Many farmers know that the land they own is not just a patch of earth; it’s also a piece of family history. That can sometimes be true for the equipment as well. A hundred year old tractor was auctioned off last week - a tractor that, for one family, has a history as rich as the land it plowed.
On a farm near Hecla, standing amidst 14 antique steel-wheeled tractors, Barney Bruns begins to tell me what these machines can teach people about life. Particularly that each one has its own story, which he says is part of what makes a collection worthwhile.
“That’s the neat thing about collecting, where you find it, parts you had to scrounge up, to the building process, is what it’s all about. It’s like life, it’s the trip, not the destination,” Bruns says.
And some of these tractors have had quite the trip. Twelve of them belonged to Barney Bruns’ father, Fred who had a passion for Rumely Oil Pulls. One of them was found in pieces scattered in a junkyard. Another tractor is the only one of its kind. And then there’s the jewel of the collection, a 30-60 Rumely Oil Pull tractor, purchased brand-new by Barney Bruns’ grandfather. In 1912, Bruns’ uncle Ed traveled to LaPort Indiana and took two months of classes, learning how to run the machine. Then he brought it back home to the farm, and taught the rest of the family.
“It has not traveled out of South Dakota to my knowledge, since it’s been here. So this is South Dakota,” Bruns says.
The tractor is green, with a large rectangular smoke stack in front. In its hundred years of South Dakota residency it’s had time to acquire a few layers of grime, and that unique, antique tractor smell.
“They drip oil, leak oil, the belts smoke, and it all smells wonderful. They do definitely have a smell. The grease, and as you see it’s got a hundred years of dirt and grease on it. I don’t think dad ever really washed this thing up ever,” Bruns says.
You could say it’s carrying around a hundred years of South Dakota history, and it’s a hundred years worth of Bruns’ family history as well. The tractor was originally used for plowing, but hasn’t been used for farming purposes since the 20s or 30s. In the 40s, neighbors remember it helping to pull trees out of ditches and move buildings. Bruns’ brother Bill Bruns and sister Jill Shane say it was a powerhouse for the community, but also a source of enjoyment, used in parades and other events.
“We’ve been riding on that tractor since we couldn’t see over the side of it, you know,” Bruns says. “We didn’t drive that tractor in too many parades, that was dad’s tractor. We drove other tractors, but dad always drove that tractor.”
“All the centennials in the smaller towns, he would take that tractor,” Shane says. “And then for years and years my folks had a threshing bee, their own threshing bee right here. And they would use that tractor and their big old separators, and it was a huge draw for people who were in interested in how farming used to be, years ago.”
“And they donated all of the money to the church,” Bruns says. “It was a good deal.”
Bill Bruns has a special souvenir to remember the 30-60 oil pull by: a steel plate in his leg, courtesy of the tricky process of starting the tractor when he was growing up.
“I was standing on the back wheel, spinning the flywheel with my foot. I had cowboy boots on and the soles were probably oily. My foot slipped threw a spoke and then it fired, which threw me off the tractor, luckily. But it took about a year to heal up,” Bruns says.
After that incident the tractor was adapted with an electric starter. Getting the machine going today still takes a bit of work. Family friend Terry Schroeder is on hand to help with the process. He’s from California, but his father grew up near the Bruns’ farm. He remembers meeting Fred and Ina Bruns when he was eleven years old, while eating coffee cake and visiting around the kitchen table.
“Fred says, ‘well, let’s go out and start up something.’ And this is the tractor that we walked over to,” Schroeder says.
In order for the Rumely to run, enough pressure needs to be put through the primer tank to push fuel up into the primer line. It results in a bit of mouth to tractor resuscitation.
“You would start on gas and run on kerosene, the tradition though is that you’ve got to breathe life into this,” Schroeder says. “And to do that, you put your mouth on there and you give it 100psi of pressure. And that’s kind of the running joke for several decades now. There we go.”
After a few more adjustments, the Rumely Oil Pull booms to life, puffing black smoke.
Barney Bruns says 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.”
At the sale, the auctioneer tells potential buyers that is the last time anyone will be able purchase a one-owner, straight off the farm 30-60 Rumely.
It goes for $190,000.
Barney Bruns and his siblings say seeing the tractor go is like losing an old friend. But they’re happy if it goes to a good home with an owner who can take care of it. After all, they say, that’s the way their dad, who cared for the tractor for so many decades, would’ve wanted it.