In February 2000 my good friend and fellow tractor collector Dennis Powers of Boone, Iowa, called to tell me about a Pioneer tractor that was for sale. Dennis knew I had tried to buy a Pioneer twice before, both times getting outbid in the buying process. I had finally come to peace with the idea that I would never own a Pioneer tractor, but here was Dennis calling me with a lead on another Pioneer.
The truth is I'm getting older, and I wasn't sure if I wanted another big project - I actually almost dreaded going to look at the tractor. Undoubtedly it would be a big expense, and I didn't know if I wanted to suffer through the process of not only coming up with the money, but also exerting the work necessary to restore another big tractor. Dennis gave me a phone number for Fred Nolan in Jerseyville, Ill., and looking at a map I decided to at least go look at the tractor, as it was only 500 miles from my home in Goessel, Kan.
I called Fred, and he told me that if I wanted the tractor I'd better get up there right away, because an ad was coming out in GEM the next week. Come 5 a.m. the next day I left home, and by mid-afternoon I was at Fred's place looking the old Pioneer over.
The last time the tractor had been run was in the mid-1930s, and it had spent all but the last 15 years outdoors. I was impressed at how complete the tractor was, with all the little parts that are usually missing still intact. But I was also very conscious of the forlorn look the years out in the elements had taken on the old tractor. I left Fred's and headed home, thinking to myself I really didn't want that large of a project anymore. I got home about midnight and my wife, Leann, was up. 'Well, did you buy it?' she asked. 'No,' I told her, 'I didn't.' She was surprised and asked me why not? 'I'm not sure that I want to buy all that work,' I said. 'You don't have to restore it,' she replied, 'you can always have it in our collection without restoring it.' The next day I got on the phone with Fred and consummated the deal.
Our good friend Steve Sabo, who owns Target Transport in Middlebury, Ind., hauled the tractor from Illinois to Kansas in July 2000. In the process I had also acquired a circa 1917 Minneapolis 35/70 located in Minnesota, so Steve hauled that along with the Pioneer.
We were deep into the summer months and going to shows, so we finished up the projects we were working on before starting to tackle the Pioneer. I started taking the Pioneer apart Oct. 1, 2000, and I tried to work on it every day until it was completed - Aug. 5, 2001, just in time for our local show, Country Threshing Days, held in Goessel, Kan.
As I launched into taking the Pioneer's engine apart, I found that just about everything was stuck and in need of rebuilding. The main bearings were fine, but the rod throws on the crank were flat and needed to be turned, and that meant the rods had to be re-poured along with having the crankshaft turned. This is not an easy engine to handle - the crankshaft is almost eight feet long. Even so, Dick's Engine Service in Ellinwood, Kan., was able to grind the crank, and they also turned the pistons and bored the block to take a new sleeve, which was then turned to fit the pistons.
The valves needed replacing and the guides were worn, so I made new valves with 1/16-inch oversize stems, boring the valve guides to accommodate the larger valve stems. This took care of the wear in the guides, and I found new valve springs for a large Fairbanks-Morse that I adapted to the Pioneer.
The pistons were also stuck, and to remove them I built a ram to place on top of the pistons that was recessed above the piston head so it would only contact the outer edge of the piston. With the aid of a 70-pound piece of four-inch shafting, I used the battering ram approach to get the pistons out of the bores. The first piston came out with just a few blows, and I said to myself, 'this is going to be a piece of cake.' The first one might have been easy, but it took a full day to get the next two removed, and the last one proved to be extremely stubborn. By heating up the bore and continuing to ram the piston it finally gave up - but not without leaving me very exhausted and with sore muscles.
Through a streak of good luck I was able to track down George Carney, the son of the second owner of the Pioneer, and he provided the complete history of this particular tractor, along with an original photo showing the tractor pulling a road grader.
It turns out that some time around 1915 Phelps County, Mo., bought two Pioneer 30 gas tractors to pull road graders for building Highway 63, a major east-west highway passing through Rolla, Mo., the county seat. The Pioneers were delivered by rail car in 1915, and were put on a siding track to be unloaded. 'Our' tractor was unloaded first, and as the second Pioneer was being unloaded it got away and rolled onto the main line track, just as a steam train was coming down the line. It got hit, and was damaged rather badly. The county kept it, however, and used it for parts to keep the other Pioneer running while building the highway.
Some time around 1930 the county quit using the old tractor, and local entrepreneur 'Doc' Carney bought it from the county. Doc, with the help of family, used the old Pioneer to build a couple of roads in the area, but the tractor was last used sometime around 1934. It sat on the old Carney farm until about 1970, when it was moved to an old car museum and restoration facility in Rolla, Mo., owned by Doc's son, George.
Sitting by the old highway it helped build decades earlier, the old Pioneer was a landmark for years. Fred Nolan saw it in Rolla, and he would stop by about once a year to see if he could buy the tractor from George. Around 1985 George finally decided to sell the tractor, priced at $20,000, and Fred bought it. It sat in Fred's storage building until July 2000 when I hauled it home to Goessel.
Even though I had tried to buy one before, I had decided that I didn't want a Pioneer tractor in my collection, mostly because they're overpriced and completely enclosed. Why would anyone want one? You can't see anything moving except the flywheel. Looking back, I'm not sure if I talked that way because I didn't have one, or because I was jealous of the fellows who did have one. Mow that I do have one, however, I can tell you it is one of my favorite tractors.
It is perhaps the easiest starting of all the large tractors we have, and certainly the smoothest running. It's an interesting machine, and in my opinion it has features that were far ahead of its time for 1915. For example, it has a multiple-disc clutch that is far superior to the expanding wood shoe-clutch that was popular at the time, and it is one of the few large tractors of its time with automotive-type steering, making it far more maneuverable than most of its contemporaries. It has an enclosed transmission and engine, which provides a cleaner environment for critical moving parts, and the cab is enclosed on three sides and has the added comfort of a padded chair and arm rest. An unusual feature is the intake manifold, which runs through the crankcase, the carb attached at a point below the crankcase.
There are different opinions as to the correct color scheme that Pioneer originally used, and I think, after having rounded up more information, the red I used should probably be maroon. Trouble is, I haven't been able to find out too much original information on Pioneer, nor, it seems, have other people.
It's known that they built tractors in Winona, Minn., and in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, but just how many were actually made is anybody's guess.
Contact engine and tractor enthusiast Jerry Toews at: Box 131, Goessel, KS 67053. For a further discussion of Pioneer tractors, see the October 2001 issue of our sister publication, Farm Collector.