In living color: Keeping the old machinery new

In the antique tractor world, they are divided only by color categories.

John Deere green. Farmall red. Allis-Chalmers orange. Minneapolis Moline prairie gold. Oliver meadow green.

Farmers can be very loyal to their brands when talking about tractors. But woven in the rusting metal and dripping oil tanks is a strong bond that transcends time and age. These men of Cowley County, Kansas—from 18 to nearly 70—are united by their love of old iron.

Or, more accurately, saving them.

“You see them come into salvage yards, and it just makes you sick,” Cameron Biby, a 38-year-old from Winfield who has rescued more than 25 tractors of his own—relics often found parked for decades in sagging barns or building up rust along overgrown tree rows.

Biby is part of the K&O Steam and Gas Engine Club—a 100-member group from Cowley and surrounding counties. They gather to swap stories and share knowledge on restoring them.

Among the club’s patriarchs is 68-year-old Roger Schmidt—the thread that ties the group together. His father, Roland, was a charter member. Schmidt himself has an extensive collection of Minneapolis Molines that fill several barns on his farmstead.

Yet, for Schmidt collecting tractors wouldn’t be as meaningful if it weren’t for the relationships it creates. He is just as enthusiastic about saving antique machinery as he is mentoring the next generation of tractor collectors—whether that is teaching them the mechanics, the history, or a valuable life lesson along the way.

“I don’t want them stealing gas from me, I would rather them play with old tractors,” Schmidt jokes, but then adds in all seriousness that he can’t explain it. These youth seem to appear in his life. They come and help him restore his tractors or their own with his guidance.

Some, like Miles Kaiser, sought out Schmidt to learn tractor repair. “He took me under his wing,” said Kaiser, now 18 and attending college to be a Caterpillar mechanic.

Logan Lawrence and his family have known Schmidt for years. His great-grandfather’s farm is just down the road. One of his first encounters with antique tractors was through Roland Schmidt. He was about 8 years old. While his father and grandfather were putting up hay on the Schmidt farm, Roland would let Logan test drive many of his tractors.

A few years later, while perusing the annual K&O show, Logan spotted one of the Schmidts’ Minneapolis Molines on display.

“I asked if I could drive it,” Logan said. “Roger said, ‘I’ll let you ride on it, I don’t care. I like getting young people interested in these tractors.’”

“And that’s how I started collecting.”

Biby had been around antique tractors thanks to his grandfather, Ted Biby, who would take him for rides on his 1944 Allis Chalmers C. They worked together to restore his grandfather’s 1939 John Deere B when Biby was 11. But the passion of breathing new life into old tractors seemed to spark even more when Biby was 13. Schmidt came knocking on his family’s door asking if he would work for him on his farm.

Schmidt introduced the teen to the broader world of old iron, plus shared wise words to guide him along the straight and narrow.

“There’s no explanation for it,” Schmidt said. “Kids like Cameron just show up in my life, and it has been that way for as long as I can remember—4-H kids, church kids. God is sure a trusting soul to send them to me, and I’ve done my best with them.

“I didn’t have toys in my life growing up,” he said. “But now I can share that with the next generation.”

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

Every tractor has a story

From the early 20th century, tractors pulled plows, powered hay balers and helped with a sundry of everyday tasks on the farm. They showcase the progression of farm modernization—building American agriculture and countless family histories.

“They didn’t build them to take them to shows,” said Schmidt, who still uses his machines on the farm to move soil and perform other odd jobs. “These tractors were built to feed the world and do the work.”

Schmidt has farmed and done mechanical work all his life. The love of old iron came, in part, due to necessity. On the family farm, old tractors were just part of the operation.

“We couldn’t afford big, new tractors,” Schmidt said. “We farmed with what we could afford and repair.

“Like my grandfather always told me, many people can buy a new pickup. Not many can keep an old one running.”

His father operated a propane business with his wife, Shirley. Schmidt also worked at the company for more than 20 years. Roland often changed tractors from gasoline to newer carburetion like propane. Schmidt learned mechanical skills from his father and grandfather.

Schmidt also got firsthand experience while working at a Minneapolis Moline dealership in high school.

“I started as the guy who washed the tractors and moved up to tune-ups,” he said. “I just kept moving up and learning more along the way.”

He started doing restoration in the 1980s. Knowing his love of Minneapolis Molines, a family asked if he was interested in purchasing their late father’s 1930s-era Twin City FTA 2132. Another collector had offered them more for it, but they wanted it to go to a good home. He and his father tuned it up and painted it.

“It was the first one we fixed up, Dad and I, and we did it together,” he said. “We were very proud that the family wanted us to have that tractor.”

Every tractor has a story. His parents even met because of a tractor—another Twin City that his grandfather, Verne Holman, purchased during World War II. Holman would sometimes have his daughter with him when he dropped off the tractor for repairs at the local implement dealer where Schmidt’s young father worked after school.

His grandfather eventually traded off that tractor. It ended up at a farm in Geuda Springs. Once its usefulness was gone, the owner parked it next to a garage where it sat for nearly 40 years until Schmidt convinced him to sell it.

“It’s about restoring the past, and it’s a connection with my grandfather," he said.

Not just for show

Schmidt isn’t the only collector putting old workhorses back in the field. The trend is growing across the Midwest. Antique machinery is easier to manage, less expensive to purchase and cheaper and easier to repair than modern tractors with computerized equipment.

For young farmer collector

s like 18-year-old Logan Lawrence, his machines are earning him a living as a beginning farmer.

