Old Tractor Provides Quite a Ride

Hoosier Perspectives

Driving a unique, antique tractor returns thoughts of the old days.

Published on: August 6, 2012

This column should probably be about the impact of the drought, where farmers can get help to survive, what to do with damaged crops or some related issue. You can find that in our daily items on the web, in the August issue or in the September issue of Indiana Prairie Farmer due out later this month. To be honest, I have drought fever, and that's not a good thing. I've heard, read, seen and written about it until I can't stand to write about it anymore, at least for this week. So instead I'm going to write about something that won't help you a bit, unless, of course, it helps you forget about your crop woes, even if for only a few minutes. All drought and no play is an emotional pitfall.

SWEET RIDE: Editor Tom Bechman drives the Empire tractor, while Martinsville FFA advisor Donnie Sheldon accompanies him.
SWEET RIDE: Editor Tom Bechman drives the Empire tractor, while Martinsville FFA advisor Donnie Sheldon accompanies him.

A couple weeks ago I got to do something new. Oh, I've driven old tractors. I have a Massey-Harris 44, and I've driven it around a bit. But until 18 months ago, I'd never even heard of an Empire tractor. Now, thanks to ag teacher Donnie Sheldon and his FFA crew at Martinsville High School, I've not only heard about it, I got to drive it.

When I first saw it in the spring of '11, it was in pieces in the ag shop. The tear down process had ended, and the rebuilding process was about to begin. Running into more challenges than they expected, it didn't come together quickly. But it's together now, and it runs like a Willys Jeep.

That's basically what it is- an Army surplus Willys Jeep made into a tractor. The history of the Empire tractor is quite enthralling. Donnie's short version is that when World War II ended, there were tons of these Jeeps still around. Through the Marshall plan we were supposed to aid countries overseas. A few guys hatched an idea to turn the Jeeps into tractors, and sell them to farmers in war-torn countries. They formed the Empire Tractor Company and began the conversion.

"Anybody who sees it and knows about old Jeeps says the motor and transmission are identical," Sheldon says. "In reality, that's what they were. Then they added sheet metal and bigger rear tires. They designed their own brakes and that turned out to be a boondoggle, because they would lock up if the tractor sat for a while."

The brakes worked on the tractor I drove because a local machine shop rebuilt them to original specs. The motor purred. I sat on a seat likely designed for a Farmall H. "They were putting them together so fast, they grabbed what they had," Sheldon says. "Some got one seat, some another."

The grated, wide platform under the seat got my attention. It turns out it was made from grating used on aircraft carriers.

As we rode around the parking lot, I learned that the Empire Tractor Company was short-lived. They produced thousands of tractors, only to find out the people they were intended for didn't have money, and didn't want the tractors. Not many ended up overseas. A few were sold here, but as inventory stacked up, the company quit producing, and eventually went out of business.

The tractor I drove around has a unique history too. It belonged to a family in Kentucky. The old gentleman whose family owned it came to the Martinsville FFA banquet this year, and sat on the tractor. He remembered driving it as a boy.

When it was finally rescued through a third party, Dick Kruse, Crawfordsville, a tree was growing up through the center of it. Despite knowing that, Martinsville took on the challenge.

I got to drive a sweet machine. It's a piece of history I never knew existed.

There, I wrote a whole column without further mention of the 'D' word!