An Iowa man built his collection around antique tractors he grew up seeing at neighbors' farms.
Many collectors have a focus for their collection, ranging from “any at all” to “green only” or “red only” to “the ones we had on the farm,” and everything in-between. Dave Nelson’s rationale is a bit different. He started collecting tractors that his neighbors had when he was growing up. “Most of the tractors in my collection are those that were used around the Belmond area,” he says.
Dave, who lives in Belmond, Iowa, said his interest in old iron began at birth. “My mom said the first word I said, 63 years ago, was tractor.” He bought his first antique tractor — a Farmall F20 in 1972.
“We had farmed with Farmalls,” he says, “and since I was in college at Iowa State at the time, that was all I could afford.” Dave used the F-20 to rake hay; he had started farming in 1973, while still attending college. “My father-in-law owned an F-20, and he was also instrumental in my entry into this hobby.”
Dave added a Minneapolis-Moline 5-Star to his collection in the 1980s. He was glad to get the gasoline version of the Minneapolis-Moline 5-Star, as the diesels had a lot of trouble, he says. “When I bought this one, it needed quite a bit of work,” he says. “It had been under a corn picker, so it needed repairs.” He put new heads on it, sandblasted and painted the tractor. During the process, he had a revelation. “Eventually I found out I wasn’t that good at painting,” he says, “so I have someone else do that now.”
Removing the tractor’s sheet metal was about the worst part of the project. “In 1956 and 1957, tractor companies were going through a phase, trying to copy the styling of cars,” he says, “but that made it so difficult to service the engines, and that made it hard to keep the sheet metal on. Fords had the same problem. Later, everything got kind of square and in one piece, so mechanics could take the sheet metal off and put it back on easier.”
When Dave was growing up, a neighbor had a 5-Star. “We had Farmalls on our farm, but this neighbor had Allis-Chalmers and Moline,” he recalls. “When I saw that 5-Star years ago, I thought it was a pretty neat tractor.”
In those days, Dave recalls, neighbors worked together. “He (the 5-Star owner) would come up to fill the silo and pick corn,” he says, “and we’d go help him and bale hay together.”
But farming is different today. “It’s still there, in a sense,” Dave says. “Today, my brothers, son and nephew farm together, and there are a lot of farm families around here doing the same thing. Brothers and neighbors help each other once in a while, sharing combines and planters, but it’s not like it was in the old days.”
Once the 5-Star was fixed up, Dave used it on the farm. “After I restore them, I generally use them,” he says. “I usually have a can of spray paint around to take care of the dings, like back on the hitch, when I’m using them. I get a lot of pleasure out of operating them and using them.”
Dave’s brother, Neal, found a 1965 International Harvester Industrial 2806 in Kansas. Today the three Nelson brothers own it together. “My brothers like International tractors,” Dave explains. When Neal found this one, it needed extensive work, although it was in running condition.
“Some kind of attachment had been stuck to the front end of it, kind of like something a dump truck would back up to and dump rock into so it could be scattered out,” Dave says, “so the front end was pretty rough. We had to rebuild it because it was kind of loose.” The tractor’s 3-point hitch had never been used. “It was real tight there,” Dave says. “Mostly it required front end work, so we sandblasted it and painted it, but we didn’t have to go into the engine because it ran fine.”
Because the tractor had handled so much extra weight in front, that entire area had to be rebuilt: bushings, bearings and the bolster pin that hooks the axle to the tractor. “All the bushings were shot, but we were glad to have that one because it’s kind of unique. Only about 125 of them were made,” Dave says. “To find one with a 3-point hitch was real unusual, as most were bare-back and used to pull a sheep foot.”
Luckily, many of the tractor’s parts — like the axle tubes — are interchangeable with those on International’s 806 Wheatland.
You never know what’ll turn up at an auction. Dave was excited to discover a 1957 Case 350 Dave at a sale he attended. The unusual tractor had not been advertised as part of the offering. “Moline, International Harvester and Case are my top three tractor lines,” he says, “and I’ve always been fascinated with the 300s and 350s, because they only made them for two years, and the 350 was made only in 1957.” The 350s were about 10 hp bigger than the 300, and taller. “I hadn’t seen very many 350s,” he says, “so I was lucky to get it pretty reasonable that day, along with a manual.”
