Tractor Restoration Therapy

Iowa farmer turns to tractor restoration to keep him on his feet.


| September 2005



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Dick Bockwoldt and his 1937 Huber Model L, a one-of-a-kind tractor. It features a factory custom-built oversized fuel tank. The tractor’s hood was also redesigned and sloped to accommodate the taller tank.

When Dick Bockwoldt's physician told him to either quit farming or live with debilitating pain in his back and subsequent loss of mobility, Dick's life almost immediately changed for the better. After some careful thought and planning, the Dixon, Iowa, farmer sold his cattle and machinery, and turned his tractor restoration avocation into his new vocation. "We didn't plan it this way," Dick says from beneath a respirator as he emerges from the paint booth. "But it has worked out very well for us."

"About 14 years ago, the doctor told me to get off the tractor or else," Dick explains. "The constant twisting and rocking over rough ground had really damaged my back and there was a chance I would lose mobility." As luck would have it though, by then Dick had developed a steady side business of restoring tractors. But restoration work also can be hard on a back. "The doctor told me if I wore good, soft-soled shoes in the shop and was really careful about lifting, my back would be okay," Dick explains. "So far, I have not had any more problems, but I am careful." He still misses the cattle, especially the calves, but with over a year's worth of restoration work backlogged today, he admits the change was a good one.

So how does a farmer become a restoration artist, all in a single lifetime? In Dick's case, he started as a collector, and when folks saw the quality of his work, they wanted to engage his services. As might be expected, Dick has put together an interesting and highly unusual collection of machines, implements and related ephemera during his more than three decades of collecting. "Just about any tractor or implement is interesting to me," Dick says. "But I like to collect things that you don't see too often."

In the beginning

"In 1970 the town of Donahue, Iowa, had its centennial, and they were going to have an antique tractor parade and pull," Dick says. "So I went looking for a tractor." Dick didn't have to look far to find the first tractor for his collection. In fact, he knew about this machine from his teenage years at home on the farm. The 1935 Rock Island was still parked in the orchard at his dad's farm when Dick went looking for it. "It was a little rough from sitting all of those years," Dick says. "But dad gave it to me and I managed to get it going for the celebration."

"When I was 16, we were farming with an International F-20 and a John Deere A, and dad wanted something for grinding feed," Dick says. "Dad bought the Rock Island to power the hammer mill." Dick is quick to point out that both the F-20 and Model A were plenty capable of running the hammer mill, but it was difficult to accomplish when the tractors were outfitted with their front-mounted cultivators and other implements. "It was a real chore removing the cultivators just to grind feed," Dick explains, "only to put them back on again."

Although the Bockwoldts didn't realize it at the time, that Rock Island tractor had a family connection. "I went with my dad to look at the tractor," Dick says. "The guy had a pair of them, one on rubber, and one with steel wheels and fenders." Dick's dad made the deal on the tractor with rubber tires, but he negotiated for the fenders too. Once they got the machine home, Dick and his dad replaced the tractor's repaired front axle and put it to work. "One day my dad's uncle came over while we were grinding and thought he recognized the tractor," Dick says. "But then he said it couldn't be the one because it had fenders and a good front axle." Once the fenders were explained, Dick took his great-uncle behind the shed to look at the old axle. As it turns out, Dick's great-uncle had driven that particular tractor pulling gondola cars at the Rock Island Plow Co. foundry where he had worked.