Caring for old iron
OTHO – Dale Gerken collects rusty, dented tractors and makes them shine.
Not the little toys, but full-sized yellow antiques.
For the last 20 years, he has brought Minneapolis-Moline tractors back from the abyss.
The finished products are lined up in a shed on his rural property from oldest to newest.
“When I started farming in 1960, I used that one,” Gerken said, pointing to a 1948 MM U in pristine condition. “I worked for Moline in a company store in Fort Dodge. So I guess that’s where I got started with yellow.”
Rescuing these historic tractors from wasting away in groves or sheds is a passion for Gerken who restores all of them himself.
“I do it for the joy of bringing a pile of junk back into running condition,” he said. “I just like to take it in the worst shape it can be in and see what I can do with it. It’s sort of like a doctor finding a dead person and bringing them back to life.”
Two of the tractors were already in the family. The 1948 MM U which Gerken used to plow fields decades ago and a 1938 Graham Bradley that his father bought from the Sears Roebuck’s catalog.
And the Graham Bradley became a bit of celebrity when its picture appeared in magazines and calendars, Gerken said.
“One day a guy from California called and said he wanted to come out and take pictures of the it,” he said. “I asked him if he was sure he wanted to come all the way out to Iowa to take a few pictures of a tractor.”
Well he did, and the photo ended up in magazines and calendars, Gerken said.
“After it came out in the magazine, I was getting calls from Maine to Oregon from people who wanted to know where to get parts for the tractor,” Gerken said. “I told ’em they had the wrong guy, I had no idea.”
When Gerken can’t find parts for the tractors, he simply makes them. He tinkers with his toys in a work shed complete with a milling machine and a lathe.
“My father was a mechanic all his life, so I guess I inherited the gene from him,” Gerken said. “With the equipment I have I can bend and cut metal. When the wife and I would stay home in the winter, I would always have something in here I was working on.”
Additional important tools for restoration are the product manuals, which Gerken said he is lucky to have.
“My father worked as a mechanic for Moline,” Gerken said. “When they closed, he got the original shop books for Moline tractors made up to 1970. I was real lucky, more or less, in inheriting that kind of stuff. The books are probably over 60 years old.”
However, finding his other projects to work on each year takes some time and help from friends.
A Minneapolis-Moline M5 and a Minneapolis-Moline ZB came from a neighbor’s property where they were slowly deteriorating in a grove.
Gerken brought them home for a little TLC.
“I take ’em completely apart and paint each piece individually,” Gerken said. “Then I put them back together.”
He said he takes lots of pictures of the tractors before stripping the paint.
“That way I know where the decals are at so I can I put them back to where they originally were,” he said.
Over the years, Gerken has taken his prized projects to shows and his grandchildren have driven some of them in parades.
Gerken’s 19-year-old grandson, Tanner Gerken, said he was excited to eventually drive the White G1000 Wheatland his grandfather restored last year.
“I love big tractors,” Tanner Gerken said. When asked if he was following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Tanner Gerken said he was trying to learn, but his grandfather’s hands were quick.
“I don’t want to give any secrets away,” Dale Gerken said, smiling at his grandson.
Per tradition, Gerken will join the Des Moines River Valley Antique Tractor Club this year at the Webster County Fair.
“We have a line up at the county fair,” Gerken said. “I’ll have them all on display July 15-18 at the fairgrounds. We usually wind up with 100 tractors on display.”
Contact Lindsey Mutchler at (515) 573-2141 or email@example.com.
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