What do you do if you are a neurosurgeon but love tinkering with a potentially dangerous hobby? Wear gloves and listen to your wife. That’s the advice of Dr. Keith Kuhlengel who faithfully dons a pair of John Deere gloves to protect his hands before he works on any piece of equipment. He also has followed his wife’s admonition to stay away from steam engines, which can literally blow up in the face of the restorer.
Progress Notes’ Dr. Tony Castle and Carl Manelius got the rare opportunity to view the extensive – and gorgeous collection – of farm equipment at Dr. Kuhlengel’s 120 acre farm near Elizabethtown. Dr. Kuhlengel shared his fascination from childhood of tractors and farm equipment, anecdotes on collecting and the differences between tractor and steam collectors.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about why you got interested in collecting farm machinery?
A: I grew up on a farm in Southern Illinois. My grandfather taught me how to drive a tractor when I was just seven. By age ten, my dad was letting me work with the tractors in the field. At first I thought it was really neat but after a few years you realize it is work! I became interested in my grandfather’s era when other guys my age were collecting muscle tractors of the 50’s and early 60’s, the John Deeres, Allis, Landhandlers and big IH 1086’s.
Q: So you had a family background in farming?
A: Yes my dad drove horses and plowed until he was 14 when he got his first tractor, which I still have. He actually was the first one to drive that tractor. He says the first time he drove it he had it in third gear so he popped the clutch and killed it. He learned real quick what the transmission had to do.
My dad was a farmer and a machinist; he had a full time job off the farm. I did a lot of the work especially as a teenager. In the summers I did the work on the farm and he would supervise. He worked the night shift and would be home during the day to kind of guide me. Then he would go take a nap and leave at 2:30 in the afternoon to head to work.
Q: When did you start your collection?
A: In 1988, when I was a resident I went to an auction near my dad’s farm Trenton, Illinois where two Rumely Oil Pulls were for sale. I really didn’t think I would get one. In fact, I couldn’t go the day of the auction so my wife’s cousin was there and he did the bidding for me. He got me one of the tractors and I’ve never looked back in my collecting.
I started collecting antique toy tractors, first with the 1:64th scale (the little matchbox size), and then I worked up to the 1:16th scale. My wife kids me that I now I have made it to one-to-one scale collector.
Q: How many tractors do you have?
A: I have over thirty. Most of them are here at my farm; I do have the bigger ones at the Rough and Tumble museum. I like to support the museum and shows. You’ll see my Aultman & Taylor 30-60 there. That’s a 60 horse power steel-wheeled tractor, weighing 26,000 pounds. The rear wheels are about eight feet in diameter.
I’ve also got some big Rumelys there and an Avery 25-50. At show time, it’s kind of nice I don’t have to haul them, I just go there get them running.
Q: What items other than tractors do you have in your collection?
A: Early in my collecting days everybody was after tractors and I saw the implements go to the junk man as scrap. To me a tractor is not worth much if it doesn’t have something to do with it. So I started collecting threshing machines. My first threshing machine was given to me on the condition I restore it and my second one was from the same guy. He had an interested party out in Pittsburgh area but he’d rather see it stay locally, so he offered it to me for less than what the guy was offering in Pittsburgh. That’s the one that is at Rough and Tumble.
Then I just picked up an Ellis Keystone advertised at the Rough and Tumble flea market. The owner had a bunch of car parts there and he had a sign for a threshing machine for sale. He wanted $500 for it, which I thought was reasonable, so I bought it from his place in Annville. I bought a Case Thresher out of South Dakota and an Avery Yellow Fellow out of Kansas, so I have different sizes and different brands.
Q: Do you have a favorite collecting anecdote?
A: Yes I do. You know when you get the threshers, then you have to get the binders and the reapers. Now one day, Delmar Stauffer, the guy who paints my tractors in Meyerstown, called me to say he had an older customer who wanted to sell his reaper. So I called the guy — he had a real thick Dutchy accent – but he thought I was some salesman at first and almost hung up on me. Finally I said, “Delmar Stauffer told me to call, you have a reaper?” “Huh, reaper, Delmar? Yeah I got a reaper, who are you?”
So I ended up going out there and buying it. He had a whole collection of stuff. He had pedal tractors, trivets and old tool boxes off of horse-drawn implements. He had a reaper in his garage and he still had the long tongue on it. He would actually park his truck right over the tongue.
Q: Do you display or show your tractors in other shows outside of Lancaster County?
