Rt 1, Box 75A Ivanhoe, Minnesota 56142
One morning last February, coffee cup in hand, I stopped by the kitchen window to look out at an old WC Allis Chalmers sitting on the far side of the garden. As I watched the snow swirl around it I began to recall my association with it and the events that brought it here.
I know almost nothing of its earliest existence. I know from its serial number that it was made in 1942. In fact, I can guess that the dust from the attack on Pearl Harbor had barely settled when this tractor came off the line all shiny and orange. The war forced changes in manufacturing methods at Allis Chalmers as that company and the nation geared up for war. But, this is essentially a prewar machine. It was probably shipped to a farmer in southwest Minnesota and put to work growing food.
My personal experience with it began about 1962. My dad was a farm boy and although we lived in town we always had a garden, the bigger the better. We also heated our home and did much of our cooking with a wood burning furnace and an old Kalamazoo cook stove. To help with these chores Dad bought the Allis. Our wood cutting was done before it became as trendy as it is now. Our equipment consisted of the Allis, a 1949 Chevy pickup, an old Wards chainsaw and a buzzsaw that Dad made using a two wheel trailer and an old four cylinder Wisconsin combine engine.
We would go to the creek bottom south of town where someone wanted a pasture opened up or had bulldozed some trees to get at the gravel underneath. Dad would pull a tree out where we could get at it. My brother and I would brush it out with axes and Dad would cut it into lengths for the buzzsaw. We did all the splitting by hand with hammers, wedges and axes. We needed twelve to eighteen full size trees plus some corn cobs to get through a winter.
For several years Dad and a friend of his went together to raise potatoes for both families. We put in about two and a half acres of potatoes and a few squash and pumpkins. This led to the only time that we had a close call with the Allis. Bill, the son of Dad's friend, was to return a borrowed disc and then run the tractor to their house and park it. I wedged myself against the left fender with my foot against the drawbar. My brother Glenn sat on the right fender and with Bill driving, down the road we went. The bridge across the creek had a steel railing. As we approached it in road gear I could see that, while the tractor wheels would clear the right railing, the disc would not. I yelled and Bill swerved just in time to clear the railing by inches. No one was hurt but it was a near thing. We could have ended up, three kids on the creek bottom with the tractor disc and railing on top!
We continued with the wood cutting and potatoes for several years, with the Allis doing its part in the routine. I can still see it sitting in front of our barn on Main Street, or all muddy on a hillside covered with patchy springtime snow.
But time does slip by. In the spring of 1968 I graduated from high school and a year later I was drafted. The home I returned to in the spring of 1971 had changed in many ways. My brother was married and had moved out on his own and Dad was in business for himself. Part of that business was a Case backhoe. We still cut wood for heat but the Chevy had been replaced with a newer Ford. A new Homelite replaced the buzzsaw and the old Wards chainsaw, and our house had an oil furnace for backup heating. Of course the Case replaced the Allis. In the summer of 1971 Dad asked me to drive the Allis the thirty miles to my grandmother's farm. They had sold their 1939 John Deere A and were without a tractor. Though they no longer farmed, Dad thought that they could use the Allis. A year later it had hardly moved. My cousin Paul, fresh out of the Navy, had bought an acreage on Minnesota's Iron Range. Dad suggested that if Paul could use the Allis he should come and get it. He did, and for the next ten or twelve years the Allis did service running a small sawmill, pulling logs and performing other chores in the north woods. I used to visit his place regularly and I got in on some of that. The time I remember best was the weekend that the high temperature for the weekend at his house was minus-30 degrees. We wanted to go to town. His Volvo would not start but the Allis did. So there I was, on the open seat of that old tractor, driving down the road pull-starting the Volvo. Lucky for me it didn't take long.
By the mid 1980s the engine on the Allis was going. There was a noticeable loss of power and the usual cloud of blue smoke. Rather than overhaul it, Paul decided that it had done its duty and retired it to the woodlot.
In the meantime, my life had changed radically again. We lost Dad in 1974, and my brother Glenn in 1987. I picked up an engineering degree from the local university. I got married and had a family of my own.
