Memories of Wren Oaks

The Pioneer Tractor

The Pioneer at Hesston.

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7450 S. Lemon Rd. Bancroft, Michigan 48414

Many of you have heard about the Earl Marhanka estate auction in August, 1991. Advertisements for the auction appeared in the spring and summer issues of GEM last year. I want to give you some information about the events in the years preceding the auction as experienced by me, a nineteen year old college student who has spent some time over the years working with the Marhanka collection.

My father, Ralph Myrkle, has been an 'old iron' buff as long as I can remember. Through the years he has acquired four Farmalls: F-12,20,30 and an H; two John Deere B's, both unstyled; a McCormick-Deering 10-20; an Oliver 70; an Emerson Brantingham 2? HP stationary engine; a 12-24 Hart-Parr and two Rumely Oil Pulls, 20-40 G and 30-60S. He also has a few implements, including a Nichols & Shepard-Red River Special threshing machine. I grew up around this machinery and have developed a natural affinity for it. Mother has always been tolerant and encouraging; I must admit that things might not get fixed up and painted without her prodding.

In 1985 my father got a call from my cousin Mark Hemenway. An antique truck club was going to be having a meeting at Earl Marhanka's Wren Oaks Farm. Mark had been asked to get a few things out of the barn, to show the club. Knowing my father's interest in such things, Mark asked if he would help him out. There was no hesitation.

I was only twelve years old at the time and could not fully grasp what an opportunity this was. Mr. Marhanka had a collection of vast proportions: over 450 pieces, made up of tractors and trucks. What is more amazing is that he kept his whole collection in one barn! The barn is a pole building 70 ft. x 1250 ft. built in several sections that expanded with the collection. There were two 'bumper to bumper' rows of equipment down each side and two down the middle. Pages could be written about each piece.

The event itself was surprising, as Mr. Marhanka was a solitary man who seldom allowed his collection to be shown this may have been our only chance to see it. Mr. Marhanka had an unparalleled Rumely collection, so we had at them. Unfortunately, none of the Oil Pulls had been run in almost twenty years. Needless to say, this cut down on our productivity. After quite a lot of work, we were able to get the smallest, the 12-20, and two of the largest, the heavyweight and lightweight 30-60's, running acceptably. As we were a tractor oriented group, we didn't spend as much time with the trucks. I am not sure how impressed the truck folks were.

At one point, we were asked to move the tractors behind the barn because of the noise. Some people don't know a good thing when they hear it. Before we had to put them away, we found time to drive them around and belt them up to the Baker fan. Thus ended what was, in . our minds, an incredible day.

Some time later, we received another call from Mark. He told us that we had permission to take a few things to a local parade. As the parade officials tend to frown on steel wheels, we contented ourselves with parking them in a lot alongside the parade route. This trip included a Hoke tractor, a Bull tractor, a model H Oil Pull, 16-30 and the Pioneer.

The Pioneer is a tractor of monolithic proportions. (Information about this tractor can be found on page 227 of Encyclopedia of American Farm Tractors, by C.H. Wendel.) It was positioned about halfway down the barn and in one of the center aisles. By the time Dad and I got there, Mark and some helpers had gotten it pulled out of the barn with the aid of a small dozer. (I suppose no story in GEM is complete without at least one stuck engine, so here is ours.) The engine was as stuck as can be. Not being familiar with the standard procedures for remedying this kind of problem at the time, I was not aware that our method was less than conventional. We did not have the time to fill the cylinders with some magical elixir that you tell only your closest friends about. We resorted to the method of the truly desperate: brute force.

Mark works in a machine shop, so he was able to get his hands on a large porta-power (a sort of hydraulic jack for tight squeezes). We (mostly Dad and Mark) managed to get the porta-power behind one piston. To extend the porta-power's range we used a stack of little steel blocks. This was not a very safe arrangement, but time was of the essence. After much held breath and gritting of teeth, things began to happen. You could see the porta-power expanding, but nothing else was moving. You wouldn't think that you could take the slack out of steel blocks, but that's how tight these pistons were. All of a sudden there was a loud snap. We wondered whether we had moved something or broken something. Fortunately, there was movement. The Pioneer was one of the stars of the show everywhere we took it. We were eventually able to start it by hand, which is no small feat when you consider that the crank handle is three feet long. At the auction this tractor brought $46,000. We thought maybe it was one of a kind, but the man who bought it said he knew of two others.

