Farm Horizons, May 2011

From scrap metal to priceless collectibles: Two brothers share a passion for restoring first-year model John Deere tractors

By Kristen Miller

For two Kingston brothers, when it comes to restoring machinery, it’s all about the green – John Deere green that is.

Trevor Gottschalk, 29, and younger brother Travis, 26, have been working on machinery ever since they were old enough to pick up a wrench, but it wasn’t until they walked through a Lyon County Fair tractor barn that their focus shifted from showing steers to displaying farm machinery.

The brothers recalled the summer of 1994, when they sold their 4-H steers in order to buy a 1939 and a 1944 B John Deere.

They spent the whole summer and winter wire brushing off the old paint, wrenching on them to get them running again, and painting them to look like new, so the following summer they could be entered into the fair.

It was at that fair when an older gentleman, who had expressed how impressed he was with the work the two brothers had done, told them about a pair of cut-off steel rims that he had from a first-year A John Deere tractor.

He told the young boys – roughly 10 and 12 years of age at the time – that if they could put a tractor around those rims, he would give them to them for free. And so began the Gottschalks’ collection of first-year lettered series John Deere tractors. John Deere used letters to identify the different models prior to the 1950s, when numbers were used to indicate the model.

The more the brothers worked on tractors, the more they learned about each of the models. For example, the brothers found a 1934 open fan shaft Model A John Deere. The open shaft had caused some major issues with the coolant system and was labeled for its weakness.

Like any collector, there needs to be a focus. For the Gottschalk brothers, instead of working on a variety of tractors, they wanted to focus on the first-year tractors because parts are harder to find and much more rare, ultimately making them worth more.

They found most of the parts they needed through the Internet. But before the convenience of the World Wide Web, many of the parts were found via word-of-mouth.

Distance didn’t stop the boys from getting the tractor they wanted to add to their collection either, having driven as far as to South Carolina for a particular model tractor.

The tractors they get are basically scrap most of the time. “They could be all the way in the back corner of the machine shed, to a pile of parts in a grove of trees,” Trevor said.

Putting the tractors together part-by-part was, much of the time, done through trial and error. Other times, they would find a manual for that particular model tractor.

Since many of the parts didn’t come free, the boys worked a variety of jobs throughout their high school years including milking cows, hay baling, and picking rock.

Sometimes, they would find a common tractor not belonging to their collection that needed some work. They would refurbish it and sell it for cash so they could buy another tractor to add to their first-year tractor collection.

In any given year, the brothers would work on at least one tractor, which could amount to several hundred hours of work a year. This undoubtedly kept them busy, in addition to their involvement in sports and part-time jobs.

Though they would show their tractors at various fairs, even winning several ribbons, the Gottschalk boys did it all for the pure enjoyment of it.

“We were able to share a piece of history with a bunch of fellas who wanted to talk farming,” Trevor said.

Not only would the freshly-painted farm machinery from the past spark up conversations among the older generations of farmers, but they would also catch the eye of the younger generations, as well.

The brothers also enjoyed the “hunt of it all” and finding parts that aren’t all that easy to find. It was also interesting for them to learn about each of the 37 full-size tractors that now fill a 40-foot-by-100-foot shed located on their parents’ Kingston farm.

Throughout the years, they also expanded their collection to include first-year John Deere lawn and garden tractors, snowmobiles, pedal tractors, cast iron toys, and bicycles.

Their father, Scott, actually found the first lawn and garden tractor that started another collection.

These particular tractors, called patio tractors, were specifically created to attract females, the Gottschalks explained. These vintage lawn tractors were produced between 1969 and 1971, and came in four colors; blue, yellow, orange, and red.

Scott explained that John Deere’s venture in custom-colored lawn tractors “failed miserably” and the company had to repaint the remaining inventory in green and yellow in order to sell them.

Today, these tractors are very rare and can be sold for as much as $3,000, or four to five times more than what a green lawn tractor is sold for, Scott said.

With an interest in first-year John Deere equipment and machinery, the Gottschalks even have the first-ever bicycle that the company attempted to market.

The 1894 model, which includes wooden rims, is one of only 1,000 wooden-rimmed bikes that remain made within the four years they were manufactured.

There are only four of these that have survived, Scott said, “and there are two in this house.”

Now that Trevor and Travis are grown men, with their own full-time jobs and young families, the time they have to spend in the shed has dwindled a bit.

The experience and knowledge the brothers gained through wrenching on vintage tractors has brought them to the careers they now have.

Trevor, who currently lives in Kingston, earned a college degree in welding and is now a certified boiler operator for Munson Lakes Nutrition in Howard Lake.

Travis is currently living in Wyoming. He went to college for mechanical engineering and is now the maintenance planner for Kiewit Mining Group in Montana.

The brothers still manage to attend four shows a year including shows in Little Falls, Albany, Forest City, and Dyersville, IA, where they attend the National Lawn and Garden Show.

They also have 200 to 400 people stopping by each year to tour their impressive tractor collection.

The oldest tractor in the collection is a 1924 D John Deere, which happened to be the first mass produced tractor to come off the assembly line. The newest tractor in the collection is a 1971 model 2020.

When asked where they got their mechanical abilities, they said it was from their mother, Astrid’s family. “Mom is more of a handyman than our father,” Travis said, explaining that Astrid’s father was a mechanic in World War II. “We think we got it from him,” Trevor said.

Restoring tractors, particularly first-year models, isn’t something Trevor and Travis have done for the glory or the money. They simply enjoy working on machinery and sharing a piece of history with others, and they hope to someday pass on their collection to their own children.

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