But the 350 needed work. “Third gear and reverse wouldn’t stay in, so we had to go into the transmission, where we built up a gear so they would stay in,” he says. “One gear had been slipping out, so we filed it square again, and then blasted it, repainted and rewired it. The wiring was bad, so I had a friend near Iowa City who is kind of a Case expert do most of the work on it.”
The tractor’s front grille is unusual. Made of aluminum, it’s difficult to work on. “That tractor came loaded,” he says, “with all the lights, foot-feed, 3-point hitch and a cigarette lighter.” He believes about 1,100 were built, a low number for Case.
At about the same time the 350 was built, Case went through some modernization and retooling, Dave says, preparing to launch the cream-colored two-tone tractors. His tractor was the smaller of the 2- or 3-plow tractors of that era. “There was a lot of experimenting going on, and I think the sheet metal ended up being a bit of a problem again,” he says, “because a lot of that metal didn’t fit real well.”
Dave’s Minneapolis-Moline M602 is a diesel, and that alone makes it unique. “Most of them are gas or LP,” Dave says, “and it operates off two 6-volt batteries to start it, so it’s a direct-start tractor with no glow plugs. The pulley starter takes a lot of electricity to turn it over and get it started.”
Dave has always been interested in Minneapolis-Moline tractors. He discovered the tractor near Aplington, Iowa. “I bought it from a junkyard, and it ran, so I just used it for a year, pulling stuff around here, until I painted it,” he says. “It didn’t need a lot of work, just the usual restoration, pounding out a few dents and blasting it and repainting it.”
Part of the story on the M602 is that it was traded in for a Belarus tractor. “I think the guy sure went backwards,” Dave says with a laugh.
The toughest of the hundred or so tractors Dave’s restored is the one he’s still working on, a 1937 Minneapolis-Moline Model Z. “It was a real basket case when I started to restore it,” he says. He was determined to restore it, in part because 1937 was the first year MM came out with a tractor, but also because it’s a different shade of yellow than MM’s famed Prairie Gold.
He had to have a clutch built and the engine overhauled. Eventually, he found a parts tractor in eastern Iowa, “but I still don’t have it done or running,” he says, “and I’ve been working on it for five years. When I get too frustrated I’ll pull it out of the shop and stick it back in the shed. Later, I’ll bring it back in. That one has been a bugger.”
Dave always has three or four tractor restoration projects going at once. “My little shop is separated into three rooms, so I can get them out into those rooms. Right now I have five tractors in various stages. Some of those that are out there now were first restored in the 1980s, so I’m recycling my earlier efforts and redoing them again.”
For him, running multiple projects at the same time improves workflow. “You’ll invariably get stuck waiting for something,” he says. “To use your time and people the best, you have to move onto another tractor while parts are out being out painted, or while you’re waiting on someone else to do something. Batteries and carburetors are the worst things.”
To keep batteries going, he’s started unhooking them and trickle-charging them during the winter. “That keeps them alive,” he says. “That’s helped quite a bit. I’ve also put a little bit of gasoline in them with Marine Stable, and that has helped immensely in getting them started in the spring. Running the carburetors dry before you put them away helps too.”
For Dave, every aspect of the old iron hobby is the best part: looking for the tractor, finding it, working with it and getting it back into shape. “Once I’ve gotten it restored, I enjoy operating it,” he says, “so the whole thing is enjoyable. It’s my hobby. And I’ve always loved agricultural history, so I collect a lot of old farm magazines. I’m always reading about tractor history and the manufacturers and how they evolved. I’m just fascinated by agricultural tractors.”
The Belmond (Iowa) Area Arts Council operates a 120-acre farm and museum, where the group promotes art, painting, pottery, dance and music. Since much of that art touches on rural themes, Dave Nelson – who is a member of the arts council’s board – suggested buying a steam traction engine to recreate the scenes shown in the art. The concept took off, and the Belmond Prairie Homestead Antique Power & Craft Show was established in 1989. Today, the event draws as many as 4,000 visitors a year.
Also operating under the council’s non-profit status: the local cinema, where shows are held for $2 each; the Iowa River Players, presenting four live performances each year; a Santa Claus house during the holidays; and three robotic programs – all in a town of 2,500.
For more information: Belmond Prairie Homestead Antique Power & Craft Show, Aug. 19-21, located at the Jenison-Meacham Memorial Arts Center and Farmstead, 1179 Taylor Ave., Belmond, Iowa. 2016 feature: John Deere tractors and gas engines. Contact Show Manager Dave Nelson, (515) 571-6838; online at www.belmondartscenter.org