Logan graduated from Winfield High School in May and joined his father, Jarrod, and grandfather, Terry, on the farm. Schmidt doesn’t like to shop for gifts, so he gave Lawrence a 1958 Oliver 40 model combine. Schmidt and his father purchased it 15 years earlier but had never brought it home. One day this summer, with the help of Logan, he hauled it out of a pasture northeast of Winfield and then to the Lawrence farm.

“That was his graduation, happy birthday, Merry Christmas present,” said Schmidt. “I didn’t have time to fix it, but Logan already has the motor turning over.”

Logan also acquired an Oliver sickle mower once owned by his great-grandfather, Gerald Lawrence. Schmidt had originally purchased it from Gerald’s farm sale, then lent it to another young collector. With the sickle mower and a hay rake—plus borrowing a tractor from Schmidt and using his great grandfather’s Super 88 Oliver he purchased new in 1958, Logan started a fledgling business—putting up 500 square bales this fall.

“It’s still getting the work done,” he said of his equipment, adding he plans to repair the Oliver combine so he can cut wheat with it in the future. It has a factory cab with a swamp cooler and a rare option of the time—variable speed drive for the ground speed.

“I know it is a rush during harvest, but I think it will be fun to cut wheat with something like that,” he said, adding that the 50-bushel-tank Oliver will be dwarfed by his family’s 2020 S98 Gleaner with a 390-bushel tank.

“It’s the memories,” Logan said. “My grandfather grew up driving a combine just like it. That is also why I’m excited about it.”

Local farmer Matt Pilkington, 38, also keeps tractors from early retirement. He is good friends with Cameron Biby and often hung out at Schmidt’s farm to talk and work on tractors as teenager.

His first tractor was a 1957 Allis-Chalmers CA. Schmidt found an Allis pull-type combine at a sale for $25 to go behind it.

Pilkington has about 20 tractors in his collection, and many are still in use. He uses his 1960s-era 706 Farmall tractor with a loader to move hay. He also has International Harvester tractors with more than 100 horsepower that run Bush Hog mowers to maintain road ditches.

“I like to use them as much as I can,” he said, adding he goes through the engine, transmission and puts on new gauges.

But he doesn’t spend money on frills like paint.

“They don’t have to be fancy to do the job as long as they run and operate and have no major leaks,” he said. “They don’t need to have a $10,000 paint job.

“I like to fix them up and keep them as original as possible, with the original paint—keep them in their work clothes so to speak. My goal is to make them functional.”

Logan said he feels the same way about painting tractors.

“I leave them the way they are," he said. “They were only original once. With a bit of wet sanding and a little bit of wax, they look like new.”

Finding the spark

Miles Kaiser’s attachment to old machines grew from his family’s construction business. When his grandfather, Irvin Hann, started taking him to tractor shows and club meetings, Kaiser was smitten. It’s how he met Schmidt.

“Roger helped spark my interest even more,” Kaiser said, adding he started making trips with Schmidt to rescue tractors.

Living just down the road in Independence, Kaiser took vocational agriculture classes from Coffeyville Community College while attending high school. This year, he enrolled in Oklahoma State University Tech’s Caterpillar Dealer Prep program.

Between him and his grandfather, they have 30 garden and compact tractors they are restoring, including several Bolens.

Schmidt has taught him a lot—and not just about tractors.

“We had a couple of lessons on how to properly chain down equipment,” Kaiser said. “He also talks to me about taking pride in what you do and doing the best you can at what you are doing.”

For Biby, his interest ignited on the backroads of Cowley County, Kansas, while making a 20-mile trip back to Winfield atop Schmidt’s recently purchased 1960 Minneapolis Moline GVI.

He didn’t want to make the trip to pick up the tractor. It was a rainy August day. Biby was 13 or 14 and had just started working for Schmidt and didn’t want to be out in the weather. But it was hard to say no to Schmidt, who always welcomes company on his adventures. Schmidt was buying the Moline from retiring farmer Jay Williams near Burden and eventually convinced the teen to come along.

Williams knew Schmidt and the tractor had a history. Schmidt was about Biby’s age in 1970 when he took a road trip to Garden City with the local implement dealer to rescue it from southwest Kansas. They slept on the back of the truck in sleeping bags, waking up to 4 inches of snow. They loaded up the tractor and drove back to Winfield, where the dealer sold it to Williams.

Perhaps it was memories of riding with his grandfather. Or Schmidt’s passion was becoming contagious. Schmidt planned to haul the antique back into town, but Biby insisted on driving it.

It propelled his love affair with tractors. The first tractor Biby went through with the help of Schmidt was a 1950 John Deere R.

“He did a first-class job on it, too,” Schmidt said.

Like Schmidt, Biby likes to collect pieces with meaning. For instance, Biby purchased his 1935 John Deere D and a 1937 A from the family of a friend who had passed away from cancer. They wanted the tractors to go to Biby.

Antique tractors have bridged friendships across generations, Pilkington said. He enjoys the fellowship with like-minded enthusiasts.

“Me and Cameron, we’ll go back and forth sometimes about mechanicing,” he said. “He has taught me and vice versa. It’s friendship time. If there is a problem, we brainstorm together and find a solution.”

Biby said working on tractors gives him a much-needed reprieve from his day job of driving a truck. It’s also a passion he does with his family, including his wife, Amy, and their four children, ages 7 to 13.

That includes working on tractors with Schmidt.

“He’s a good role model,” Biby said. “He knows so much. And he wants to get the next generation involved. He wants people to play with his toys.”

It isn’t about money. And it is not about one brand or color versus another, Schmidt said.

“It’s about the people you meet along the way,” he said, adding he hopes he is making a difference. “I don’t want to be remembered for a rock with my name on it, taking up space on this earth. I want to be remembered for the carpentry skills that I did with the people I met.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at [email protected].