CENTURIA — Wrench at the ready, 11-year-old Lexi Johnson couldn’t wait for someone to give her a job as restoration of this year’s Almelund Threshing Show project tractor — a long-neglected 1958 Cockshutt 540 — got underway.
Finally tasked with removing bolts and collecting them in plastic bags as tractor teardown began, Lexi wasn’t bashful; she leapt into action.
As has been the case every mid-winter for the past several years, Al Deiss’ Rosewood Restoration shop near Centuria was bustling with activity Feb. 2 as about 10 youth began the work of reviving the old 540, which will be raffled off at the threshing show Aug. 9-11 in Almelund, Minn. Cockshutt is the 2019 featured brand.
The group will meet every other Saturday morning through April, when they plan to debut the restored tractor, which had been parked in the snow in Iowa until just the previous afternoon, at the Pioneer Power Show in Le Sueur, Minn. The tractor will be shown in several area parades and other events this summer, with raffle tickets sold for the chance to win it.
After coffee, donuts and an overview on safety and tools, the group worked on getting the tractor to start, then took a break before the tractor’s yellow sheet metal was removed and the big group was split into small groups.
While mentors handle the painting, these young mechanics tackle everything else, from sandblasting to mounting tires. In between, they scrutinize every square inch of the tractor, asking questions and learning how things work.
“We’ve got a lot of rookies in here,” said Bruce Nelson, who runs Brisk Enterprises, a nearby engine business, and, with Deiss, came up with the idea for young people to restore tractors in 2011 while trailering that year’s show project tractor, a John Deere, home from northwest Minnesota.
“We were talking about how it will be a lot of work, and we needed some help. I said let’s get some (club) members to help. One of us said maybe we could get members’ kids, or some kids in general,” Nelson said. “That’s how it came about; we were feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Nelson and Deiss both supervise with the group, along with Jack Van Solum of St. Croix Falls, who specializes in wiring generators.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said Deiss, who donates much of the cost of restoration.
The nonprofit Almelund Threshing Co. buys the tractor, as well as necessary parts. Outside donations also are welcome. Proceeds from the raffle ticket sale go back into the club’s general fund to support future shows.
Deiss’ grandson, 14-year-old Jake Cable, has been part of the project for the past few years and is among a few teen boys taking the lead this year. A student at Unity High School, he’s interested in a career as an aerospace engineer or rocket physicist.
“I love working on tractors with my grandpa,” he said.
Participants learn leadership and cooperation skills, but one of the best parts about it, Nelson and Deiss agree, is that they become actively engaged in the project, and their curiosity only builds on itself.
“These kids aren’t reaching for their phones; their hands are busy,” Deiss said. “We have their 100 percent attention.”
“They’re always eager to work, and sometimes work through break time,” Nelson added.
Some past participants have taken it a step further, pursuing careers in engineering and mechanics after high school because of what they learned in this project.
“These kids are actually looking into different careers, not just looking at going to college and desk jobs,” Deiss said. “They’re finding that those careers, hands-on, are very high in demand. ... It’s very exciting for Bruce and I to see that. Some go from knowing nothing to going beyond what I know.”
Some tractors are easier to restore than others. Last year’s model, an Allis-Chalmers 160, for example, was difficult to restore and locate parts for, Nelson said. Later models, from about 1960 and newer, work best. They’re already seeking a John Deere 220 to work on next year.
“Sometimes, we have to tear them half down to get to where they’re running,” Nelson said. “We don’t always get them running on the first day.”
If the project begins to lag behind schedule, risking failure to meet their deadline, he said, they work a few extra Saturdays or he and Deiss help “fast-forward” things by completing some of the more difficult jobs. Progress also depends on the arrival of parts, he said.
Lexi’s mom, Susie Johnson of Wyoming, Minn., said four of her children have gone through the project, and it has ignited their interest in tractor restoration, mechanics and collecting. They have enjoyed the chance to “get greasy,” she said, but also opportunity to learn from a mentor. The Johnsons are avid Oliver collectors.
“They know as soon as the snow is gone, the tractor comes out and they can play; they’re anxious,” she said.
Participating families help display the tractor at shows, Johnson said, and “we have a lot of fun.”
Before getting to join in for the first time this year, Lexi, who will turn 12 in April, observed the older students. Some are veterans, having done it two or more times.
Along with enlisting club members’ children, grandchildren and neighbors, Nelson said, they have drawn participants from local high school agriculture classes. Ten is an optimum number in the shop, but they have had as many as 20 some years.
“Keeping them occupied and on task is not possible,” Nelson said.
While most participants are boys, they have had several girls go through the program, and Nelson said they work very hard and do a great job.
“We have people coming to us looking to get their kids in now,” he said.
He and Deiss are thrilled to expose area young people who otherwise may not get this kind of access to the inner workings of antique tractors. It’s been a good way to help ensure a future for their club, which, like many other antique tractor groups, consists mostly of older members.
“People have to have a connection to have an interest,” Deiss said. “If these kids have a connection with Almelund and a connection with these tractors, they’ll grow up and be a future member and on the board of directors.”
“A lot of these kids have never seen a wrench. They don’t know a wrench from a screwdriver from a hammer or a punch,” Nelson said. “It has been a great thing.”