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History is Where You Find It

Unique chapter in farm equipment legacy coming to life in ag shop.

Be honest. Have you ever heard of an Empire tractor? If you said 'yes,' you're a member of the Empire Tractor Club, an owner of one of these rare oddities, or perhaps someone with too much time on your hands.

You can read what little is known about the history of this strange machine by Googling Empire Tractor Club. But if you want to see one in person, you may have to do some inquiring. It's not a tractor you run into at your typical antique tractor show.

That's why I was particularly curious when Dick Kruse, a collector of antique tractors and tractors in general, told me this story at the annual Indiana FFA Tractor Drive recently. He drove a Minneapolis Moline U. Unfortunately, I couldn't drive this year, but I stopped by to see Dick and other friends I've met through the drive in the past. Indiana Prairie Farmer was a co-sponsor, along with Beck's Hybrids and CountryMark Co-op.

Last year Dick gave a rough John Deere G to the Martinsville FFA to restore for the purpose of auctioning it off at the Indiana Farm Bureau Convention in December. The advisor there who heads up mechanics classes is Donnie Sheldon. Kruse was so impressed with their work, that he offered them another challenge.

Sitting next to an old barn somewhere in Kentucky on a farm owned by a friend of his was a 'Jeep' tractor, or so the friend called it, with a tree growing through the frame. All four tires were flat and badly weathered. The friend knew about Kruse's love of antique tractors, and told him he could have it if he came and got it.

Kruse told the Martinsville FFA they could have it if they fixed it up. After discussing it, they accepted the challenge. It resembled a bucket of rust more than a tractor, but as it turns out, the engine wasn't stuck. "Two of the four cylinders still had good compression, Sheldon says. The other tow had some compression left.

When I heard about it, I knew I had to see it. Right now, it's laying in pieces scattered around the Martinsville FFA shop floor. But the center frame with engine, radiator, transmission and rear end is intact. It bears several metal plate stamps, including one that says 'Empire Tractor Company' New York, Philadelphia. Apparently the company had its offices in New York, but made the tractor at a plant in Philadelphia.

So where did this tractor come form, and why did it have a short life, made only from 1946 to 1950? Its history is the stuff movies are made of. It's also a story of good intentions and bungling government bureaucracy, with some misguided capitalism thrown in. The engine, transmission and rear end came from the Willys Jeep. In fact, at least the vast majority of these tractors started life as military Jeeps. The whole purpose of the endeavor was to figure out a use for surplus war items once the war ended.

Under the Marshall Plan, as the story goes, a private company was awarded a contract to convert Jeeps intro tractors, and send thousands of them, with the number varying depending upon your source, overseas. They were supposed to help people in countries hit by the war get a source of modern power. Unfortunately, nobody asked the countries if they wanted tractors. After the first few thousand were shipped, no one overseas would accept any more of them.

Stuck with tractors already built, Empire asked permission to sell them in the U.S. and Canada. The government agreed, but because of overhead, they sold for nearly $1,000 more than a Ford 8N. When the company finally dropped the price low enough to sell them, they went bankrupt in the process. Some 6,800 were made.

"It's got one unique, cool feature," Sheldon says. The drawbar goes way up under the frame to the motor, so they were nearly impossible to turn over." In fact, the hitch was patented.

The tractor's undoing was the brakes designed by the company. Using a series of pads and ball bearings, if allowed to sit, the bearings would rust and then the brakes would lock up.

Will this tractor rise again? Donnie and his students insist it will. Their goal is to finish it this summer. Their dream is to exhibit it at the Indiana State Fair and drive it in the Farmers Day parade.

We'll keep you informed. Count this as your history lesson for today.

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