San Benito County Historical Society President John Wrobel. Photo by Robert Eliason.
San Benito County Historical Society President John Wrobel. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The San Benito County Historical Society has acquired 13 restored and partially restored two-cylinder John Deere agricultural tractors manufactured between 1926 and 1953 and used on farms in the San Jose area. San Benito County Historical Society President John Wrobel accepted the donation from 88-year-old collector Jake Smith and transported them to the county’s Historical Park. 

“He spent a good part of his life restoring these tractors as a hobby,” Wrobel said. “I told him we would put them out here at the park, he was really happy that they were going to go someplace where folks could see them and that they would get a little bit of appreciation. He shook my hand and said, ‘Come get them.’”

Smith, who was unavailable for comment, was prompted to donate the tractors after getting a foreclosure notice on the property where they had been stored. Initially, Wrobel had until early June to transport them, then found out they had to be moved instead by the end of March—which was only a week away. 

“I made a whole bunch of phone calls over the course of that week,” he said, “and I rounded up half a dozen guys with pickups and trailers. We loaded them all up and moved them to a property in Gilroy. Two weeks after that, with some help, we moved them one by one to the Historical Park with the help of Tom Rider and his tilt bed truck and my son Nathan’s diesel pickup.”

Nine of the tractors are the Model D version, the most popular of the John Deere tractors, which was in production from 1923 through 1953. Using their serial numbers, Wrobel established the oldest Model Ds in the park’s collection are two that date from 1926, with the rest ranging from 1929 to 1935.

There is also one three-wheeled Model 40-S from 1953, a Model 40 from 1953, a Model MI that Wrobel dated between 1953 and 1955 and a Model L from 1940.   

Most of the tractors still have their original John Deere green paint and yellow wheels and, as of five years ago, when Smith stopped working on them, all but a few have been restored to working condition.  

The construction of the tractors is fairly rudimentary. There is no key to start them; the driver would set the choke on the carburetor and spin the flywheel on the side of the tractor to engage the engine. They also did not have water pumps and relied on what Wrobel described as a “thermocycle siphon system.”

“Many antique cars were designed in this same way,” he said. “As the water heats up, it rises and the cool water settles, which keeps it circulating through the system.”

Some of the tractors were fueled by a combination of gasoline and more affordable kerosene. Gasoline was used to start the engine, then the operator switched to kerosene when it began to run. They were equipped with a variety of wheels as well: rubber tires, metal rims and metal with large removable spikes attached to help with traction. Only one tractor still has the spikes. The rest—on tractors that had them—were taken off for easier transportation.

The tractors are also designed to include a belt drive wheel on the side for added functionality.

“You would block it up so it can’t go anywhere and you put a giant belt around the wheel,” Wrobel said. “And then you would have another piece of equipment, like a threshing machine or a bailing machine and that giant belt would run that machine. The tractor would just sit there but be running the other equipment.”

Besides being an important part of agricultural history for people to appreciate at the park, Wrobel has some thoughts beyond simply having them on display.

Ideas include hayrides at the park, demonstrations of the various uses the tractors could have on a farm and to run one or more of the tractors in local parades.

“Some of them have rubber tires which make them more portable,” he said. “But I know that the Agricultural History Museum project in Watsonville has some rubber things they put on their steel wheel tractors to make it easier to drive on the pavement and I’m going to probably spend a little time with them figuring it out.”

The tractors have already gained attention from park visitors, including park regular Don Cummings.

“I think they are pretty cool,” he said. “Amazing, actually. I think they are a great addition to the park and really highlight the agricultural history of this area. I would love to see some of them up and going.”

Wrobel said further donations are needed to take care of the tractors and to build a structure to protect them from the weather. He’s also looking for volunteers to help with repairs and maintenance.

“The object is to find some people who are interested in playing with mechanical things on weekends,” he said. “We will put some fluids in these tractors and see what we can do about making some of them run, then do an evaluation on which ones we can do something with. And then we just have to give them a little love.”

 

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