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Where Do Old Tractors Go When They Die?

Country MoonIt’s time for the 7th annual Mackinac Bridge Antique Tractor Crossing. We have been up for this event a couple of times and it really is something to see. Last year’s parade saw 907 tractors go over the bridge in approximately 3 1/2 hours. Many were restored and others came straight from the field, sporting rust and all.

What is it about rusted old iron that is so appealing? For many, it brings a sense of nostalgia for a way of life that has passed and for others there is a sentimental attraction. So, I began to wonder as to what does happen to old tractors when they die.

A whopping 75 percent of tractors past their prime are collected and usually restored. The general rule of thumb is any tractor over 25 years old is considered an antique. The other 25 percent go to museums or are broken down for parts.

The oldest gasoline tractor in the United States is displayed in the State Agricultural Museum at the Stonefield Historic Site in Cassville, Wisconsin, a charming little town in the state’s far southwest corner. The tractor is a one-of-a-kind McCormick Auto Mower and is estimated to have been built in 1899. We had a chance to tour the museum a few years ago and I can safely say that modern-day tractors have come a long way. The McCormick didn’t look like any tractor I had ever seen!

Another rare piece at the museum is the Allis Chalmers Model U Tractor, the first farm tractor with factory installed rubber tires. When you want a break from seeing vintage farm equipment, you can wander through Stonefield’s re-created 1900 rural farming village.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from old tractors ending up in museums are those dismantled for parts. Nowhere is this more evident than at McGrew Tractor Parts near New Paris, Indiana. As we drove by, there were non-stop acres, 17 acres to be exact, of rusted old tractors setting in a field. As it turns out, McGrew’s is the nation’s leading John Deere salvage yard with 3,000-plus tractors in the yard and growing. They specialize in new and used tractor parts for almost every model of John Deere built since 1924.

Owned by Greg McGrew since 2008, he also has a sister tractor salvage yard near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They tear the tractors all the way down to the frame and catalog all the parts, right down to the clutch plates and spark plugs. Collectors make up 75 percent of their sales while 25 percent of their parts are bought to repair working tractors.

Even though they are located in a small town in Indiana, their parts travel all over the world. Australia and China are probably the farthest they have shipped items. We had a chance to speak with Dixie Schwarz who works at the front desk of their 1.5 acres that is under roof. She explained that they recently shipped two rims to Scotland. Seeing the astonished look on our faces, she assured us that they do have tractor parts in Scotland, but most of their business comes from collectors who are looking for a specific size, brand, etc. All of their parts have been stripped, stocked and are ready to ship.

Restoration and repair parts for John Deere lawn tractors are also a large part of their business, which is pretty evident from the heap (literally a heap) of lawn tractors stacked outside. Where do they acquire all these tractors? Dixie shared that some they buy at auction and others people drop off just to be rid of them.

Wengers of Myerstown, Pennsylvania, located in the heartland of the Pennsylvania Dutch countryside, is another dealer of tractor parts that hit a milestone this year – more than 10,000 tractors dismantled for parts. They have the largest computerized inventory of used, reconditioned and new tractor parts in the eastern United States.

I needed a little clarification here. Reconditioned parts, rebuilt parts and new reproduction parts were definitely not clear as a bell, but Dixie made sense of it all for me. Rebuilt parts refer to mechanical parts such as carburetors from older tractors that are completely looked over and any defect is repaired to make the part as good as a new one. Reconditioned parts refers to body parts such as fenders and hoods where imperfections such as dents are pounded out and repainted to make them look like new. Sometimes restorers need certain parts that aren’t being produced anymore for certain models. New reproduction parts are parts from another make or model that are made to look like parts from certain makes and models of other tractors. Original parts are always best because they will fit perfectly. The trouble is, you can’t always get them.

Just like collecting anything else, tractor collectors and restorers can’t stop at just one. Most people who collect want to go the whole nine yards and restore their tractors to look like new while others like to keep them just like they came from the field.

One thing to keep in mind about tractor restoration – it is not a cheap hobby. Not only can parts be pricey, but the paint and labor adds up, especially if you can’t do all the work yourself. However, in the end it pays off because an investment in old iron is sometimes better than the stock market since the value doesn’t go down.

Each collector has his/her own passion about what make and model to restore. We have quite a few collections in our immediate area and most all makes are represented from John Deere and International to Allis Chalmers.

Antique tractor enthusiasts have a ball restoring these relics from the past and, in turn, give the rest of us a peek at a bit of rural nostalgia.