ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BOB WOELK
Goessel’s Jerry Toews can say something only three or four other antique tractor enthusiasts can boast. He is the owner of a Pioneer brand tractor.
“There are only eight or nine of these unique tractors that have survived,” Toews said. “Four or five of them are owned by associations or museums. Only four or five are in private hands.”
Two of those hands belong to Toews, who has been lovingly and skillfully restoring the circa 1915 behemoth since last October.
In addition to the rarity of the tractor, Toews is also tickled by the completeness of its history.
“One of the neat things about the tractor is having the history on it from the day it was sold,” he said. “I even have a copy of an original picture where it is pulling a road grader.”
According to Toews, the tractor began its life in a small factory in Winona, Minn. The company was only in business from 1910-1920, a time when everyone was trying to build a bigger tractor to pull bigger plows. But the gasoline engine technology had not yet advanced to the point where the big four-cylinder engines were reliable enough to be practical.
“These monsters would pull a 10- to 12-bottom plow, which was totally unheard of in those days when a lot of farmers were still using horses to pull one-bottom plows,” Toews said. “But very few people understood the gas engine very well. People were building machines without knowing how to build them. There were very serious breakdowns. Then the tractors could be out of commission for months. Parts would be shipped by rail from the factory, and then they would have to be delivered to some field in the middle of nowhere.”
The parts were heavy and difficult to move. In addition, few people were even qualified to make the repairs. Then along came Henry Ford’s Fordson tractors with lightweight parts that were interchangeable with the Model T cars, Toews said. The farmers could fix the Fordson tractors themselves.
Soon the builders of big tractors went broke. Most of the gasoline monsters died unceremoniously on World War II scrap drives.
The look of the Pioneer is also unique in the world of tractors. Its fully enclosed cab features sliding windows. With its huge radiator and headlights, “it looks like a giant race car,” Toews said.
The Pioneer’s specifications include its 21-foot length, 25,000-pound weight and 8-foot diameter rear wheels. The engine is an opposed four cylinder, and the tractor boasts a rare three-speed transmission, the only one of its kind.
Toews, a retired music teacher and long-time antique engine enthusiast, does mechanical restorations full-time these days.
“That’s just a fancy way of saying that I work with junk,” he said.
And junk was exactly what his Pioneer looked like when he bought it. In fact, he nearly didn’t make the purchase at all.
“A 1989 sale of one of these tractors brought $46,000 and really shook up the antique tractor collectors’ world because most were selling for around $3,000,” he said. “We (Toews and his wife, Leann) had a chance to buy one about eight years ago. I got in a bidding war with a fellow from Iowa. He ended up buying it, and I was OK with that.
“At that point, I was resolved we would never own one. Then, in February of 2000, a friend of mine in Iowa told me a Pioneer was going to be for sale. He collects large gas tractors, and he already had a Pioneer. He said, ‘Jerry, if you ever wanted one, here’s your chance.'”
The tractor was owned by Fred Nolan in Jerseyville, Ill. Nolan had purchased the Pioneer for about $20,000 from a Missouri entrepreneur named Rowe “Doc” Carney. Carney had used the tractor to build a road out to his farm back in 1934. He had bought the machine from Phelps County around 1930.
The Missouri county had purchased two Pioneers from the factory around 1915. But, as the tractors were being unloaded from the train, one of them got away from workers and rolled onto a second track. An oncoming steam train hit the tractor, damaging it beyond repair. That unit was dismantled and used for parts to keep the second tractor running.
For the next 15 years, Phelps County used the tractor to build roads. In fact, Highway 63 was constructed through Rolla using the very tractor Toews now owns.
After his Iowa friend called him, Toews still wasn’t all that excited about purchasing the Pioneer. He had several restoration projects in the works, and besides, calls to the police department in Rolla failed to help Toews locate the owners.
“The antique-tractor people had completely lost track of this thing,” Toews said. Then he received news that the tractor had been located in Jerseyville, and it was going up for sale.
“I left early in the morning, and I had it in my mind that I was just going on a lark,” Toews said. “I was still not really interested in the tractor.”
It turns out Nolan was living in a Civil-War-era mansion. He was selling the Pioneer to help fund his home restoration.
“I looked at the tractor; I guess I spent about four hours there,” Toews said. “This thing was rougher than a cob. It was original, but it was very rough. What interested me was that every piece was there.”
Convinced the restoration would be too much work, Toews returned home.
“Leann asked me if I bought it,” he said. “I told her, ‘no.’ She said, ‘Why not?’ She sort of talked me into it. So, I called the owner back and tried to negotiate a price. But, he wouldn’t budge, so I said I would take it.”
The unrestored machine was hauled to Goessel in time for last year’s Threshing Days. Then, Oct. 1, the restoration process began.
“I’ve dedicated myself to this project ever since,” Toews said. “I’ve worked on it dark to dark about every day.”
Toews stripped the Pioneer all the way down to the frame. He rebuilt every part and put it all back together. The sheet metal covering is all new. Those parts that were too damaged to replicate, Toews researched through his network of fellow enthusiasts. The work is in its final stages.
He plans to display the tractor at this year’s Threshing Days festival in Goessel Aug. 3, 4 and 5.
“I won’t guarantee it will be running,” Toews said. “But, it will be on display for people to look at.”