If vintage farm tractors could talk, they’d tell great tales, according to Bob Taylor of Black Diamond, Alberta. He prizes every one of the 140 models he has collected and knows some of their stories.
Let’s start at the beginning. (Full disclosure: Bob is my oldest brother.)
Childhood tractor memories
Bob’s interest in tractors goes way, way back. When he was about two years old, Dad put Bob in a wooden apple box beside his feet on a steel-wheeled John Deere D.
Then Dad took Bob for a ride. Now that tractor is the flagship of Bob’s collection.
More childhood memories
Bob’s second oldest tractor memory dates from about the time he was three years old. He was visiting his grandparents west of DeWinton, Alberta.
“When Grandpa Wylie was working the 60 acres above their house with a red Massey Harris 25, he took me with him. Somehow, he managed to back over a cream can he’d filled with water for the radiator.
“He and Granny were pretty hard up and it was going to cost money to replace that cream can. Grandpa was really upset and probably worried about what Granny was going to say. I will always remember his anxiety because he was generally easygoing and liked to joke around.”
The start of something big
Bob could not have foreseen the mammoth size of his personal collection of old iron when he bought his first antique, a John Deere D, in 1967 from implement dealer Ellard Egeland, in Blackie, Alberta. At that time, there was little interest in these antique machines. According to the prevailing wisdom of the day, old tractors were nothing more than giant pieces of scrap metal waiting to be cashed in at the earliest opportunity.
Almost every farm had one or two of the cast iron derelicts hidden behind the barns.
Therefore, bidding on those old tractors often faltered at farm auctions back in those days. No one showed much interest in taking them home but Bob. In fact, auctioneers would seek to catch his eye to keep the price moving on a vintage tractor. Meanwhile, fellow farmers laughed and jabbed each other in the side.
Bob Taylor was at it again.
Focusing on the future, farmers were investing in new, powerful models. They delivered significantly more horsepower to operate larger, more efficient pieces of farm equipment.
Bob owns that type of machinery, too. However, he has never gotten over his fascination with the old workhorses, none of which was built with air-conditioned cabs.
Family tractor ties
Bob is especially proud of two other John Deere D models that are part of his collection. Our father, Bill Taylor, bought the older one, a 1929 vintage on steel wheels for $500 in the late 1940s from a neighbor. That represented a big investment considering our family sold a 49-pound can of cream of the highest quality to Union Milk Company in Calgary for about $13.
Bob remembers that when Dad went with great anticipation to fetch his first tractor home, the neighbor raised the price by $50. It was very disappointing because cash was so hard to generate on a 160-acre farm.
Thinking back, Bob shrugs his shoulders. “It didn’t do the man any good in the long run.”
A tragedy averted
Our family’s second John Deere D tractor almost cost Dad his life in the mid-1960s. He was in a rush one day during haying season and jumped on the tractor, neglecting to place the protective shield over the power takeoff that hooked the tractor to the baler.
Later in the day, when the spinning shaft caught Dad’s pant cuff, it badly mangled his leg in seconds. Art, who was working on the stooker behind the baler, pulled off his t-shirt and made a tourniquet to wrap above the bloody wound. He had recently learned the technique in a first aid class at school.
Art’s fast action saved Dad’s life. Not only did Dad live to tell about the accident, but miraculously, a year later he didn’t even limp.
Yesteryear farming memories
Bob points to a little yellow Massey Harris manufactured around 1937-1938 that Dad purchased for $310 at a farm sale near Priddis, Alberta, in the early 1960s. He also recalls the long, 20-mile drive home over hilly, gravel roads in a rainstorm.
Bob was scared. Although Dad was following him, he had no safety lights or a caution sign on the tractor to alert drivers that a slower-moving piece of farm equipment was on the hilly two-lane road. To make Bob even more anxious, he really, really needed to go to the bathroom, but didn’t dare stop.
A red 1952 International in Bob’s fleet also has a family story. Long before he was our brother-in-law, Harvey Goerlitz sold two bins of grain holding about 1,200 bushels of barley to buy his first new tractor. Harvey later traded the International in for a John Deere, but whoever bought it looked after it, too before Bob acquired it.
