Last homesteader’s tractor nearly ready

October 28, 2017 GMT

Its plowing days are long gone, but a dormant tractor rescued from the Alaskan wilderness will live on in Beatrice at Homestead National Monument of America.

But this isn’t just any Allis Chalmers Model C tractor.

There were around four million claims for free land filed under the Homestead Act of 1862 in 123 years. This tractor belonged to the man who was the final homesteader.

Ken Deardorff bought the tractor when he moved to his homestead in the Alaskan wilderness in 1974.

Last year, the Friends of Homestead started an online fundraising campaign to bring the tractor to Nebraska, where University of Nebraska students have been preparing it for display.

Josh Bauer, president of UNL’s tractor restoration club, said the project has been a unique and challenging one..

When the club typically receives a decaying tractor, it’s completely stripped down, sand blasted, repainted and comes out looking brand new. There was a different plan for the last homesteader’s tractor.

“We didn’t want to alter the paint in any way,” Bauer said. “We didn’t want to alter any of the looks of the tractor in any way. We’re used to doing full-on restorations where it’s a complete tear down. Doing a preservation rather than a restoration was kind of a new challenge for us.”

The tractor was cleaned with mineral spirits and denatured alcohol to kill bacteria and black mold.

The rotting wood seat was put back together and period-correct spark plug wires were added to replace those that were missing.

The tractor will not be brought to running condition. Bauer said this is partially because it will end up at Homestead, where displays can’t have fluids like gas or oil. Even if it was allowed, he said the tractor has deep mechanical problems, including a cracked engine block, that would make it impossible, or extremely expensive, to get the tractor running again.

One of the biggest additions to the tractor was new medal stands on casters. This allows the display to be easily moved, and also takes weight of the tractor’s own wheels and tires.

The last homesteader was a 29-year-old Vietnam veteran from California. The Homestead Act was still two years away from being repealed—though the Alaskan repeal was 10 years away, due to its late addition to the United States. Dearsdorff staked a claim and settled on 80 acres about 200 miles from Anchorage and nearly 50 miles from the nearest town.

Using his tractor, Deardorff cleared a forest to grow his crops—mostly hays and grasses, as those were the only things that would grow in the climate. The tractor was his most important tool.

When he left the Alaskan homestead ten years after starting it, the tractor was left sitting outside for the next 30 years. Officials from Homestead Monument learned about the tractor and were determined to bring it to Beatrice.

Doug Koozer, who oversees the tractor restoration club, was one of five people who went to Alaska to get the tractor.

It was extensively photographed before being moved to a clearing. They called in a helicopter to lift the tractor to Big Lake, Alaska, where a crate was custom built for it. It was put on a barge to Anchorage, then onto a ship to Seattle before being trucked to Beatrice.

It was a lot of work to put in for a 72-year-old tractor that had been abandoned in the wilderness, but the experience was worth every second for Koozer.

“Until you hear the story about what it is and the historical significance, it’s just an old tractor,” he said. “You can see 50 of them around here, but when you start throwing the history to it as to what it is, where it’s been and what they did with it, then it’s a whole different story. I would guess most of these kids in this generation have no idea what the Homestead Act is. They’re all now aware of what it is because of that tractor.”

Mark Engler, Homestead park superintendent, said the preservation is nearly complete and a public unveiling is planned for Monday, Nov. 20. He said excitement at Homestead has been building, and both staff and visitors are eager to see the tractor and what it represents.

“This represents the end of an era,” Engler said. “When people think about homesteading it’s easy for them to think about single bottom plows being pulled by horses. Something that not often comes to mind is the use of tractors. This makes the story for many people more relevant.”