In March of 1988, Dad and Mark attended the Rumely Recollections Reunion in La Porte, Indiana. There they met some individuals involved with the Hesston (Indiana) Steam and Power Association. We got permission from Mr. Marhanka to take a few things to the show at Hesston the following Labor Day. Decisions, decisions . . . With over four hundred possible exhibits, the choices were nearly endless. Everybody involved with our ongoing project had, at one time or another, taken that long walk through the barn and thought to themselves, 'Boy, it would be great to see that running,' Mr. Marhanka gave us considerable leeway as to what we chose to take, although he had some 'suggestions.'

Because Hesston is so close to La Porte, we chose to take the big Rumely E, and also a lightweight Rumely X. We also took a couple trucks, including one made by Rumely. With so many things to choose from, one might think that this isn't much, but we had our hands full. The E is certainly not a single man tractor, even though the Rumely literature says it is. With the parades and plowing and threshing we had no end of things to do. Everyone present at this show was impressed. I know I will never forget seeing the 'King of the Rumelys' pulling a six bottom plow, running the belt on a huge 30-60 Rumely thresher with double wing feeders, and being pushed to the limit on both the Baker fan and the Prony brake.

The following year saw a parade and a return trip to Hesston. In our second year of exhibition, we decided to take everything we could get running by show time. We ended up with four 'show stoppers' this time: the Pioneer, the model B Oil Pull (the oldest and rarest of the Oil Pulls), an Avery truck designed for use on the road or in the field, and the exhibit that turned out to be the most popular-a 1912 White bus that was used as a tour bus in Yellowstone National Park. Tagging along were a Packard truck, a Rumely Gaspull (built for Rumely by the Universal tractor company), and a Townsend tractor.

The highlight of the trip for me was when I got the opportunity to drive the Pioneer during one of the daily parades; quite an honor for a sixteen year old.

Last year we received the news of Mr. Marhanka's passing. For years we had tried to ignore rumors of an auction (mostly perpetuated by Mr. Marhanka himself), but now it seemed all too obvious that an auction would be forthcoming. The event was held in late August. The estate asked Mark to head up the effort to move all the equipment outside and into lines. Mark never seems to have any free time, so he called my dad. Dad and I, my Uncle Whitey (Myrkle), Sharon Delor and Rick Street spent all day, every day, for two weeks in early August to get things outside. Mark was there in the afternoons, and members of the Marhanka family occasionally showed up to make sure things were going smoothly.

There was not enough time to try and get each piece running, but we drove out what we could. The rest had to be dragged out with a chain. The' teal workhorses were an X Oil Pull, a Farm-all H, and a newer IH with a loader on the front (this turned out to be indispensable). We did get one last chance to use the Pioneer, though. One of the large crawler tractors did not roll and could not be moved. We tried to move it with the Rumely B pulling from the front and a Caterpillar Sixty, whose clutch tended to slip, pushing from the back, but it proved to be too much. When we hooked on with the Pioneer, however, those big nine foot drivers didn't slip an inch.

This whole task was immeasurably depressing to me. Every time I slapped the chains on a tractor or truck, it was like losing a friend. If a piece could be moved under its own power, it seemed as if somehow some of its dignity was preserved. As much as we didn't like seeing all these things get sold, it was comforting to note that most of them were going to be better off. Most of them suffered from neglect, but now I am sure they will be getting the intensive care that they deserve.

When the auction was all said and done, we had a new Rumely to add to our collection and a whole lot of memories that couldn't be bought for any price. The only bad news is that our own collection had been put on hold for a few years, and it will be a little longer before they are all restored.