Robert Gregory’s youth in Pittsylvania County, Virginia, was spent on Oliver tractors. He remembers adapting a 1965 Oliver 1550 by front-mounting a John Deere 2-row cultivator onto the frame.
“It was a tricycle tractor,” he says, “and you’re sitting way up. It was perfect for plowing tobacco. Two rows were the thing back then, not four.”
Later, farming in Java, Virginia, Robert used the modified Oliver to cultivate flue-cured tobacco at night, when the leaves were more upright, allowing him to push soil closer to the plant.
One morning at about 3 a.m., he was cultivating when he became drowsy. “I was just going to put it in neutral when I got to the end of the field, and I’d lay my head on the steering wheel and leave the tractor running for like two minutes,” he says. “The next thing I know, the sun is up. I’m still sitting there, and that tractor’s running. I was asleep with my arms and head on the steering wheel. I will never forget that. I put most of my teenage life in on that thing. I mean, long days!”
Building a Collection
Robert’s interest in Olivers continues, but he doesn’t consider himself a “true collector,” reserving that title for those with big collections. That said, he has eight Olivers in his collection: a 1952 Row Crop 66, a 1953 Row Crop 77, a 1955 Super 55, a 1957 Super 44, a 1964 Row Crop 770, a 1972 1655, a 1972 1755 and a 1974 1755.
Of those eight Olivers, he still uses seven on the farm. One – a 1955 Super 55 – is a show tractor given to him by his wife, Sue, as a surprise Christmas present in 2011.
Shortly afterward, Robert decided to restore the Super 55. He called on Wesley and Harold Culler, who operate a (mostly Oliver) tractor restoration business near Seagrove, North Carolina. The result? An award-winning display. “I have a lot of fun with that,” he says, “and people just rave over it when they see it. Those that are unfamiliar with it, they just can’t believe it’s got disc brakes and helical gears. And it’s quiet.”
He didn’t stop with that one restoration. This past winter, the Culler brothers completely rebuilt the engine on one of his Oliver 1755s.
Keeping It In the (Oliver) Family
Several months ago, Robert purchased a 1964 Row Crop 770 from a neighbor and started restoring it for use on the farm. “I tried to buy that tractor for over 20 years,” he says. “The man didn’t want to part with it, although he had it in a good shed. It’s kind of unique. It’s a blend between the Fleetline series like a 77 and the four digits like a 1550 or something.”
Besides his eight Olivers, Robert owns and still operates three White 7300 combines, each with a 6-cylinder Perkins diesel. The White line is a natural fit for Robert’s Oliver collection: In 1969 Oliver Corp., Minneapolis-Moline and Cockshutt merged into White Farm Equipment.
Robert uses his combines to shell corn and thresh oats to grind, along with alfalfa to make feed. Some of the feed goes to feed lambs and cattle. He also grows non-alfalfa hay for two beef cattle cow-calf herds and bales haylage in wrapped round bales. In addition, he produces square bales of alfalfa and orchard grass hay for horse owners, although goat owners are some of his biggest hay customers.
Continuing a Family Tradition
Robert’s first memories of Oliver tractors begin with a Super 55 similar to the show tractor he owns today. In addition, his family had a Row Crop 77, exactly like the one in his collection. They also owned a 1965 Oliver 1550 and others.
“I have pictures of a Row Crop 60 that was here in the family before I was born,” he says. “I never saw that tractor, but there are pictures of it. My grandfather, my dad, my uncles, they were Oliver people, Oliver users, and I guess it carried over.”
Robert’s dad, uncles and grandfather bought their Olivers at L.I. Ramey & Son in downtown Danville, Virginia. After that company closed, the men purchased White tractors from Oakes Implement Co. in Dry Fork, Virginia, west of Danville.
Although his relatives owned Olivers, Robert didn’t start his own collection until much later in life. “Actually, there was a time when there were no Olivers here,” he says. “I found a used one right down the road. Bought it probably in about 1994. That was the first one.”
Over the years, he purchased more. “I had one or two I paid way more than I meant to for them,” he says, but “most of the time, I’ve gotten a whole lot of tractor for the money.”
“That’s What I Like”
So why does he collect Olivers? “I grew up with them,” Robert says, “and I think they were really at the top of the heap when you talk about the early 1960s, late 1950s. They had a list of firsts that Oliver came up with, not the least of which is the independent PTO. They were the first with 6-cylinder tractor engines. Had it not been for a corporate takeover, I think Oliver would still be very much around.”
For him, tractors are a passion. “I wouldn’t watch a football game or Super Bowl if you paid me,” he admits. “I just cannot be interested in something like that. I have an interest in the Oliver tractors, and I like to get together with other Oliver people and listen to their stories.
“You think, you’ve been working on a tractor all week long,” he muses. “Why in the world would you want to go and ride in a parade and go to a tractor show on the weekend? But that’s what I like.”
He is completely sold on the Oliver 6-cylinder engine, and he believes a lot of Oliver enthusiasts will tell the same story. “I have some 4-cylinder Olivers, but there’s nothing like the smooth hum of that 6-cylinder.”
Celebrating the Heritage
Robert has attended national Oliver shows in Iowa, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania. Last spring he attended one in Asheville, North Carolina. He’s visited the Floyd County Historical Museum in Charles City, Iowa, which displays tractor models manufactured by Oliver, Hart-Parr and White, and he says it is the official repository of Oliver Corp. archival information.
Robert’s even been to the Oliver factory in Charles City and the burial places of company founder James Oliver and his son, Joseph Oliver, in South Bend, Indiana. He fondly remembers the Oliver memorial, a bronze statue of James Oliver demonstrating a walking plow. One of Robert’s prize photos shows him standing by that statue. In the photo, he has one hand on a plow handle and the other hand on Oliver’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t take anything for that,” he says.
One of Robert’s goals is to hold an Oliver parade day or festival in nearby Chatham, Virginia. In the meantime, he keeps the Oliver name alive in Virginia. He wears his heart on his sleeve – and on his pickup, where a decal reads, “Virginia is for Olivers,” a play on the state’s slogan, “Virginia is for Lovers.” FC
For more information, contact Robert Gregory, (434) 432-0489.
Rocky Womack grew up on a farm in Virginia. He has worked as a farm magazine editor, daily newspaper reporter, freelance writer, newsletter publisher and business owner, specializing in agricultural stories and agribusiness articles. Contact Rocky at firstname.lastname@example.org.