11326 Scott Road, Arbor Vitae, Wisconsin 54568
You want me to go look at a what?' I asked my father.
The year was 1954. We lived just outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, and I was a junior in high school. We had been looking for a tractor to mow and to pull wagons and do other odd jobs around the farm.
'The Ford dealer has a VAI Case tractor with a mower on it they will sell cheap. I want you to go take a look at it and see if you think it is any good.'
I picked up my girlfriend, who was looking forward to going for a ride that afternoon, and we went for a ride-to the Ford dealership. There it was, complete with a Case-Detroit # 14 mower and new paint. It seemed to run good and the mower worked, so my father made the deal and we became the proud owners of the only VAI Case tractor for miles around.
We used the VAI for all kinds of things around the farm, but soon found out the tractor was a lot better than the mower. It had been purchased as a tractor-mower by the U.S. Government in 1944 and was used by the Air Force to mow around airfields. The mower had no end of problems and by fall was nearly unusable.
Come spring, my father asked what we needed to do to fix the mower for the next season and I suggested what we really needed was a different mower. My father called around and found the John Deere dealer in Friend, Nebraska, had not only a mower, but most of a tractor too. We bought it for $50, loaded the mower in the back of our '41 Plymouth, and brought our treasure home.
The new mower was much better than the first one, so we put it on the tractor and kept the other one for parts. It proved very durable and was still working well fifteen years later.
As a teenager I fell in love with the tractor instantly. It would travel down the country roads at 20 miles an hour and mow at eight-if you could hang on. The sickle bar was raised using a gearbox and cable lift, and would mow in a vertical position as well as straight out.
In 1954 our whole family went to the Nebraska State Fair. I spent most of my time looking at the farm machinery and other equipment. Later, while looking over the Fair program we had received at the gate, I saw there was to be a Tractor Derby on Thursday. Could my little VAI be a winner? A call to the Fair office and I was registered. I drove the tractor 15 miles into school and, after morning classes, made my way to the Fairgrounds where the man at the gate waved me through.
There were other races before ours, but before I could race I needed to get a pit pass to let me on the race track. Pass in hand, I waited hopefully until, finally, the Tractor Derby was called. We lined up, I drew the inside track. The checkered flag fell and off we went! The VAI sprang out in front of the others but could not outrun all of them. I had to settle for third place and a $40 prize.
The next year found the VAI as the tractor of choice for our class hayride. Unfortunately, it was pouring down rain that night and we all partied inside instead. I graduated high school in 1955.
Around 1960 came the bad news. The Detroit Mower Company was going out of business. We stocked up on sickles and other parts for the future at bargain prices.
In 1965 I left the farm to go to Michigan to teach elementary school for the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and left the little VAI behind. Sometime later a friend who was mowing for the folks tore up the PTO gear. When the folks sold the farm in 1969, they gave the little tractor away.
I gave little thought to the VAI tractor for many years until seeing an ad in the local paper. Nestled in the ad along with other tractors was a VAI Case. I hesitated, and the opportunity was lost.
In 1997 I saw a VAI Case at a swap meet. It was not what I wanted, but it spurred me on to start looking further. An ad in GEM produced a call from Frank Werner down by Detroit who had a tractor and part of a mower. He had bought the tractor a couple of years earlier at a government auction. He said it ran okay, but didn't have a starter so they had to pull it. After seeing pictures of the tractor, I called back asking Frank's son if there were teeth on the flywheel so one could put a starter on. He took his phone to the garage, removed the starter blanking plate and announced all was well. I sent a check.
How could I get the little tractor home? After considering my options, I called a man who advertised in Hemmings Motor News and although it was not an antique car, he agreed to bring it to Wisconsin for me.
I now had a tractor, but only a part of the mower.
Having lived in Missouri a few years back and knowing there were once a lot of these tractors used by the state and county road commissions, I placed an ad in a local paper and received a call from Minor Moore who had a Case-Detroit #16 mower. (Same mower except it had a hydraulic lift instead of a gearbox and cable lift.) We made a deal over the telephone and I picked it up the next time I was down that way. I now had more parts but no cable lift.
My wife received the not unexpected news that her sister had passed away and we were on our way to Nebraska for the funeral. While I was in town I stopped at Lansing Salvage which I had often visited in the past. The owner said he had part of a mower somewhere. Half an hour later we found it under a pile of sheet metal-the cable lift complete with a good drawbar assembly. What a find! The rest of the mower had been sold in the fifties.
Answers I received to an ad in GEM uncovered another mower and some parts from Paul Miller in Indiana. So now I had enough parts to put most of the mower together with a lot of what we called 'Southern Engineering' when I lived in Louisiana.
Time and space make it impossible to tell of the countless trips to salvage yards, telephone calls received, and letters sent. Of people who helped locate and send replacement, missing or worn out tractor and mower parts. Of locating parts and installing a complete electrical system on a tractor which never had one from the factory.
No wartime VAI ever had all the accessories which I have found in salvage yards. While available, such things as a horn, driver's step, hourmeter, fire extinguisher, and sickle carrier, not to mention starter and lengths seldom found their way onto government tractors.
And so, I have my dream tractor once again. While the tractor is about finished, I still need parts for the Case-Detroit #14 mower. Does anyone have any parts or a mower stuck away somewhere?