One of the first tractors to roll off the trailer in the Delphi High School parking lot on a rainy Saturday morning earlier this summer was an Empire tractor. Gene Gangwer, Rossville, is the proud owner. He deserves to be proud. He rebuilt the machine from pieces he sought out. He was there to drive the tractor in the second annual Delphi FFA Tractor Drive, held to raise money for scholarships for Delphi FFA students.
“It was pretty rough when I started on it,” Gangwer relates. “The platform for the seat is actually a grate taken from battleships after the war. That is what the company actually used to make the platforms when they built them new."
If you’ve never heard of an Empire tractor, don’t worry. Few people have. Those who have seen one or actually driven one are rarer yet.
Martinsville FFA Chapter, led by Advisor Donnie Sheldon, rebuilt one a few years ago. It was one of the first to show up at fairs, including the Indiana State Fair, where it was the "tractor of the day" at one point.
Dick Kruse, an antique tractor buff, Crawfordsville, found the one Martinsville FFA restored in a Kentucky barn lot with a tree growing up through it. Specializing in mechanics, Sheldon persuaded his students to tackle the project, and the tractor is in running order today.
Quirk in history
According to Sheldon, the Empire Tractor Co., Empire, N.Y., was formed to convert leftover Willys Jeeps from the military after World War II into tractors. The thinking was that with government policies to help rebuild countries overseas, the tractors would find a home in foreign countries.
Several thousand were built. However, foreign farmers weren’t impressed and few sold there. Some were sold in the U.S. The company folded after a couple of years.
“It has a Willys transmission in it,” Gangwer says. “I could run faster than any tractor at the tractor drive if they would let me. Most older tractors topped out at 10 to 12 miles per hour. This tractor will go over 20 miles per hour on the road.”
He has also restored another Empire, and has a third one waiting at home. It's very rusty but fairly complete — he’s waiting for his wife’s OK to begin that project.