A: Yes , I am the President of National Rumely Products Collectors, so I have taken some of my tractors to Virginia. I have shown my Aultman Taylor, which I keep at my in-laws in Iowa. I have shown that in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.
Antique tractor collectors are a kind of a fellowship; there are different levels and different interests. When you get to the steel wheels, there is a separate group than those interested in the 4020’s and muscle tractors. Steam guys are a whole different brotherhood. A lot of the old time steam guys would hardly talk to you if you were a tractor guy, because tractors replaced steam engines. One time I had my big thresher at Rough and Tumble, and a guy with a Case steam engine wanted to know if he could try to hook up to it. One of the old Rumely guys said, “Don’t you dare let a Case hook up to the Rumely thresher!” Those old beliefs were pretty deeply ingrained.
Q: Are you using any of your tractors on your property?
A: Not really, I use them to scout things out things like look at crops. But I have a set of two-row equipment up in the barn that I did not show you, so I can actually plow, disc, harrow, plant, and cultivate. The trouble is we usually take vacation in June just about the time when the corn really needs to be cultivated and I’d be gone. My wife says it cheaper to go Risser’s Market and buy the corn.
Q: What is the most challenging part of your hobby and your practice of medicine?
A: Well it’s protecting my hands. For the first time my thumb got bit by a fly wheel. It got my nail and it’s about half way grown back now. A lot of people ask me how can I work with the tractors with my hands and I say actually I get more injuries from paper cuts, because I am so protective of my hands.
I don’t know if you noticed in each shed I have a pair of John Deere gloves right by the door so when I do anything, I automatically wear the heavier gloves and that works out pretty well.
Q: What gives you the most enjoyment out of this collection?
A: It’s bringing something back to life, especially the old tractors like the Aultman Taylor. I got a call one evening from a fellow collector that I have known for years from up in Canandaigua, New York. He is shifting his interest from tractors to antique cars, so he sold a couple of his tractors over the last year and called me to see if I was interested in his Aultman Taylor. I told him I would take it and I asked a trucker out of York County to go pick it up. Just out of coincidence it turns out the trucker’s grandfather had owned that tractor at one time!
We brought it to Rough and Tumble and worked on it and I ended up getting it back in shape. We were ready to paint it but when we put water in the radiator, it leaked like a sieve, the radiator had rusted out. But from my connections I knew where there was a restored radiator sitting on a pallet up in Michigan. I called and ordered it. I had a retired Mennonite carpenter build a new platform and canopy roof and was able to show it at Rough and Tumble last year for the first time in a parade. That was a great feeling.
Q: What is the shelf life of a tractor?
A: My oldest tractor is 97 years old. I read in John Deere Magazine’s about a John Deere G with 9000 hours on it that never had the head off of it. They are built rugged and they manage. But what is interesting with my collection is the rarer tractors were the poorer designs. The ones that didn’t work very well are the ones all the collectors want.
I showed you that Townsend — that looks like a steam engine. The whole idea was farmers knew what steam engines were because they came every fall to thresh or summer to thresh, so if you designed a tractor to look like that would be great. But the design was not really very sturdily built. It had one speed forward and one speed backwards. So it became obsolete.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I work on one of these things. My next project is restoring a steel thresher. Somewhere in its lifetime a raccoon got in there and made a nest and where he did that is rusted through. It scraped up all the galvanizing on it and the nesting materials started rusting it and 60 years later there is a hole there.
Q: What does your wife say about your hobby?
A: My wife won’t let me get into steam because she is afraid I will burn my hands. She points to the explosion out in Medina, Ohio from a steam engine that killed 4 people and burned 50 others.
That accident was due to a mistake by the restorer. At that time Ohio did not have an inspection law, they exempted the antique boilers, which was not wise in retrospect. The restorer only had a crown sheet one third the thickness it should have been. He restored it and was driving on the country road to the fairgrounds; when he got to the fairgrounds he was running low on water. You can’t let a steam engine run low, and by the time he got onto the grounds and he hit the throttle, it blew.
It was a Case 110 Steamer, which is a huge machine. There were branches in the wreckage on the underside of the axles and the lowest branches at that park were trimmed 16 feet high, so that thing had to go straight up at least 16 feet to hit the tree branches.
So my wife won’t let me do steam! She is a wise lady.
Content courtesy of LG Progress Notes’ Dr. Tony Castle & Carl Manelius