90 year old Ixonia farmer still crazy about classic tractors

Gloria Hafemeister
Correspondent
Bill Rupnow, 90, left, and his son-in-law Tom Heinsch are eager to exhibit Rupnow’s collector tractors at the Ixonia Vintage Tractor Expo’s Memorial Day weekend show at the Ashippun Firemen’s Park May 29 and 30. Rupnow has not missed a meeting of the club since it started 12 years ago and he eagerly takes part in all of the club’s shows and events.

IXONIA  – When tractor enthusiasts gather on May 28-30 at the Ashippun Firemen’s Park for the 11th annual Ixonia Vintage Tractor Expo for the first vintage tractor show of the season, they will find a colorful mixture of grey, red and blue in the park.

This year the club is featuring Massey Harris, Ferguson and Ford tractors, but the club welcomes all makes, models, colors!

One club member, Bill Rupnow, is particularly happy about the featured tractors this year because his collection includes two Fords, two Fergusons and a Massey 44.

Also included will be a Flea Market, opportunities to win the Raffle Tractor, a Silent

The 90-year-old tractor enthusiast has never missed a meeting of the Ixonia Vintage Tractor Club since members began gathering more than a decade ago. The club was formed with the idea of hosting an antique tractor show early in the season when tractor enthusiasts are getting anxious to get out to show off their collections.

Rupnow’s interest in tractors dates back to his early years on the farm that was started by his grandfather in 1856. He remembers farming with horses and then steel wheeled tractors. He proudly bought his first tractor in 1948 at the age of 18 - a Ferguson T20.

The nonagenarian purchased Ferguson tractor for practical purposes and then added a second Ferguson years later at a local auction. The machine appeared a bit rusty but Rupnow says it was only surface rust and the rest of the body was in really good shape. 

The Ixonia residents says he get a helping hand restoring the old tractors from his son-in-law Tom Heinsch who is equally enthusiastic about the old machines. With professional experience in the auto body business, Heinsch is able to do a good job painting and restoring the old tractors in Rupnow’s collection.

The spring-loaded wheel weights on the Fergie tractor are unique and stand out because of their bright blue color.

Long trip home

Heinsch also accompanies Rupnow top tractor shows. A few years ago, Heinsch and his father-in-law were driving their tractors home from a show when the wheel weight on the back tire of his tractor came off. The dangling weight dug into the blacktop and as a result the back axel of the tractor broke. The tractor flipped end over end and Heinsch was severely injured. The accident hospitalized for a couple of months but he is now recovered from his injuries and is back to driving tractors to shows again.

Heinsch says he feels extremely lucky to be alive. He remembers severe rubber burns on one side of his body and a large gap in the other side that bled profusely. When doctors cleaned his wound they found the blue paint from the spring-loaded wheel weights in the wound.

The two still drive the tractor but they have welded the wheel weights on tight so they cannot come off while driving the tractors.

Heinsch believes he was travelling about 13 miles per hour at the time the accident happened.

Picking up speed

Some of Rupnow’s collector tractors, however, travel much faster than that due to the original motors being replaced with six- or eight-cylinder truck motors.

Rupnow says Funk Conversion made a kit to put a flat head 6-cylinder motor into the Ford tractor, replacing the 4 cylinder motor. The company got into the conversion business making parts for the military during World War II.

One of the family's Ford tractors has a custom buddy seat for passengers. The seat was designed and built by Heinsch with used farm equipment parts and two folding boat seats.

“Before anyone can ride in these seats in a tractor parade, though, we need to put a bumper on the back for safety,” Heinsch says.

Bill Rupnow will be taking five of his six collector tractors to the Ixonia Vintage Tractor Expo’s annual show in Ashippun on Memorial Day weekend.  He also owns other tractors that he uses to crop his 275 acre farm.

Both Heinsch and Rupnow have driven their tractors several times across the Mackinac Bridge, taking part in the annual tractor parade at St. Ignace each September. The 2020 event was cancelled but they hope to make the drive again this year.

Rupnow also has an Oliver tractor that is still in the midst of restoration and will not be included in the family's lineup of entries in the upcoming show.

Big changes

The former dairy farmers says he milked cows on his farm until he was about 70. He sold his dairy herd in the late 1990s due to requirements from the Department of Natural Resources regarding manure handling and storage. Up until that time he had milking about 100 cows on a farm that is located along the Rock River.

At the age of 70, Rupnow says it wasn't feasible to make such a financial investment for the mandated changes so he opted to continue cropping the farm’s 275 acres and raising some steers and heifers.

Although Rupnow uses a walking stick, don’t let that fool you. The spry tractor enthusiast still drives tractor and manages the land.

Devastating fire

In February their barn burned down and they lost 23 calves in the fire. Luckily some other livestock was saved. Rupnow commends the local volunteer fire department and the many area volunteer fire departments that assisted in saving a portion of the barn and protecting his house that was located adjacent to the barn.

At the time of the blaze, a collector Oliver tractor in the midst of restoration was parked near the barn. The extreme heat burned the paint off of the tractor. Other than cosmetic damage, the tractor escaped major damage.

The Hopto Digger has been in use on Rupnow’s Ixonia farm since about 1950 and comes in handy for repairing tile lines and other digging work.

In addition to his vintage tractors, Rupnow also owns a Hopto Digger. 

“I used to do custom digging – ditches, septic tanks, dry wells, tile lines. I got it in 1950 and still use it for repairing tiles in the fields,” he said, adding that the machine runs off the power take-off of a tractor.

Upcoming show

Rupnow is looking forward to the Ixonia Vintage Tractor Expo’s show in Ashippun on Memorial Day weekend. He's easy to spot among the crowd as he will be sporting his signature bright yellow fuzzy Green Bay Packer hat.

“I’ve been wearing that hat to all the tractor shows for many years and people know me by my hat,” he says with a grin.

The Ferguson tractor, featured at the show this year, has a colorful history. Founder Henry George "Harry" Ferguson was an Irish-born British engineer and inventor known for his development of the modern agricultural tractor.

In 1911, he founded a company which included tractor retail. “The Ferguson System” was developed over a 30-year period and is an automatic control system now employed by almost all tractor manufacturers worldwide.

During the 1930’s, the first Ferguson tractors were built by the David Brown Company. Ferguson worked for a time with Henry Ford in order to make production of his tractor more efficient. In 1952, Ferguson merged with Massey Harris and each kept their brand name until 1958 when the company became known as Massey Ferguson.

One of Fergusons most successful designs was the Ferguson TE20, commonly known as the Little Grey Fergie, a light-weight machine still popular with enthusiasts like Bill Rupnow today. The diminutive machine marked a major advance in tractor design, distinguished by lightweight, small size, maneuverability and versatility.

There are sure to be plenty of “Fergies” and Masseys at the Memorial Day weekend show in Ashippun as well as a variety of Ford tractors. The entire weekend show is free of charge.

The weekend activities will begin with a tractor drive on Friday, May 28. The main show is on Saturday and Sunday< May 29-30 and will include, along with the farm equipment, a car show on Sunday only. Other activities include an auction, Food, unique crafts and demonstrations, and a kids Pedal Pull. Pedal tractors will also be available for kids to ride. The show runs 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily at the Ashippun Fireman's Park, W2665 Oak St.,Ixonia.

To learn more about the show or to be a vendor contact Curt Pernat at 920-988-0857.  To learn details of the car show planned for Sunday contact Luke Pernat at 262-719-6669.