John Deere garden tractor faithful flock to Horicon to celebrate 50-year milestone

Gloria Hafemeister

BEAVER DAM - It was booked as a weekend “celebrating the machines that have freed up weekends since 1963.”

Astrid Gottschalk, Kimball, MN, enjoys driving the customized JD 140 garden tractor and taking her granddaughters for rides.  It was on display at the weekend celebration of the 50th anniversary of the JD 140.

The weekend of “freedom machines” at the Dodge County Fairgrounds near Beaver Dam attracted thousands of John Deere enthusiasts to celebrate Fifty Years of Hydro Power.  A special feature was the 140 garden tractors – specifically the 1968 model with a square fender.

The event included displays from numerous John Deere enthusiasts and collectors from all around Wisconsin and many other states as well. The map on the wall in the show’s headquarters indicated visitors came from about 20 different states.

The event also included a swap meet, flea market and stories from retirees of the John Deere Horicon Works and demonstrations of the various attachments like post-hole digger, plow, buckets and more. Buses left throughout the day to take visitors to nearby Horicon to tour the plant and see how today’s garden tractors and Gators are made.

Many prototypes and one-of-a-kind pieces were on display including a large vintage snowmobile exhibition.

Kate Goelzhauser, managing editor of Lawn and Garden Tractor Magazine and co-host of the weekend event with John Deere Horicon Works said, “Collectors are interested in everything about these machines. They want to learn about the engineers’ experiences, what the guys on the line experienced, and where the first ones were shipped to.”

She says everyone collects for a different reason. Conversations with some of the collectors revealed numerous stories of why they collect and how they decide what they want in their collection.

Lots of stories

Mike Saelens of Moline, Ill., brought his 1962 John Deere Scamper to the show.  He values the piece for many reasons but mainly because it is one of only 11 that were made.

The original scamper, a forerunner of today’s Gator, was built by M.O. Holten in Slinger, Wis. Holton, whose two sons were at this weekend’s show, took his idea to John Deere and made ten of them to put out in John Deere dealerships to see how they would sell.

Saelens has a copy of the original invoice where Hartford Mfg. Co. sold the Scamper to John Deere for $767 in 1962. The stripped down machine was actually $700 but the tail gate added $10; crome body rails added $12 and the tail and head lights and turn signals added another $45.

One of the most unique pieces at the JD Freedom machines celebration at the Dodge County Fairgrounds this weekend was Mike Saelens' 1962 JD Scamper.  It is one of just 11 made and was rejected by John Deere when it was originally presented to them because they did not sell.  Likely they were just too expensive for the 1960's.

Saelens says, “Deere would have likely marketed it for about $1000 but in 1962 that was a lot of money. Farms were smaller then and there wasn’t the need for utility vehicles like this.  Now most of the bigger farms have them.”

Saelens also displayed the advertising posters that highlighted the special features including no clutch, on-the-go shifting, fiber glass body, one piece frame and a load capacity of 1000 pounds.

Saelens, who is an employee of John Deere in Moline, says it wasn’t until the 1980’s that there was a demand for this type of utility vehicle.

“The Holton Brothers were way ahead of their time. When John Deere decided they wanted to make a vehicle like this they started over again, not realizing they had it all along,” he notes.

Scott and Astrid Gottschalk brought numerous unique pieces from their Kimball, Minnesota farm.

Not just green and gold

The 1968 Model 140 that attracted the most attention was actually painted pink and had a narrow front end, tail pipe and looked more like a miniature tractor than a garden tractor.

Gottschalk said, “That’s because my sons completely customized it and painted it pink for my wife to drive. She pulls a wagon for our granddaughters to ride.”

The JD 140 was the 718th model to come off the Horicon line. It is one of about 40 garden tractors in the family’s collection. Some have been customized and some remain preserved as they were new.

A John Deere 1974 Model 112 showcase tractor (toys inside engine compartment)

The family also has about 60 John Deere tractors of various ages and styles.

Gottschalk says, “After my boys showed dairy cattle through 4-H for a few years they came to me and said they didn’t want to show cows any more. They wanted to restore tractors and show them instead. That was in the early 1970’s and we have been doing this ever since.”

Rare toys, models

Their collection also features some other unique pieces.

Displayed on the table was a red pedal tractor next to a similar looking green one. He explains that the red one is one of only about 10 that exist. It was built back in 1949 by an Iowa toy company and marketed as a child’s tricycle. The company took it to John Deere, suggesting that they offer the toy pedal tractor with the purchase of each new tractor.

He notes, “They told John Deere that if a little boy grows up with a toy John Deere they will be John Deere customers forever. John Deere said the marketing plan was ingenious and they ordered thousands of them but they told the toy company they had to make it look like a true John Deere. The first ones had what looked like a four cylinder block engine and John Deere wanted the two-cylinder.”

Rare 1949 coffin block engine (red) toy pedal tractor (front). The green model (back) replaced it featuring the 2 cylinder engine.

He goes on to say that the toy company was also told they needed to either destroy those already made or paint the original toys another color so they did not look like John Deere.  The company painted the ones they had already made red and sold them in the local hardware store.  They never made any more like it.

Being that rare they would likely fetch around $70,000 today.

Patio tractor promo a flop

Throughout the grounds were some other unique pieces. Several collectors had JD 140 tractors that were painted blue, red, yellow or orange with a white base. All were original factory colors.

Dick Dahlke of Rosendale had some in his collection.  He said, “These John Deere Patios were the idea of John Deere in about 1969. Sales were in a slump and the company thought they would reach more city buyers or women by offering a variety of colors. The idea failed and some dealers even ended up repainting the ones they had just so they could sell them.”

These models, known as patio tractors were featured in the colors of blue, red, orange or yellow.

He also mentioned that today the seats are very valuable because they are hard to duplicate and when the colored vinyl wears out there aren’t any available to replace them.

Darryl Cox is a farm toy builder and collector from Humbolt, Tennesee. When he heard about the Beaver Dam show he set out to build a John Deere machinery dealership that featured only lawn and garden equipment.

He used toys he already had in his vast collection and then built the pieces he was missing.

Custom collector

The big attraction in his display was the semi-truck and trailer loaded with John Deere garden tractors.

He already had the truck but built the special carrier for this show. He also used recycled screen material to make what looks like a chain link fence with a woven barbed wire fence strung out along the top. 

The display is complete with outdoor fuel and gas pumps; parking lot, backdrop of typical rural scenery outside a small town and signage. Inside the large building is a shop, show room, and offices.

Toy Collector Darryl Cox, Humboldt, TN created a 1968 version of a John Deere lawn and garden tractor dealership including making a trailer for a semi-delivery truck with JD garden tractors loaded on it.

 "I’ve been collecting farm toys for about 30 years. I also make pieces that I can’t find.  This display is made to look like a dealership might have looked in 1968 but I don’t know if there were many around at that time that featured only lawn and garden equipment.  Likely the lawn and garden would have been a smaller part of a farm machinery dealership,” he notes.

The parade of equipment featured many of the one-of-a-kind pieces at the show.  There was a Trail Gator, serial number 1; a John Deere snowmobile on a trailer pulled by a 140 tractor; a hand-made two-bottom plow that is designed to look and work like the original Brinly plow that attached to the J D 140 tractor; a JD 285 that was one of only 119 like it produced and many more.

Participants in the parade came from Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Mike and Alicia Duwe of Cleveland had their entire family with them in the parade.  Mike led the way with a JD 140 and his wife followed with a garden tractor and mounted flail mower and pulling a wagon with their three children, Evan, Emma and Ava. The family has about 6 John Deere tractors in their garden equipment collection as well as numerous other brands.