem for Bill was trying to put the tractor together with no company-published directions to work from. "The frame was there and the engine, but there was only one mounting for the engine, so I had to fabricate all the mountings. Plus, the mountings for the gas tank and the linkage for the throttle and governor were gone. It was challenging, getting it together and getting it to work, but I put my own style on it, and it worked out real well," he says. "I'm glad I have the machinist and mechanical background to do the project."
The biggest expense was having the engine rebabbitted, Bill says. "The engine was supposed to be in running order, but when we took it apart, we found the bearings were cracked and coming apart, so we had to have them repoured. It was more than we'd planned on putting into restoration, but if you're going to do it, you might as well do it right."
Early Thieman tractor kits were painted black and later ones red, so this one, which Bill believes is about a 1938 model, is black. "I don't know if any of them had any serial numbers on them. This one has a place where a couple of screws drilled in, but no nameplate or anything, and nothing on the frame."
Bill says he's glad the family's Thieman tractor has steel wheels, although he had to dicker with his Dad in order to keep them. "It had tiptoe steel wheels on it, so it ran very rough and bouncy. When Dad wanted to put rubber wheels on, I said he was going to ruin its looks," he says with a laugh.
A compromise was reached: Bill put a steel band around each wheel, which meant he got to keep the steel wheels and his dad got a smoother ride. "Those old wheels make it look like an antique tractor," Bill says. Later versions of the Thieman had rubber all around. The very earliest Thieman tractors had open drive chains that drove the wheels, but eventually they were closed off to minimize the effect of dust.
Upkeep on the Thieman is minimal, Bill says, with no problems except for the distributor, which fits on the top out in the open and corrodes easily. "That's the biggest problem we have. If you let it sit for any length of time, the points will corrode. Otherwise, it runs smoothly and it's really a well-balanced engine. It's pretty trouble-free."
To add period flavor, Bill found an old 'ahoogah' horn for the tractor. "When we blow that horn, everybody can relate to that era in time," he says. Unfortunately, he's had to disconnect the horn because kids enjoy blowing the horn so much that it drains the battery.
It is appropriate that Bill put his own personal stamp on this Thieman tractor, because many - perhaps most - Thieman tractors differ from each other. Bill's has a Ford Model A engine, while one belonging to a North Dakota collector has a 239-cubic-inch flathead V-8 engine. Each of these, of course, requires different rear ends and parts. "You never find two of them quite the same," Bill says. "If you used a Dodge engine, you took the grille off the Dodge car and put it over the radiator, and made it more dressy that way. Ours just has a chrome shrouding over the radiator like the Model A had. Some have long oval gas tanks; ours is more rounded. So there are no two the same. You salvaged what you could and made it work."
Driving the Thieman is an adventure, Bill says. "You don't get a real safe sense at all. They were kind of dangerous, known to flip over backwards, maybe because the front end was too light, or the way it was geared or put together, or the high drawbar. It has three forward speeds and one reverse just like a car transmission, but it's a wobbly-type thing with that single front wheel. It doesn't feel real stable or real comfortable and isn't something I would want to use as my only tractor on the farm. But for their day, the selling point was 'make your car into a tractor.'"
There aren't many Thiemans around today, although Bill occasionally sees one at a show. People who see his Thieman pick out the Ford Model A engine right away, Bill says. "It's a unique engine in itself, so it stirs up a lot of interest. People look it over pretty closely and ask if it's a Ford tractor. So I have to tell them it's a Thieman kit tractor with a Ford engine. Then they see the transmission and rear end that were taken out of a car, and I think they're kind of inspired to find out that it required you to take a car apart to make a tractor."
Bill says people wouldn't think of doing something like that today. But 65 years ago, it was a way for a farmer to get rid of his horses. He could buy a fairly reasonable kit, pick up an old Model A really cheap and put it together himself without incurring any extra expenses. "For cultivating, it would be just fine," Bill says, "but for heavy plowing or something, it wouldn't be the answer. There's no weight at all in the rear end, so it would spin real easily." An optional belt pulley attachment made the tractor useful for grinding corn and other chores. "I'd like to find that attachment for it someday," Bill says. The Thelemanns' Thieman tractor came with a 2-row cultivator, plus the governor kit.
One of the things Bill likes about the Thieman tractor is its name, because it's so similar to his last name. But the tractor's appeal goes further than that. "The way somebody had to put some thought into making a kit tractor, to think of a kit to use renewable assets like an old Ford Model A, and make the tractor cheap. Somebody was thinking, 'Let's help somebody out here. Let's get a tractor out on the farm that everybody can afford,' and I really find that interesting." FC
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; email: firstname.lastname@example.org