Paul and I spoke of the old Allis from time to time. He thought at one point that he might replace the engine with one from a Toyota or a Pinto. At another time he thought that he might reverse the operator's position to face the rear and put a snow blower on it. Paul is a professional machinist and is blessed with an uncommon amount of Yankee ingenuity; I'm sure that he could have made either project work, hut he didn't undertake either one.
I'm not sure when it first occurred to me that I would like to have the Allis. I always wanted a place in the country, but, most of my life I've lived in town where a tractor just would not fit. I was still in town when I first mentioned to Paul that I might like to buy the Allis someday. The subject came up periodically and was dropped again.
Three years ago my wife and sons and I finally had all we could stand of town life and moved to a farm site twenty-five miles from the old home town. Shortly after that, the discussion began in earnest. 'Could I use the tractor?' 'I think so.' 'It's pretty well shot.' 'I know that, but it was Dad's and I would like to fix it up.' 'You can have it but getting it down to your place might be a problem.' 'Well, let's see what we can come up with.' We talked about it, a little now and then, for over a year.
In the meantime we were working together to empty Paul's mother's garage near where I live. In the garage was a 1952 Chevy that Paul needed to have up on his end of the state. This looked like an opportunity to solve two problems at once. We would rent a trailer and I would haul the car to the Iron Range and the tractor back. One of my new neighbors had a trailer that he rented out. He is an Allis man and used to run a WC in the local tractor pulls. This was the trailer he used to transport it. We knew that our WC fit. My truck is a little 1983 Ford Ranger, 2.0 liter, four speed. Would it pull a tandem axle trailer 800 miles in two days, loaded in both directions? I had my doubts, but I kept them to myself.
The arrangements were made and Paul and his wife Edie came down to help load and escort me up. We winched the Chevy onto the trailer and were soon roaring down the highway at about 45 mph. I used to drive an old VW bus and this was about the same, power-wise. We got to Paul's about sundown and unloaded. Paul had cleaned the plugs and points on the Allis, put air in the tires and gas in the tank. After seven years sitting in the woodlot it fired right up. The next morning Paul backed it onto the trailer under its own power. Then it was log chains and load binders and back out onto the road. Paul gave me an escort for the first one hundred miles or so then I was on my own. The trip back was uneventful, except for a nasty surprise I got when I turned onto a concrete road. It seems that the distance between the rear truck tire and the front trailer axle was the same as the distance between joints in the highway. At any speed over about 15 mph this caused the trailer to want to waltz while the truck tried to tango! After a mile or so of that, I found a tar road south and took it. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of attention that old iron gets going down the road. People would slow down to have a look, smile and wave.
I got back about sundown and you can bet I was one tired, happy and proud individual when the little Ranger came down the driveway and rolled to a stop in the yard.
Paul was right about the condition of the tractor. Every place that can leak does. The plies of the rear tires are separating and it still has a strange lifter nose that I remember from the Sixties. We found the original front rims in Paul's woodlot and brought them home. Paul donated a set of rear tire chains he had bought for it. He had also added a PTO while he had it. I found a spare FMJ magneto in a landfill and bought two good rear rims for five dollars at an auction. I just missed a model 60 Allcrop harvester at another sale. I was elsewhere on the grounds when it sold for twelve dollars and fifty cents. The engine alone is worth more than that. (A note to the collectors out there. The machinery that fed the world through the 1940s is going to the scrap heap fast.) In June we bought an IHC 2-14 plow for ten dollars at another sale and two weeks later we found a one row potato digger.
Of course we have a big potato patch, and with me riding the digger and my oldest son on the WC, potatoes came out of the ground a lot easier this year, ton of them. We enlarged the patch for next year and when the plow hit the prairie sod it was obvious that the little Allis didn't have the 'snort' that it used to. We know the cure for that and in the spring when the weather warms we are going to make it shiny and orange again. The boys want to help. It will be good experience and probably build some new memories of Dad's old WC.