"In the world of tractor collecting, there's a lot of priority on low numbers," says Bill Borghoff, a former test engineer for International Harvester. He's talking about serial numbers--the lower one is, the older and more desirable the machine. Borghoff isn't the biggest collector; he has two tractors, and he's part owner of a third. But that last one just happens to be the first diesel-powered International Harvester Farmall 806 ever made. And it's a tractor he tested 40 years ago.
The Farmall, introduced in 1924, was tall and narrow, with close-set front wheels that allowed it to maneuver between crop rows. Its tricycle shape--known as the "row-crop"--was quickly copied by companies like John Deere, Case, and Allis-Chalmers, and Farmalls came in dozens of variations over the years. In 1962, shortly after Borghoff started work at the Farm Equipment Research and Testing Center in Hinsdale, one of the models in development was the 806.
By June 1963, bright red pilot versions were being sent from the assembly plant in Rock Island to Hinsdale for testing. The very first 806 off the line, serial number 501, was gas powered; 502 ran on diesel. "About this time tractors were going away from gas," says Borghoff, "so this became a very popular model." He and his fellow engineers poked, prodded, and sent the two 806 pilots--plus several more--on their way.
Where 502 went after it left the testing facility is anybody's guess--pilots usually wound up used as demos or photographed for ads--but eventually it was sold to a farmer in northern Illinois, who traded it in the late 60s to an IH dealer in Plainfield. Meanwhile Borghoff--who worked in the industry until 1987, then went into the consulting business--got interested in collecting. In the early 90s he met a guy named Larry Eipers, a national officer in the IH Collectors Club who lived near Morris. They got to talking about Borghoff's old job, and to Borghoff's surprise Eipers told him he knew where number 502 was: with his neighbor Jim Weiss, former shop foreman at the Paddock's IH dealership in Plainfield. The two men drove to Plainfield, and Borghoff took a look at the tractor he'd helped test. Then he went back home to Naperville.
"Then in early '98," he says, "Jim started thinking about paring down some, and he contacted Larry [about buying 502]. They hemmed and hawed, they kicked the tires. This went on for quite some time." When Weiss finally named his price, it was a little more than Eipers wanted to spend, so he called Borghoff. Borghoff offered to split it with him, and the following March they took possession of 502.
Borghoff's story is a particulary good one, but most tractor collectors have a tale to tell. Retired Yorkville farmer Dan Quantock says he still remembers the Oliver 70 his dad bought when he was a kid. "It was $1,800, and he pulled 1,800 one-dollar bills out and paid for it," he says. "I got to drive it home." Max Armstrong's story is about a 1953 Farmall Super M. "My parents took delivery on that tractor at a dealership two blocks from the hospital where I was delivered the same summer," says Armstrong, who cohosts the weekly syndicated radio program National Farm Report. He learned to drive on it, and when his father put the tractor up for auction years later, he bought it.
Borghoff, Eipers, Quantock, and Armstrong are just four of the 200 collectors from eight states who will ride their rigs along 97 miles of the I & M Canal in the inaugural Heritage Tractor Adventure. Modeled after the six-year-old Great Iowa Tractor Ride, which is supposed to promote both tourism and agricultural history, the Illinois event will start June 9 in Joliet and wrap up June 12 in Streator after weaving through Morris and Ottawa. Along the way drivers will stop off at the Joliet Junior College ag department, the grain elevator museum in Seneca, and one of the state's few remaining mule barns.
"It was Max's idea," says Ross Ament, executive director of the Illinois Heritage Corridor Convention and Visitors Bureau, who organized the event with Armstrong. "We've known each other for a long time."
"People who have these old tractors, they like to fix 'em up and parade 'em and that sort of thing," says Armstrong.
Registration for the event started at noon January 10; by one o'clock 70 people had signed up. Rules of entry require the tractors to have rubber tires and to go at least six miles an hour. The oldest in the group is from 1935, though most entries are of 1950s vintage. Drivers can switch off, but only one person at a time is allowed on a tractor. An emergency crew will be riding along in case anybody breaks down, which they probably will, says Armstrong. "Guys who've been on these rides in the past tell me that's one of the most exciting things that happens."
When it does, the other riders are bound to gather around the disabled machine and put in their two cents. "If a green tractor breaks down, guys that have red ones will be swarming around it," says Armstrong. In the days before International Harvester merged with Case, and White bought out Oliver, and Agco bought out everybody, the color of a man's tractor showed where his loyalty lay. "There was John Deere green, but Oliver made what was called a meadow green," says Armstrong. "There was Caterpillar yellow, but there was another company called Minneapolis-Moline that made a tractor that was prairie gold. Young men growing up in a farm community would get in fights on the playground because of the color of their fathers' tractors. So there'll be some good-natured teasing on the ride."
Many participants--like Illinois Farm Bureau executive director Mark Frels, whose father is the collector in the family--have rescued their tractors from disrepair. "The one I'm driving is a 1956 Minneapolis-Moline U Special," says Frels. "For 20 years it didn't run. Two years ago my dad and I got together and got it all fixed up." His brother A.J., who runs Starved Rock Lodge, will be driving their dad's 1953 John Deere 40.
In the case of Borghoff's Farmall 806, the tractor ran fine, but the previous owner "had made some improvements," he says. "We wanted it restored back to like it was when it was a pilot." He and Eipers installed original fenders, lights, control levers, a seat, a steering wheel, and decals; Eipers's nephew gave it "the perfect paint job." They finished the restoration in summer 1999, just in time for an IH Collectors Club show in Hastings, Minnesota, where the gas-powered number 501 was also going to make an appearance. Says Borghoff, "We wanted 502 standing tall."
The Heritage Tractor Adventure starts Sunday night, June 9, with a party at Joliet's Route 66 Raceway. Spectators along the route are encouraged (although following the ride is not, says Ament) and activities along the way are open to the public, including the kickoff party, a tractor auction Monday night in Morris, and the grain elevator tours Tuesday afternoon. For a complete schedule of stops, see www.heritagetractoradventure.com or call 800-926-2262.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.