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Carl Hering, Cayuga, NY, is the founder of the Empire Tractor Owners Club. He brought his Empire serial #4 tractor to the show.<br />

Carl Hering, Cayuga, NY, is the founder of the Empire Tractor Owners Club. He brought his Empire serial #4 tractor to the show.
Photo By John Oncken

Why does anybody restore old farm tractors and equipment?

Aug. 22, 2013 | 0 comments

"It's all about taking a piece of equipment that is considered junk and remaking it into something as good or better than when it was new."

"I learned to drive on a tractor just like this one. I saw it at a farm auction and just had to have - so I bought it."

"My grand dad had this old tractor that was stored in a shed, so I wanted to see if it would run again. It did and that was the first one I restored."

"Like the rest of these guys here, I'm a victim of 'tractor restorers' disease - it's not fatal but can get expensive."

"It's all about the memories and how farming was done 75 years ago."

"I'm retired and would go nuts if I didn't something to do. Restoring old tractors is my senior vice."

Those are the reasons given me in answer to my question to half a dozen people: "Why do you restore old farm tractors and equipment?"

History as it was

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Badger Steam and Gas Engine Club show held Aug. 16-18 on its grounds just outside Baraboo, where hundreds of tractors and assorted pieces of farm equipment were on public display for three days.

Many thousands of visitors came to the event to see, remember, envision and take part in farming history as they wandered the long lines of tractors of pretty much every breed of such ever made.

Many were briefly transported back to their childhood when they cultivated corn with the Farmall F-20 and its complicated mounted corn cultivator and steel wheels.

Others remembered their dad telling about the old steam engine puffing down the driveway with whistle blowing, pulling the threshing machine into the yard.

Still others come to hear the stories of how that old Oliver was once just a pile of rusty pieces and how the owner recreated it with bought, fabricated and found parts and loves to tell the story.

Then of course, there are the exhibitors themselves who loaded up a flatbed trailer with two or three old tractors, traveled 100 miles (or more) to unload, line them up and talk to each other telling what they did and how they did it.

Whatever the reason, antique farm equipment shows are where nostalgia, history, memories and tall tales come together and everyone has lots of fun.

Empire tractors

Maybe the one having the most fun at Baraboo this year was Carl Hering, a former poultry and livestock equipment salesman, who hauled his 1947 (Serial #4) Empire tractor from Cayuga, NY.

Hardly anyone I talked to at the show, including me, had ever heard of an Empire tractor but now they have - there were 23 of them lined up near the main entrance and couldn't be missed.

Hering is the founder and head of the Empire Tractor Owners Club and is the acknowledged expert on the tractor that was manufactured for but a brief period from late 1946 to December 1947.

The government had thousands of rebuilt Willys Jeep engines in storage after World War II and Frank Cohen, who had manufactured tank and truck parts during the war, started a company in Erie, PA, to manufacture farm tractors using these engines. He got them cheap with the understanding that the tractor would not be sold in the U.S.

Production began in September 1946 with the first 46 Empire tractors going to South Africa with another 5300 ending up in Argentina, Poland, Greece, China and Mexico over the next couple of years.

By December 1947, tractor production had stopped as had most sales as customers felt the tractor was under-powered for farm work, too expensive and not well made. The company was left with some 1300 tractors in inventory and in mid-1948 declared bankruptcy.

The inventory was ultimately sold through distributors around the U.S. for $700 (down from the original $1600 price) apiece and in early 1950 the company assets were sold and the Empire Tractor Corp. was no more.

It turned out that the tractor was well-suited for orchard and other light duty use and had several memorable features including: A straight drive hitch anchored in the center of the tractor making overturns near impossible and the famed Willys engine that so many war veterans had gotten to know.

Hering first saw an Empire tractor in 1991 and in his words, "just had to have one." Shortly thereafter he purchased two tractors and combined them into one good one.

Since then he purchased the oldest known Empire, Model #4, from an owner in South Africa, which he displayed in Baraboo along with 22 others. The 23 Empires, of the 350 the club has located, made for the biggest ever such display since the tractor became a collector's favorite.

Crushing limestone

Along with the big display of old tractors and farm equipment was an early 1900s Roll-Jaw Rock Crusher used to make gravel for rural roads. It was found by Duane Nobbs and his dad Robert (who died last spring), Loganville, in a neighbors field.

"It was long abandoned and overgrown with weeds," Nobbs says. "We had to do a lot of rebuilding but it works and intrigues people. It was used to crush 5-inch size limestone pieces for gravel roads and could pulverize limestone for spreading on farm fields."

In the home and outside

One of the history buildings on the Badger Steam & Gas Engine grounds, the Women's Building, contains exhibits that show the home lifestyle on farms of decades ago. One of the exhibits featured Barbara Baird, Baraboo, who was demonstrating a hand-crank powered Singer sewing machine to the amazement of young cousins, Karli Sutherland, Brodhead, and Laurin Brown, Dallas-Fort Worth.

The young girls had perhaps never seen a sewing machine upclose and were curious and awed by the skill of Ms. Baird as she sewed small cloth squares with the 65-year-old machine while turning the crank with her right hand.

An old kitchen with a wood stove, glass milk bottles from some of Sauk counties former many milk bottling plants and household utensils make young people wonder how their grandparents ever got through daily life.

Same for the print and blacksmith shops, where everything was fashioned and fixed by hand, yet, somehow newspapers were printed and broken farm equipment was repaired.

Then there are the several acres of stationary "hit and miss" gas engines with their spinning flywheels, water tanks and proud exhibitors sitting next to them always ready to tell of the history of power before the days of electricity, computers and cell phones.

These engines, ranging in size from a child's coaster wagon to 6-, 8- and maybe 20-feet tall provided the belt power to run machines of all sorts from a farm pump jack to an entire manufacturing plant. Avid collectors have them on display (and running) at every antique farm equipment show always drawing the ooh's and aah's of old and young alike as a working memory of long ago.

A record

A record 13,000 visitors were welcomed to the 50th Badger Steam & Gas Engine Show this year assuring the hosts that thousands of memories were brought back and new ones made for another time. That's the whole idea!

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, his Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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