Ron Wallis was a heavy hitter in the Depression glass hobby. Well known in collector circles, he once displayed more than 2,200 pieces of the pattern known as Laced Edge Katy Blue in his Sandwich, Ill., home. “I had a small fortune tied up in glass,” he admits. But then he discovered an obscure line of antique tractors — Wallis — and cast iron trumped glass.
It all started in a chance conversation with a friend. “He had the March 2007 issue of Farm Collector, the one with the Wallis Bear on the cover,” Ron recalls. “‘It’s spelled just like your last name,’ he said to me. ‘Have you ever seen anything like it?’” Ron hustled home and got on the computer. He tracked down Fred Schmidt, Bluffton, Ohio, one of the owners of the Bear on the Farm Collector cover, and before long Ron and his wife, Patricia, were headed east.
“We spent a whole morning there,” he said. “Fred let me drive the Bear. I was like a kid in an ice cream store.” In visiting with Fred, Ron learned that Wallis Tractor Co. relocated to Racine, Wis., shortly after it was established in Cleveland in 1912. So the Wallises headed northwest to Racine.
“We spent a week in Racine, just digging and digging,” he says. “I tried to find all the information I could because we have the same last name, even if we’re not related.” But 100 years after the company was launched, the trail had gone cold. “We talked to people in Racine who’d never even heard of Wallis,” Ron says. “Even the Racine museum didn’t have very much on the company.”
Initially an interest of J.I. Case Plow Works Co. with roots going back to 1902, Wallis Tractor Co. was formally organized by H.M. Wallis, son-in-law of Case founder J.I. Case. Between 1912 and 1928, Wallis produced the Bear (already in production before the Wallis company was organized, built under the auspices of J.I. Case Plow Works), the Cub, the Cub Junior (Model J) 13-25, a motor cultivator, the Model K 15-25, the Model OK 15-27 and the Wallis 20-30.
A 1916 historical account of the city of Racine elaborated on the technologically advanced Wallis tractors. “The chief distinctive characteristic … is the frame construction, which consists of steel plate rolled up into a U-shaped boiler construction in which all of the working parts of the tractor are mounted and run in a constant oil bath. Thus the frame of the tractor serves the dual purpose of being a frame and also the housing for the motor base, transmission and differential. The company has been fortunate enough to obtain a basic pattern on this original construction. By reason of its box girder frame construction, the machine is unusually light for its strength and develops more horsepower than any other tractor in the world.”
Wallis became president of J.I. Case Plow Works following the death of company founder J.I. Case in 1891. The Plow Works was sold to Massey-Harris in 1928. Henry Wallis died in 1931 following an automobile accident near his home overlooking Lake Michigan.
Although he’s new to the old iron hobby, Ron has been a quick study. “I’m almost a fanatic about it,” he says. “I look on the computer for Wallis every day. I couldn’t have stopped myself.”
His finds include Wallis watch fobs, a screwdriver, Ertl model tractors, a yardstick, a ruler and three Wallis hood ornaments shaped like bears. “Those bears are very hard to come by,” Ron says. “They used them on the Cub and Cub Junior to show which way the front wheel was turning.” Although his cousin picked one up for $5 at a junk store, Ron has yet to find a similar bargain. “I’ve looked at farm shows, tractor shows, antique shops and on the Internet,” he says. “When a man gets an itch, there’s no stopping him. But it’s been a while since I found anything. I’m almost at a standstill now.”
But he keeps looking. “There’s one thing I’m still trying to find,” he says. “J.I. Case and Wallis manufactured goggles for operators to wear so they could see in the dust. I found a picture of the goggles, but that’s all.”
A Wallis tractor would be a natural for his collection. Although he’s found some online, he’s run in to a bit of resistance from his wife of 59 years. “I’ve seen a couple of restored Wallis tractors on eBay,” he says. “Our house is built on a big lot, but my wife didn’t think a tractor with lug wheels would work here. ‘Where are you going to drive it?’ she asks. Then I found a New Idea manure spreader. I also collect New Idea memorabilia because the company was based here in Sandwich.
“I called her at work. ‘Hon,’ I asked her, ‘wouldn’t that look good in our backyard?’”
“All I heard over the phone,” he says wryly, “was a long silence.” FC
Read the cover story that sparked Ron Wallis' interest, What a Bear!
For more information: Ron Wallis, phone (815) 786-8095; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.