It’s evident both the second owner and Harvey worked themselves and the tractor hard; the paint is worn off where the farmers’ clutched the steering wheel year after year.
Bob also has a red Cockshutt 80 that was once owned by an old bachelor who lived west of Nanton, Alberta. The story goes that the crusty old gentleman didn’t have running water, so when he needed a bath he would drain the hot water from the tractor’s radiator to fill the washtub.
Bob’s son, Robert, bought the rusty ruin for $185 at a farm sale 30-plus years ago.
Then there’s the weathered old yellow Caterpillar that neighbor and family friend Arthur Patterson used to break up much of his farmland and run the threshing machine every fall. To Bob, it’s like an old friend.
Bob also has a faded blue McCormick-Deering International 2236 that for decades powered the belt on the wood planer at Kendall’s Sawmill, west of Millarville, Alberta. You read it right; that tractor is blue instead of the more common red color associated with that brand.
“How much do you want for it?”
Down the line of Bob’s tractors is a red 1530 International on steel wheels of 1929 vintage. Bob bought it long after an elderly neighbor’s death.
“It had been sidelined for decades with some other old machinery, so I asked the man’s son if he’d sell it,” Bob said.
The son replied that he wanted to get rid of it.
“When I asked him what he wanted for it, he shot me back a figure,” Bob recalls.
“At the mention of $50 I must have looked shocked because it wasn’t enough but, before I could speak, the guy interrupted me.”
“Well, alright, I will take $35,” the son said.
“I paid him $50. That old International was well worth it,” Bob remembers.
Auction sale specials
Like his grandfathers and father before him, Bob has always loved farm auction sales. For him, they offer a fascinating diversion from his day-to-day workload.
Bob nods toward a W6 that he purchased at the Heater farm sale near Okotoks, Alberta, for $750 in the late 1960s. He estimates it was manufactured around 1952.
It pleases Bob when he acquired the John Deere 830 that he ran for weeks on end during the six years he worked at Rothney Farms south of Calgary. The owner, Sandy Cross was the son of Alberta pioneer and co-founder of the Calgary Stampede, A.E Cross.
That old green tractor pulled a four-bottom plow and a 10-foot tiller for hundreds of hours with Bob in the driver’s seat. It had been originally owned by Rothney Farm’s former ranch foreman Bob Smith and used on his farm near Wetaskiwin, Alberta.
Bob thinks a great deal of both men associated with the tractor’s history.
Bob, who studied diesel mechanics at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary, has a deep understanding of what makes vintage tractors of all kinds tick. He estimates that about 80% of these antique models and other old pieces of equipment he owns can be coaxed to fire up without too much trouble.
Sometimes when he buys a tractor at a farm sale, Bob has to get it running before he can load it to make the trip home.
Bob also has a few tractors that he uses for parts. He still buys tractors and, occasionally, sells one to a collector who will appreciate it as much as he does.
Always under cover
One group of tractors in his collection is housed in a Quonset building because they’re special. Bob drove rather than hauled each one of them in.
Of that group, the oldest is likely the Hart-Parr manufactured in Charles City, Iowa, before 1930. Bob is especially proud of it, not only because he bought it with the original manual and bill of sale, but also because of its great age.
Every so often, Bob gets a call to come and haul off an antique tractor from a retiring farmer. The owner, who can’t bear to see it sold for its scrap value, has the satisfaction of knowing his pride and joy will have a home where it still will mean something to someone.
A mammoth collection to display
Consider the size and weight of Bob’s 140 tractors! It’s a good thing there’s ample acreage on his farm to store, display and appreciate his collection.
“I think it’s important to preserve farming history. That’s why I like having them around.”
“Think of the work each of those tractors has done, helping a farmer carve out a living for his family, many times on a quarter or half section of land. Every one of these old tractors could write a book,” says my 70-something sibling.
The old iron workhorses represent Bob’s great respect for the farmers who once operated them. They also reflect Bob’s appreciation for the role that earlier generations of farmers and their tractors played in the evolution of modern agriculture.
Bob leans carefully against a massive steel wheel to relieve the pain in his leg that’s aggravated by an old tractor/baler accident and the onset of diabetes.
“All I’ve ever done my whole life is work,” Bob says.
If his vintage tractors could talk, they would tell the same story.