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Archive for Sunday, February 14, 2010

Nothing runs like a (restored) Deere

Thurman Duncan, De Soto, likes to take apart old John Deere tractors and restore them. He is standing next to a 1958 Model 620 he found in Eudora.

Thurman Duncan, De Soto, likes to take apart old John Deere tractors and restore them. He is standing next to a 1958 Model 620 he found in Eudora.

February 14, 2010

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— Thurman Duncan did a lot of work behind the wheel of John Deere tractors while growing up on his parents’ Missouri dairy farm in the 1940s and 1950s.

The 71-year-old De Soto man still spends a lot of time with the distinctive green and yellow machines. He has a growing collection of tractors dating from 1937 to 1958.

But Duncan’s current involvement with John Deere tractors is for relaxation, not work.

“I’m not much of a TV watcher. It helps me relax the mind. It helps me get away from all this,” he said of his work at R.L. Duncan, the family construction firm.

Duncan started his collection eight years ago when he rebuilt a tractor he found in Wellsville. He’s completed eight more restorations in his shop near De Soto known as John Deere South. Six more rebuilds are in progress, and the remains of four tractors are piled outside awaiting their turn.

“I just like them,” he said, with a slight grin and a shake of the head. “I’ve always liked them. Even when I was a farm kid at home, I admired John Deeres.”

The restorations bring him to the shop most evenings, where he often works with Kevin Haefner, who is rebuilding his own John Deere in the shop.

“We’ve known each other for a long time,” Haefner said. “One day we started talking at a job site, and I found out he did this, too.”

Duncan said he can spend as much as two years rebuilding a tractor, depending on its condition. He reconditions frames and tears down engines for Danny Sneed, of De Soto, to rebuild in the shop. As a finishing touch, Haefner repaints them John Deere green and yellow.

Thurman Duncan of De Soto likes to take apart old John Deere tractors and restore them to an almost new look. He is very creful about putting all his tools back onto his tool table so he can easily find them.

Thurman Duncan of De Soto likes to take apart old John Deere tractors and restore them to an almost new look. He is very creful about putting all his tools back onto his tool table so he can easily find them.

Reliable machines

One plus of restoring John Deeres is that the company still makes gaskets, belts and even carburetor kits for the old tractors, Duncan said. That’s not true of internal engine and drivetrain parts.

“Sometimes you have to find gears,” he said. “That’s a little more of a challenge. That’s when you have to get on the Internet.”

But John Deeres are famously reliable, and he has only found one broken gear in the rear ends he’s torn apart.

Like the people who farmed with them, John Deeres of the period he collects have an honest simplicity, Duncan said. They’re powered by two-cylinder motors with pistons from 6 inches to 9 inches in diameter that fire with a distinctive rhythm that gave the tractors the nickname “Johnny Poppers.”

“They say Harley Davidsons have a distinctive sound,” Haefner said. “There’s nothing else that sounds like these old John Deeres when they get going. Pop, pop, pop.”

Duncan said he admired the quality John Deere continued to put in its tractors, but he said the modern large field tractor and smaller garden tractor in a corner of the shop, with their plastic body parts, wouldn’t take the neglect the old iron and steel Johnny Poppers endured. One tractor he’s salvaged had sat so long that trees were growing through the wheels.

Two are special

Duncan can talk at length about all his tractors, but he said two stand out.

“I’ve got a very special 1958 620,” he said. “It’s got a brass identification tag. Back then when a farmer got everything they produce on a tractor, power-steering and all that stuff, they put a brass tag on it.

Thurman Duncan works on restoring a 1946 Slant Dash A John Deere tractor he found in a field in Harrisonville.

Thurman Duncan works on restoring a 1946 Slant Dash A John Deere tractor he found in a field in Harrisonville.

“It’s the Cadillac of my collection.”

The other special tractor is a 1946 GM.

“It’s called a ’46, but it was really built in ’44 or ’45,” he said. “Plants were supposed to be working only on war production, but farmers wanted tractors to get in their crops.

“They bootlegged parts to build 900 tractors. I’ve got the only one in this part of the country.”

Duncan said his daughter called about the tractor when she saw it would be part of an estate sale in Johnstown, Colo., where it had been owned by a sugar beet farmer. Later, she bid from instructions her father gave over a cell phone.

Most of Duncan’s rebuilt tractors are as bright and shinny as those in a showroom. The exception is a 1937B that is entered into pulling competitions, which has the duller, working patina.

“I just like to get on it and pull,” he said. “I’ve got it bored out a little bit. The pistons are a little bigger than they should be.”

As for the rest of the collection, Duncan said he liked to show the tractors off at parades and they are a fixture in the De Soto Days Parade. He also likes to work them out occasionally at antique tractor plow days.

“That’s what they’re made for,” he said. “But after all the work we put into them, I feel they are better than when they came out of the factory. I kind of hate to get them battered up too much.”

Comments

valencialowe 4 years, 7 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

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Liberty275 4 years, 7 months ago

I always heard they painted John Deeres green so they could hide from all the other tractors in the field...

But seriously, what a really cool hobby.

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labmonkey 4 years, 7 months ago

I will not knock the man's hobby, but I would rather have an old Ford any day. How many 8N's, 800's, and 8000's are still around? An 8000 is nearly indestructible.

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Boosh 4 years, 7 months ago

A decent magazine for those interested is Farm Collector http://www.farmcollector.com/ it's published out of topeka but don't hold that agginnit :)

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puddleglum 4 years, 7 months ago

an old ford? surely you jest?

what can beat the sound of a johnny popper?

awesome article.

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labmonkey 4 years, 7 months ago

I don't see too many Johnny-poppers actually being used whereas I see hundreds of 8N Fords from the 1940's still in use. I am more for functionality than collecting.

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