4745 Hesper Road Billings, Montana 59106
The year was 1968 and a decision had to be made. With forty years of ranching and farm equipment sales behind him, Oscar Cooke was ready to retire and enjoy life. He had been collecting tractors and steam engines since 1957 and wanted to work full time with the collection. Maybe open it to the public, share this agricultural history with everyone. But what to call it?
Oscar's wife, Marcia, finally hit on the perfect name, seeing that this vast collection of tools and machinery were from Oscar's own past. Dreamland would fit the operation perfectly. And although no fairies or dragons can be seen at Oscar's Dreamland, the dreams and hopes of the American farmer, as well as the insights of the inventor and industrialist, are spread before you in a cross-section of Americana.
Oscar was born in 1901 around Emporia, Kansas, where his parents were farmers. Growing up on the farm set Oscar on the road to a half-century career in agriculture. At age 16, he started his own threshing business. His own farming operation soon followed.
In the years before the Depression, farmers were approached by the big tractor factories to be dealers on their farms. Oscar saw a good opportunity and became a Rumely tractor dealer.
Oscar enjoyed the farm machinery business and soon pursued a job with the large manufacturers. He found himself working for the biggest in the nation, Allis-Chalmers. He worked his way up the sales ladder and it wasn't long before he was Midwestern branch manager for all Allis-Chalmers sales, based in Omaha. This success proved to Oscar that he could make it in the farm equipment business, so, with his brother, he opened an Allis-Chalmers dealership in Chillicothe, Missouri. The dealership grew to be one of the largest in the U.S.
Farming and ranching in Montana was added to his list of ventures. Montana soon drew Oscar's full time and attention. He sold his interest in the dealership to his son and moved to his ranch at Decker, Montana. The year was 1957, and Oscar made his first antique tractor purchase, a small Oil-Pull Rumely circa 1920.
The following years at the CX Ranch saw many additions to the collection, but no restoration work; just a big line of antique tractors purchased around the country and lined up at the CX. In the mid-1960s a 160-acre hay farm was purchased near Billings as support for the ranch. Tractors, steam engines and other old equipment trickled in.
By now about three hundred pieces had been collected, but they were scattered between different locations. In 1972, the CX Ranch was sold and all the antique equipment was moved to Billings. Added to the pile there, it represented an impressive amount of machinery. Restorations had begun on a few pieces at the farm, which was now known as Oscar's Dreamland.
In 1975, at age 74, Oscar began working on collecting and restoring full time. Storage and display buildings were built by Oscar on the grounds. The collection grew as new interests sparked collecting. Tractor seats (over 300), antique cars and trucks (30), original frontier buildings (10), construction and military equipment, airplanes and airplane engines, boat motors, hand tools, antique watches, steam engines and tractors, wagons, drilling equipment and much more. The collection now numbers over 10,000 items and requires 152,000 square feet of indoor display space as well as 18 acres outdoors.
Of all the different machines in the collection, tractors are the stars of the show. Rumely, Allis-Chalmers, Massey, Case, as well as many smaller names and foreign brands are on display. The tractors are 'restored to the way they were when last at work,' most run. 500 tractors in every size, shape and design. The 110 Best, forerunner of the Caterpillar line, is a huge steam-powered monster. Kerosene Annie, the prototype of the Rumely tractor line, is here as well.
Oscar's Dreamland is open daily in the summer. Son Riley Cooke manages the operation. 'Older folks come out to see the collection and bring their grand-kids,' says Riley. 'I always hear the same thing. People will see a tractor or a piece of machinery and it will jog something in their memory. They begin to tell or retell a story from forty or fifty years ago. The kids have probably heard it before, but now they can see it, touch it. It becomes real.'
In the early 1970s Oscar found some historic buildings in the area being vandalized and in disrepair. At great expense, he decided to move some of these buildings to Dreamland and restore them. The Frontier Street is complete with the first schoolhouse in Yellowstone County, the first church steeple in Billings, the Mayor's house, as well as a real railroad depot. Added to round out the look of 'Cookeville' was a fire-house, jail, and model T Ford garage.
No one could leave Oscar's Dreamland without learning something. On a recent day, visitors were amazed by a tractor that starts with a shotgun shell. One visitor found the early 1900 steam engine that was made for a merry-go-round. Everyone is awed by the world's largest revolving clock.
Located at Billings, Montana, on the Yellowstone River, Oscar's Dreamland will continue to be a window on the past. The collection is more than a museum. According to some, it is a treasure to be protected, as well as displayed.
No one knows better than Oscar Cooke, who at 92 is still responsible for preserving a slice of American history.
For more information on Oscar's Dreamland, contact Riley O. Cooke at the above address.