Jerry Toews has been collecting vintage tractors since he graduated from college, and he sees no reason to stop now, after 54 years pursuing the hobby.
Toews’s interest is in tractors built in the 1920s or earlier, which he prefers because inventors of the day designed the machines without an established blueprint.
“That’s where the gas tractors developed,” he said. “It’s interesting for me to see where it started. The part of the Industrial Revolution, it was really the beginning.”
Toews owns a half-dozen early gas-powered tractors, a pair of steam engines, and 30 stand-alone gas-powered engines.
Sonny Bartel, who owns between 10 and 12 tractors, has been collecting since the 1980s.
His favorite is a two-cylinder John Deere he modified so the pistons run concurrently. John Deere models built before the 1960s typically used alternating pistons, he said.
The unique machine gets a variety of reactions when people see it. Some are intrigued and others balk at the concept.
“Some of them are pretty jealous that I could do that and they hadn’t even thought of it,” Bartel said. “I just tell them I’m not limited by their understanding.”
Bartel prefers John Deere because he has a history with the brand, but he says it isn’t always the best option.
“I’m more into John Deere because when I was a kid that’s what I got to drive around with,” he said. “But Case is a much better tractor.”
Toews only brings his machines out a few times a year for demonstrations, but they give him a feeling of connection to his ancestors, even from before the 1900s.
“We’re Mennonite, and all four of my grandparents were born in Russia,” he said. “We immigrated to Central Kansas in 1874 and 1875, when the majority of Mennonites were immigrating to America. I’m very interested in that history.”
Bartel and Toews are members of the Wheat Heritage Engine and Threshing Company.
“That’s kind of a neat thing,” Bartel said. “Everybody has a story to tell and has been employed in different kinds of places. You hear all kinds of things with what’s going on.”
As much as Toews enjoys the hobby, it can be challenging to find large tractors from those early years because many were turned into scrap metal.
“They had lots of iron in them, so they were a real target of that movement of supplying iron for World War II,” he said. “Not so many of them are out there.”
Toews keeps his collection specific instead of pursuing every tractor that strikes his fancy.
“If you limit your hobby to something specific like that, it’s more controllable,” he said. “If you’re just collecting tractors, there’s no end to it. You could have several hundred of them.”
Bartel compared collecting old tractors to the changing in preferences for vintage cars and trucks over time.
“Now they’re into muscle cars and that type of stuff, and with tractors it’s a little bit that way, too,” he said. “The craze is almost used up.”