A Wisconsin man travels far and wide with his collection of 16 Sears New Economy tractors, which includes three built in 1938 and 13 built in 1939.
Talk about a guy who likes to travel. That would be John Baum, who likes to entertain his acquaintances by dismissing a trip that’s “only” 10,000 miles round trip. “Their eyes sure get big,” he says with a grin.
For John, a trip of 10,000 miles would be one in which he hauls one of his 16 Sears New Economy tractors from his Appleton, Wisconsin, home through Canada and into the largest state in the U.S. to the Alaska State Fair Antique Tractor Pull in Palmer, an hour north of Anchorage. “Going to Alaska had always been on my bucket list,” he says.
Having gotten that far, John’s going to see what’s down the road. He traveled on to check out Deadhorse, Alaska, near Prudhoe Bay, a distance of another 421 miles. And why stop there? John drove on to Anchor Point in the Kenai Peninsula. By the time he slept in his own bed again, he’d driven more than 10,000 miles.
John, 72, got interested in Sears New Economy tractors by accident. He checked out a Ford Model A well-drilling rig for sale back in 1976. “I’m kind of a Ford person,” he says, “and I thought it would be neat to have one on the farm, because it was different.”
Instead, he found something even more unusual. Next to the well-drilling rig was a black tractor wearing a Sears badge. “I saw it had a model A Ford engine,” he recalls. “Although it’s too small for any real farming, that one fit our farming better. So I bought it instead of that well-drilling truck. That’s where it all started.”
“All” would mean a collection that’s grown today to a total of 16 Sears New Economy tractors. The Sears New Economy was built only in 1938-39. John’s collection includes three 1938 models with electric starters (“which was just coming out about that time,” he says) and 13 built in 1939.
“They’re basically the same, except for the steering column,” he says. “In the 1938 models, it goes across the top, and in the 1939 tractors, it angles down.”
After buying the black 1939 Sears New Economy, John took his show on the road and displayed the tractor at the Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club show near Ft. Meade, Florida (a mere 2,800-mile round trip.) He’d begun attending the show a few years earlier, during visits to Jupiter Beach, where his father then lived.
At the show, he was worried by the way the Sears New Economy ran. “The tractor didn’t seem to want to run right,” he says. “It ran rough – sounding like it would stop running, yet it kept going and going. I finally realized that’s just how it runs.”
It must have run well enough. He entered the tractor in the 2,500-pound pulling class, and took first place six times in six tries. “The next year, they said, ‘Did you come down here to clean us up again?’ The model A engine is pretty powerful for a tractor of that class.”
Though the tractor ran, it always overheated during parades. Discovering a hole in the radiator, John added sealer. “Nothing leaked out after that,” he says, “but some fins were wrecked and it still overheated.”
That required a new radiator. In the process of removing the old one, he was surprised to discover red paint behind it. “I repainted it and added the correct decals, getting information from my tractor club,” he says. He also discovered that only 500 Sears New Economy tractors had been built. Today, fewer than 100 are known to exist.
A few years after he bought the black tractor, John had an interesting conversation with his father. “He said he’d never seen a Sears New Economy in a Sears & Roebuck catalog, so he wasn’t sure if it was a real tractor or not. I happened to see an ad for another one in Michigan, so I bought the second one to prove the first one was real,” he says with a laugh.
If he didn’t have it already, he caught the bug with that second Sears New Economy. Three years ago, during a foray to Yuma, Arizona (a round trip of 4,000 miles), John bought another Sears New Economy tractor, his 13th. He took the new acquisition down to the Florida Flywheelers Antique Engine Club (another 1,890 miles one way), where he would find still more Sears New Economy-related items.
Among the tractors on his trailer was a Sears New Economy with 38-inch Farmall tires on it. “When I got the tractor, I figured I’d never get the right wheels and rims for it,” he says. “You can’t just go out and buy them.”
During the show, a man told him he had a set of the correct “tiptoe” steel wheels with 6-inch vertical lugs. “The wheels had been leaning up against his house for years,” John says, “and he never knew what tractor they were for until he saw my New Economy.” Getting them meant a long haul across Florida with John’s van and 40-foot trailer.
But it was worth it. “Those particular tiptoe wheels are rare,” he says. “They weren’t used on any other tractor, so they had to come off a Sears New Economy tractor, although Oliver wheels look close. And even better, a little bit later somebody wanted those Farmall F14 wheels and hubs.”
At the same show, another man told John he had two Sears New Economy tractors for sale. “So I drove up to Pennsylvania to get them,” John says. “One had gears broken inside, but the guy had another rear end for it.” Add 1,700 more miles to get them home.
