Edward Rodney Hadley of Blue Grass, Iowa, vividly remembers the first time he rode on a Graham-Bradley tractor — even though it was a very long time ago. His father, Edward B. Hadley, had just purchased a new one, and Edward Rodney (called 'Ed' now, but 'Rodney' as a youth) was permitted to ride on the fender while his father drove the tractor home.
They lived on a farm at Atalissa, Iowa, and the tractor was bought at the Sears, Roebuck & Co. farm store in Iowa City, a distance of some 20 miles. The year was 1937, and Ed was only 10 years old. 'That was before speed was like it is now,' he says today, 'and at the time, you could still buy harness at the Sears store.'
The tractor, which has a tricycle front, provided the Hadleys with admirable service; in return it received excellent care, and in effect turned three generations of Hadley men into Graham-Bradley tractor collectors. Today, the '37 is owned by Ed's son Larry, and the two of them, along with another son, Leland, own several other Graham-Bradley tractors as well.
Ed says the family's long association with this brand began with his father and that's the main reason they collect these tractors today. It doesn't hurt that the Graham-Bradleys are 'rare and different,' too, he adds.
Leland, alone, is a reluctant old-iron fan, preferring, he says, to fish or play golf rather than mess with old tractors. When he's not working at his own full-time job, he helps his brother on the farm and sometimes, when Larry and their Dad are consumed with a vintage tractor project, he pinch-hits for them with some of their chores.
Ed says when his dad started looking to buy his first tractor, 'he wasn't too fond of tractors, yet.' Edward B. was a skilled horseman who favored wild sorrels from the range, which he and his son would gentle and break for harness work.
'But the Graham-Bradley was a smooth-running tractor, so he wanted to try it,' Ed recalls. 'At that time, Sears would bring a tractor out to the farm and let you use it. He really liked that one, and they gave him a deal on it, and he bought it.'
The Graham-Bradleys are very streamlined machines, with unofficial road speeds of from 25 to 28 mph, Ed adds. He notes they actually went too fast at times because 'a lot of people rolled them over.'
The tractors were made by the Graham-Paige Motors Corp., of Detroit and sold through Sears. The engine was the same as the company's automobile engine — a side-valve, six-cylinder Continental — and the transmission featured four speeds. Tractor production ceased at the beginning of World War II, and Graham-Paige interests were sold in 1947 to Kaiser-Frazer Motors Corp., which did not revive the tractors.
Edward B. used his new Graham-Bradley mainly to plow and disk, and to power his International threshing outfit. 'At that time,' Ed recalls, 'we had a threshing run; we'd start at one farm and work our way along. He did 10 or 12 farmers a year. They threshed oats back then.'
When Larry and Leland were little boys, their grandfather was still farming, and Larry liked to help him work on the 1937 Graham-Bradley, which always was the grandfather's favorite. Larry says he learned to take good care of the tractor, and to keep it as original as possible: 'Any bolt that came out of it went back into the same hole - even if there were four bolts alike. I consider that tractor the most original that we own. And it's the one he painted in the early 1970s.'
Ed recalls how his father used to take the '37 to local parades after he retired it from the corn and bean fields, and how he always wanted to take it to Mt. Pleasant 'but never got it there.' In recent years, the tractor has been to Mt. Pleasant a number of times — and that early '70s coat of paint is still shining.
In 1939, Edward B. bought another Graham-Bradley, also with a tricycle front. This one came from the Sears store in Davenport, Iowa. 'It was bought new,' Ed recalls, 'but for some reason, he always liked his other one (the 1937 model) better.' So Ed took to using the 1938, and after WWII, Edward B. bought a Farmall M and retired his 1937 to 'light duty.' Ed started driving a truck overland for a living, and the 1938 just sat in the barn — until about 1965, when his dad said to him, 'Let's fix it up and that will be yours.'
The tractor, Ed recalls, 'needed major, major work' by then. The brakes were frozen up; the engine had to be rebuilt and everything had to be repainted. Today, this tractor still has its original rear tires, which have a distinctive tread pattern unique to the Graham-Bradleys.
The Hadleys' third Graham-Bradley, a 1938 Standard, has the more-rare wide front, and white wheel rims. It, too, was purchased by Edward B.
'Dad always wanted one of those,' Ed says. 'There weren't a whole lot made. A friend, Dick Bockwoldt of Dixon, Iowa, who collects and restores tractors, told us about this one — in Fargo, N.D. — in 1975.'
The seller mailed pictures to the Hadleys that looked promising, so they decided to take a personal look. 'I remember it very well because Dad had just bought a new Chevy pickup, so we loaded up the trailer and took off after that tractor.'
When they arrived in Fargo, though, they were disappointed; the tractor proved to be in 'terrible, terrible shape. We decided we didn't even want it, but finally, we went ahead and took it. Dad and his brother did all the work on that one.'
Ed adds his father was 74 then, and still very active, although he was no longer farming full time. It took him and his brother 'a good winter, and probably most of the summer' to restore the tractor from Fargo (with Larry watching them, perched atop a ladder in the shop). Among other problems, the tractor's engine was quite worn out, so they bought a parts tractor with a good engine in it and switched that engine into the Fargo machine.
'He never used it for any work,' Ed says of this third Graham-Bradley. 'He just used it in parades and for play.' And eventually, he gave it to Leland, who says today that the tractor was a sentimental gift from his grandfather, who died in 1995, and that he's happy to let his dad and brother take it to shows.
The last Graham-Bradley restored to date by Larry and Ed is another 1938 Standard. Ed bought it May 15, 1999, because, he says, he wanted one of the wide-front Standards for himself. It came from another Iowan, the late Ed Spiess, whose collection was sold at auction.
Larry spent the summer of 1999 restoring the machine, and the following September, they took it to Mt. Pleasant. 'That's all I did that summer,' Larry recalls. 'That's why Leland was mowing my grass for me.'
The tractor was cut up, to start with, Ed recalls. 'Whoever had it changed the front end, hood and dash. We figure we have parts of seven tractors in there - the grille off one, the hood off another, the dash panel off another and so on. The engine was good on it, though.' Larry knows the modifications made on that machine right down to the quarter inch: the Standard had been shortened by 8-1/4 inches; its front end was cut off to facilitate a power take-off adaptation. 'The person who did the modification did a good job,' Larry says, 'but it wasn't the same tractor. All the tinwork on it was homemade.'
From a collecting standpoint, the restoration was worthwhile: Total production of Graham-Bradley tractors is thought to have been less than 3,000, Ed says, 'and they tell me there were only 14 of those wide-front ones made — and we've got two of them.'
Larry says all four of their restored tractors have original side panels. Many times, Graham-Bradley owners removed those panels because when they were in place, the tractors always overheated. 'The engines couldn't get any air,' he explains, 'so people took the panels off, and the tractors ran fine.' The result, though, is that original side panels are extremely hard to come by for such a project.
Today, there's yet another Graham-Bradley undergoing restoration in Larry's workshop. Several more 'parts' GBs, along with two original Graham-Bradley cultivators bought by Larry's grandfather, are squirreled away under Larry's care, as well. FC
Owners of Graham-Bradley tractors may sign up to receive an annual newsletter done voluntarily by collector Jess G. Ennis of Kearney, Neb.
Jess grew up driving his father's Graham-Bradley and now has three of his own. He says he does the newsletter to provide a way for owners to connect with each other. It has been published since 1997, and back issues are available.