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Life in the Slow Tractor Lane

Lyn Millner

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Art Freymiller and John Deere tractor
(Jesse Millner)
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Last weekend, the town of Boscobel, Wisc., (population 3,000) held its annual two-cylinder tractor show. The day-long event features antique John Deere tractors. Boscobel is so small you could walk from one end to the other in 20 minutes. The closest interstate is 80 miles away.

The company stopped making two-cylinders in 1960, but these hardy machines still have what it takes to plow a field -- among other things. There's a parade and a series of races and demonstrations of the old equipment. Independent producer Lyn Millner takes us into the heart of the action:

In Boscobel's city park, two tractors are racing. Very. Slowly. That's the point -- the object is to see who can go the slowest without killing their engine. Three tractors have already crossed the finish line, so they have lost. We're down to two. And they're matching each other putt-for-putt, with 20 yards to go.

The tractor to beat is a 1947 John Deere "B" model -- it's bright green with large rear tires ready to cover some ground. A metal smokestack rises from its hood. Driving this tractor is Melvin Mayne. The John Deere lurches a little each time it inches forward, rocking Melvin gently in the cushioned seat. He's keeping his hand close to the gas lever, in case he needs to give it a tap. He sees something that concerns him -- a cloud rising from the exhaust pipe.

"I don't like that black smoke," Mel says. "That means she's coming up."

This isn't exactly NASCAR -- the "track" is a green lawn filled with yellow dandelions. The green and yellow match the John Deeres perfectly. In fact, the guys in the two-cylinder club asked the city not to mow the dandelions before the show.

Melvin's tractor has moved about two feet. It's still running, but he looks nervous. He nudges the gas lever with the heel of his hand. But it's too late, his engine dies.

The judge, Jeff Adams, makes the official pronouncement: "Uh-oh! He just lost. He's going to go home crying now."

Devon Updike won. He had a newer tractor, a 1958 John Deere 630.

There are only four people watching. But these guys don't care. They just want to play with their tractors.

"Why do you think these guys love tractors so much?" I ask Dan Davies. Davies is a member of the two-cylinder club.

"It's in our blood," he says. "It's just something we like to see carried on."

"Do you think it will be carried on?" I ask.

"Well. No. I don't know," Dan says.

Dan drives a 1947 model "B." Like most of the guys in the club, he's retired.

Years ago, this was a farmer's town. It's not so much anymore -- now, to make a profit at farming, you need a lot of land and equipment.

For this reason, about 15 years ago, the town of Boscobel started courting big industry. Steve Wetter is the former mayor, and he helped make it happen.

"Our industrial park on any given day has 1,000 people working out there," Wetter says, pointing to a map. "This is where the supermax prison is. The tools are here to do today's work, which we have to do. If you don't keep up, you're going to get left behind."

Which makes me think of the guys in the slow tractor race. The whole point is to be left behind. The guys in the club grew up on farms, with the putt-putt of tractor engines and the smell of fresh milk. Many of them kept tractors that belonged to their fathers.

"In '52, my dad bought a '51 Ford tractor," Art Freymiller says. "I drove home from the dealer. I was 15."

Freymiller still has that tractor, even after his dad's accident -- one day, his father took the tractor out of gear to adjust something.

"And he stepped off and it started rolling down the waterway, and he run after it. And he apparently tripped and fell down, and it run across his chest. And that's how I found him."

"You found him?" I ask.

"Yeah, I found him. And there was nothing to be done for him. But it wasn't the tractor's fault -- it was just one of them things that happened."

Freymiller sold his farm last month. That tractor's in decent shape. He restored it a few years after his dad passed away. He owns 27 tractors, worth a small fortune. But he has no plans to ever sell them.

The most valuable tractor in Boscobel is not at the show. It's a 1920 Waterloo Boy, sitting three blocks away in a store basement. Sam Nelson inherited the Waterloo Boy from his dad, along with 21 other John Deere tractors. He works at the prison. Nelson's father grew up on a farm and collected tractors until he died.

"For some reason, he got what they call 'green fever,'" Nelson says. "And, as you can see, it kept growing and growing."

The Waterloo Boy is just inside the door. It has yellow spoke wheels with red hubcaps the size of buttons. Large, green fenders. It's the first tractor model ever sold by John Deere, and it's worth $87,000. When Nelson's dad died three years ago, they started it up and parked it at the funeral home so everyone could see it.

Nelson and his mother are auctioning off the entire collection on Memorial Day. That probably means that most of them will leave Boscobel. The last two Waterloo Boys were bought by investors in the Netherlands.

"It's time to let them go," Nelson says. "They haven't been started in two years, and it's not good for them to be sitting. We're sure that they'll go to good homes. That's all that really matters. It's time to move forward."


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Rvnphftg Rvnphftg

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    By chris sandler

    From los angelos, CA, 02/15/2013

    Nice post about JD antique tractors. I just found a new piece about the model A http://blog.machinefinder.com/11654/10-antique-john-deere-tractors-image-gallery

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