One Sears New Economy had been hidden in a shed for 20 years. The owner didn’t know what it was. “He thought it was a rusted homemade tractor, something he’d gotten out of the woods,” John says. “He invited me over, and I found an oil pressure gauge mounted over the serial number.”
With serial no. 1,490, the tractor was the tenth-to-the-last one built. “It was really rough,” John says. “I did find a Model A engine, which is easy to get, but not the other parts, like fenders and so on. These days, people are making those. But I decided to keep it like I found it. At shows, people can compare it with the others.”
“People love the Sears New Economys because they are totally different from other tractors,” he says. “People will say, ‘Really, these were sold in the Sears & Roebuck catalog?’ Most people don’t know Sears also sold houses years ago.”
When Sears New Economy tractors were featured at Historic Farm Days in Penfield, Illinois, in 2016, John decided to go … and take all 16 of his tractors. “People were surprised to see all of them together,” he says. “It’s 333 miles one way from Appleton, so I had to make four trips to get them all there.” Then, of course, there were four more trips to get them all home again – for a total of 4,662 miles.
John has shown the complete collection at one other show, the Dodge County Antique Power Show in Burnett, Wisconsin. Of course, that’s only 60 miles one way, for a total of 840 miles.
As a rule, John keeps a couple of trailers loaded with Sears New Economy tractors, so if he learns of an event he’s interested in, all he has to do is hook up to a trailer and go. Though all but one tractor is in running condition, his steel-wheeled Sears New Economys stay on the trailers at shows. “They’re too dangerous to move up and down the ramp,” he says.
Though John lives on a farm, he doesn’t use his Sears New Economy tractors. “They’re too small and they don’t have hydraulics,” he says. That said, when a Sears New Economy tractor club held a plowing day event at his farm, John plowed with a piece from his collection. “And the first time I went to Alaska, I took the plow along to do some plowing up there,” he says.
Sears, Roebuck & Co. Economy tractors were built at the Peru Plow & Wheel Co., Peru, Illinois. Sears New Economy tractors were advertised in Sears catalogs in 1938 and 1939, selling for $495 (roughly $8,741 today). Ads boasted that the Sears New Economy was “Sears’ newest contribution to modern power farming – a sturdy 2-plow tractor at small 1-plow tractor cost.”
John believes the tractors were sold for only two years because Ford Motor Co. may have been irked by Sears ads touting use of a Ford Model A engine rebuilt to Sears’ specifications. “Ford wanted to sell their own tractors,” he says, “and maybe Sears didn’t get permission to use their name for advertising, and got shut down.”
Sears New Economy tractors were offered on rubber tires or steel wheels. “They rode rough with steel wheels and pretty stiff seats,” John admits. “But with rubber tires, the riding is real smooth. I do a lot of parades with those rubber tires on.” He displays tractors at perhaps 20 shows per year, all over the U.S.
It’s clear that many show visitors have never seen a Sears New Economy tractor. “People have said the Sears New Economy looks like a homemade tractor,” John says. “One reason, I think, is the little identification plate often fell off. Others say that from a distance, the Sears New Economy looks like a Farmall F14, because of the steering column, or an Allis-Chalmers WC, because the channel frame is similar.”
John likes to get up to Alaska a week before the state fair, which is held annually during the last week of August. The drive from his home takes about five days. Sometimes he drives alone; other times he has a passenger. Often he hauls items for a relative or a friend of a friend. If the weather allows, he stays a week after the fair ends. That doesn’t always work out. “By September, they’re often already talking about storms.”
During the 10-day fair, he works as a volunteer at the children’s pedal tractor rides. Volunteers keep youthful spirits in check and deter theft. “The tractor pulls are right there, so I can watch,” John says. “Also, I get to talk to the parents of these little kids. Some of these kids are just out of strollers when they get to ride a pedal tractor for the first time. That’s enjoyable, seeing little kids have fun. And members of the host club really appreciate that kind of help, because they have plenty of other stuff to do.”
When John leaves the fair in Alaska this August, he’ll head to Niagara Falls, pulling the trailer and one tractor, and then back to Appleton (about 4,600 miles). He’s already considering the occasional detour. “Maybe I’ll take in the Mid-Michigan Antique Machinery Association show at Clio, Michigan, on the way back,” he says.
Fewer than 100 Sears New Economy tractors are known to exist. In retrospect, John is surprised that he’s found so many. Last year, he teased his daughter that, because it was 2017, he needed to find a 17th tractor. “She said, ‘Dad, no, you’re supposed to go the other way.’”
One thing’s for sure. If John finds another Sears New Economy anywhere in North America, the truck and trailer are ready to roll. FC
For more information: John Baum, N2801 Meade St., Appleton, WI 54913.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.