Auction of ageless iron bittersweet

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Farm Forum

Tractors, engines and assorted parts from another era were offered for inspection and sale on Aug. 29 as part of the Fred and Ina Bruns Oil Pull and Prairie Tractor auction near Hecla.

More that 200 potential buyers from across the United States were onsite with another 150 to 200 active bidders online for the collection. Fred Bruns, who lived from 1907 to 2002, loved the iron-intense machines and everything that went along with them, from oil cans to threshing belts to stationary engines.

The sound of the 1912 Rumely Oil Pull 30-60 Model E Heavyweight Tractor running brought a crowd to admire the magnificent machine. Terry Schroeder of Yorba Linda, Calif., coaxed the familiar chug-chug from the engine with white smoke rising from the smokestack.

Schroeder, 49, has enjoyed learning about the tractors from the Bruns family since 1985. He’s returned every summer to tinker with the machines. He has a special place in his heart for the machines and said the auction was “bittersweet.” He was thrilled to purchase one of the tractors during the auction.

In an interview with South Dakota Public Radio, Barney Bruns, one of Fred’s sons, said hearing the tractor run makes him emotional. ‘When it starts, it’s just a. . . it’s a religious experience,” Bruns says. “And when it shuts down, it’s just like it died. It’s kind of that way. It just gives a wheeze at the end. But the nice thing is you can bring it back to life again. So it’s ageless. It’s timeless.”

Wallace Jansen of Canistota bought the 1912 oil pull and was pretty excited to get the one-owner machine for $190,000.

“We’ve let them adopt it and we’ll get to go visit it when we’re down that way,” Bill Bruns, another of Fred’s sons, said.

Fred Bruns passed on many tips in handling the machines to Schroeder, his sons and others who loved the old iron. Barney Bruns said that 100-years worth of oil was never cleaned from the machine and the engine was never rebuilt.

Fred Bruns’ dad, Meino Bruns, purchased the tractor new in 1912, and Fred Bruns bought it from him in 1940. It was used for plowing with a 12-bottom plow and threshing. In the 1970s, the Bruns family hosted a threshing bee each fall and many of the machines have been to Rollag, Minn., for the annual threshing show there as well as the James Valley Threshing and Two-Cylinder Club Threshing Show. Fred Bruns always drove this tractor when it went to parades.

A neighbor, Randy Wolter, said he remembers helping with the threshing in the late 1960s and said, “We slugged it up but good.” And there were many others who would remember helping in the same way.

A bid from 8-year old Bodie Turner for $65,000 for his grandpa clinched the deal for the 1912 “40-70 American” Prairie Tractor by Diamond Iron Works. “Keep your hand up, son,” the auctioneer advised.

The American 40-70 Project Tractor is said to be the only one known of its kind. Those bidding on the project tractor were told it was missing parts, but there was definitely enough to rebuild. According to the auctioneers at Aumann Auctions, this is the only one known of this ultra rare Prairie Tractor. It has a completely different configuration with the engine and radiator at the rear of the tractor and the steering wheel just behind the front axle.

Turner was with his grandpa Kenny Kass of Dunkerton, Iowa, and his great-grandpa Art Kass. Kenny Kass said being at the auction was great. “You can’t just find these machines anywhere,” he said. The family enjoys tackling such projects. Turner, a pro at restoration, said, “I like to put on the primer.” The tractor was at one time owned by the Herseth family of Houghton who gave it to Fred Bruns.

Fred Zempel of Montevideo, Minn., found some treasures in the books and manuals that were part of the auction. He found a Montgomery Ward “Farm Implement” catalog with illustrations of rare machines. “You didn’t know Montgomery Ward sold farm equipment, did you?” he asked.

Zempel said that the old machines are the foundation of the whole industry. He bought a box of books and magazines. “It’s fun to look through them,” he said, “Some of the machines don’t exist anymore.”

The tubs of magazines offered some surprises, including a 1924 Rumley Oil Pull calendar that went for $600.

For Earl and Lynn Lumpkins, who live near the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the auction was part of their exploration of the Dakotas as they attended a wedding in Grand Forks, stopped in Jamestown and decided to check out the Bruns auction. They raise beef cattle on their farm of 90 acres back home and enjoyed seeing the Prairie Tractors and hearing them.

A Canadian from London, Ontario, Bill Dowding, admires the work that went into the design of these massive machines. “They had to come up with the ideas and figure out what worked,” he said. “It’s just amazing to see these machines in action.” Dowding, age 70, retired from farming. He grew soybeans and wheat plus raised chickens and had a farrow-to-finish hog operation in Canada. He admits to “road farming” along the way, checking out how crops are doing and assessing the moisture or lack thereof. “My wife can finally tell the difference between wheat and soybeans.”

He hoped to find something at the sale that would fit into the back of his SUV. “We have a cast iron gate that was made by my great grand dad in 1887. It’s my pride and joy. It’s wonderful to have something that old that was built with those old hands. And that’s why it’s so great to come to an auction like this.”

Memories and stories of the Bruns family were also part of the treasure shared. As neighbors to the north, the Schroeder family knew the the family well. “My dad, Ralph, remembers Fred coming down the road with the Big Oil Pull with the separator hooked up,” Terry Schroeder said. “Those machines didn’t stop easily. But he stopped and helped dad to climb up and then dropped him off at the next fence row. That always stuck with dad.”

Ralph Schroeder also remembers that the kids used to hide in the smoke stack of the oil pull. When there were two kids in there, it was a little tight, but one was pretty comfortable. “You did come out pretty black, though,” he said.

Cast iron tractor seats brought $25, and a wine-glass carburetor sold for $240. A very rare “Gold Medal Oils” sign measuring 30” round with a graphic of a motor car brought a high bid of $18,000 from an Internet bidder.

Collectors from 20 states and three countries came to admire and buy. Bill Bruns said the family was pleased with how the sale went. It was a hot day with active bidding. With fields of corn and soybeans surrounding the auction site, it was a picturesque slice of Americana at its best.

“It was really neat to have dad honored in this way with people treasuring the items he collected,” Bill Bruns said.