The eldest of eight kids, Dave Wolfsen was born and raised on a dairy farm, but he hated cows and would rather pitch box stalls all day than milk cows. Driving tractor to spread that manure, on the other hand, was considered a reward. The fascination with tractors was embedded early on and has only grown through the years.
But even some of the most die-hard tractor lovers would balk at what Wolfsen, 66, is doing.
Part adventure, part evangelist mission to help others, Dave Wolfsen, has embarked on a journey that initially aimed at taking him through all 48 contiguous states on an antique tractor pulling a 20-foot camper trailer.
He left his home town of Fremont, Michigan, in June and, undoubtedly, he will have some of the most interesting "what I did over my summer," stories to tell when he returns. One of those stories will tell about unexpected difficulties pulling a large trailer up and down Pennsylvanian mountains that ended up in his cutting short at least part of his trip. He ran into troubles in Myersville,Maryland, in the first leg of his journey, that caused him to take some time out, reassess and cut some stops he originally planned that would have taken him through two stops in Beckley and Homer, West Virginia, and one in Zionville, North Carolina, as well as some other states in the Southeast. After some time out he got back on the road and now, pulling a smaller and less wieldy trailer, he is heading through the Midwest, from Quincy, Illinois into Missouri and so on.
If you're scratching your head and wondering why he would go through the trouble of a tractor trip across America, that's exactly what he wants people to ask while he's traveling the countryside.
Wolfsen, a.k.a. Tractor Dave, is trekking across a big part of the United States to familiarize people with two humanitarian, non-profit organizations: the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee and Foods Resource Bank. He's hoping to bank at least $200,000 in donations to be split evenly for their causes.
Each day, traveling 25 to 30 m.p.h., he can cover about 125 miles. "That's about five hours on the tractor, which isn't too bad," he says. The rest of the time he has been seeking out the people in rural communities and trying to organize evening ag banquets or coffee talks. On his laptop he has a power point presentation on the work of the two missions. Using a network of churches, Tractor Dave has makes planned stops where he will talk, but also listen. He's using an audio recorder to capture these conversations. "At some point, I have ambitions of compiling them into a book," he says.
He also has a Facebook page that chronicles his daily adventures in a blog-type format with new albums of photos being posted daily.
At night, generous people he meets along the way allow him to park and plug in his trailer, where he has many comforts of home, as well as tools and few spare parts.
At the time he left, Tractor Dave had a set number of scheduled stops. "The rest will be fly-by-night," he noted.
For the most part, the trip is a solo ride, but there are some who tag a long for stretches of the journey. Some follow him in their own antique tractors while others occupy the extra seat that he had mounted next to his. "I have some people who are flying out and will take a taxi to wherever I am to ride for a day," he says.
Love of tractors
For 36 years Wolfsen sold tractors for a living as an International Harvester dealer. He's retired now – well, kind of. Ironically, it was during his part time job of spreading brine on roads for the county road commission that he came across a unique find. He spotted an old tractor sitting in someone's yard in pretty rough shape. "You see a lot of things when you're traveling country roads at 6 m.p.h. At first I thought it was a doodlebug – something fabricated with pieces and parts," he says. "In speaking with the grandson of the man who bought it new, I learned it was a 1937 Co-Op tractor manufactured by Farm Bureau. I thought it was kind of unique and I had $50 bucks in my pocket."
Wolfsen hauled it to his buddy's, Larry Brinkman's, barn and the two began to slowly tinker with it. "I bought it in the spring of 2007 and by the winter of 2008-2009 we had it running. All I had was time in it."
Now that he had an antique tractor, he would take rides with members of his church, the First Christian Reform Church. That led to an invitation to take a week-long tractor ride though Illinois and Iowa. "I was going to trailer it down there, then I thought, geez my tractor goes 30 m.p.h., I could drive it down there in 10 hours."
That led to thoughts of raising funds for charity and possibly a trip around the Great Lakes. He admits in 2009, it really got out of hand. "That's when thoughts of riding through all 48 states would keep me up at night," he explains. He kept those thoughts to himself for about three months. "That's when I told Larry, and he simply said, 'well, you better do that.'"
Brinkman is a volunteer for Disaster Relief Services, which travels to help whenever and where ever in the U.S. to help when disaster strikes. "I talked with them about fundraising and when I found out that the director of DRS was also involved with Foods Resource Bank, I thought that is a really good combination – both are about helping people in need," Wolfsen says.
Wolfsen's not sure what his wife will be doing while he's away. For the most part she's staying put to welcome their new baby granddaughter, Nora Rose, who was born June 7.
In addition to his Facebook communication, he will also check in regularly on his cell phone, including calling the church paper, The Banner, every Monday for a progress report.
"So far, this process has been a joy at every turn. The Lord is working in this whole thing, who else could do all this," he says.
For more information about when Dave will be in your area, see www.tractorrideacrossus.org.
To donate online, visit www.crwrc.org/tractordave.
Although the trip has been amended, he says he may visit the stops he missed in a second follow-up trip, next summer.
To make the trip, about $7,000 was put into the tractor to overhaul the engine, paint, clean up and restore to tip-top shape. "I need to be clear that neither of the charities I'm riding for has invested in this trip – they only stand to benefit. This trip is made possible by gifts from the community and my own investment."
Wolfsen says he will take the people of Fremont with him on his journey. "All these years I was busy with the business and when I wasn't, the time I had was spent doing something for myself or my family. This is a way of doing something bigger and giving back. I find myself in a new position – I always considered myself part of the community, now the community is part of me and I want to share that with others. It's humbling."
While his wife, Deb, did have some reservations about safety, Wolfsen says he's not worried. He fitted his tractor with a windshield and a top and roll down sides, but there's no heat or air. "I'm in good health and I'm up for this. If the tractor breaks, I'll fix it or find someone who can."
Because the tractor goes 30 m.p.h., it does not qualify for a Slow Moving Vehicle sign.
For the most he's not worried about his route, which includes a lot of state highways and rural roadways. There are a few obstacles in the East and in the mountains where highways have been abandoned for expressways. "There are a couple of rivers that I will need to find a ferry over and a few mountain tunnels where I will need to investigate options. I have faith that it will all come together."
For a good causes
The goal of the trip, "Tractor Dave Crosses America," is to raise funds and awareness for two non-profit organizations based in the mid-West that work toward alleviating hunger and respond to disasters around the world: the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (www.crwrc.org) and Foods Resource Bank (www.foodsresourcebank.org).
The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee is a faith-based, international relief and development organization that touches the lives of more than 1.5 million of the world's poorest people annually in development and disaster response. Foods Resource Bank is a non-profit organization that "grows solutions to hunger" by connecting local communities around the globe through agriculture.