On the road to Mount Rushmore

Janelle Atyeo Tri-State Neighbor
Now Media Group


A Wisconsin man kicked off his summer with a particularly meaningful road trip across South Dakota, spending almost 200 hours behind the wheel of his late father's 75-year-old tractor to visit Mount Rushmore.

Dewey Brooks, 64, who owns a body shop in the southeastern Wisconsin town of Wonewoc, said the road trip was a longtime goal from when he first set out to restore his dad's 1941 B John Deere tractor.

'If God wills this is going to run again, I'm going to drive it to Mount Rushmore because they're the same age,' he said, recalling his proclamation decades ago.

His dad's reaction? Brooks recalled: 'He said, 'Dewey, you are crazy.''

The crazy journey prompted many inquiries along the way, and Brooks gathered a following of tractor collectors and news crews who wanted to share his story.

After about 2,000 miles round-trip, traveling 100 miles a day at 12 mph, it was the experience that counted, and Brooks said it far exceeded his expectations, thanks to the people he met along the way. 'America still has many friendly folks living down the road,' he said. 'I met many of them.'

Tractor was farm workhorse

The John Deere belonged to his dad and uncle, Grayson and Kenneth Brooks, who bought the tractor in Tomah, Wisconsin, in 1941. They traded a team of mismatched dark work horses and settled up with cash.

The brothers farmed at Brookside Farms near Sparta, Wisconsin. The B ran the Farmers Valley threshing machine, helped cut oak logs to build a corn crib and a new barn, and pulled 4H kids on hayrides. 'Dad said the tractor never cooled off during the summer months,' Brooks said.

To him, the tractor is a symbol of his family's long history on the farm. His dad was born on the dairy farm in 1915 and died there in 2001. He was the oldest registered breeder of Clydesdales in the country when he died. Now, Dewey's brother, Marvin Brooks, keeps Clydesdales and milks cows.

The tractor served the farm for decades but gave out in the winter of 1966-67 while sawing firewood with a buzz saw. The crew didn't notice the oil pressure reading, and condensation in the oil sump froze and seized the pump. Repairs didn't hold, and the tractor eventually ended up in the woods as junk.

Repairs begin, dream takes hold

The old B sat for more than 25 years until Brooks and his brother pulled it out of the woods and hauled it to his shop near Wonewoc where he has a collection of classic cars. 'The condition of it was unreal,' Brooks said.

He repairs cars and machinery by trade, but the hobby project took a back seat to everyday work and raising a family of four.

Still, Brooks kept the story alive, making known his plans of driving the old tractor to Mount Rushmore. It became a running joke at family reunions.

Brooks rebuilt the B from a 1943 tractor of the same model, using as many original parts as he could. The restored tractor might not be in pristine condition, but it's full of memories. There's a dent in the hood from a 1947 accident that sent the tractor and his dad into the farm creek when a bridge plank gave way. It has bullet holes from when the junked-out tractor was used for target practice. The steering wheel is cracked and roughed up where squirrels gnawed on it.

Brooks wouldn't have it any other way. 'When I was driving that tractor, I was pretty much looking over the same stuff dad was seeing when he drove it,' he said.

Road trip draws attention

Brooks made his trip over two weeks in late May, battling windy conditions and torrential rains from the open cab. He pulled a camper trailer, in which he spent his nights and took shelter from storms.

Leaving his home in Wonewoc at 7:30 a.m. May 16, Brooks expected a quiet journey. But two drivers stopped to take his picture before he was out of town, and he didn't get much farther before he was stopped by a small-town newspaper reporter and a curious highway patrolman. 'So much for trying to sneak away,' he said.

The route Brooks planned took him across Iowa on Highway 9, and in South Dakota he stuck to Highway 44.

He kept a journal of each day's happenings. In it, he noted the cost of gas ($405 total) and the people he met along the way.

One of them was Glennis Stern, a tractor collector who lives along Highway 44 north of Armour, South Dakota. He is a member of the Twin Rivers Old Iron Association, and Brooks stopped for a roadside visit at his driveway.

People want to know what it's like to travel cross-country on a tractor, Stern said. 'That isn't an everyday occurrence,' he said. 'It's quite a trek to take that on.'

The tractor didn't give Brooks any problems, but Day 2 of the trip saw him stop for a welding job because the trailer was shaking.

Upon entering South Dakota, his biggest trouble was the wind. It made his face raw no matter what he tried for protection. The wind also took his John Deere cap down the Missouri River as he crossed.

A monumental reception

Brooks made it to Mount Rushmore on what would have been his dad's 101st birthday, May 23.

On the way to the monument, he thought of his dad and uncle buying the tractor in 1941, of their farm near Sparta, the years the tractor sat junked in the trees and the 23-year dream of making the trip.

'What if he knew this (was happening) now?' Brooks said of his dad.

He had to bring the old B down to fifth gear to make the final hill leading to Mount Rushmore. At the monument, he was greeted by staff members who had blocked off a spot in front of the main entrance for him to park. They had gifts prepared to mark the occasion, and news media personnel were at the ready.

The attention was embarrassing, Brooks said, given that he looked pretty weathered from the open-air journey, but he was also very proud.

'It just blew me away,' he said.

He heard many encouraging words about his journey. According to Brooks, several commented, 'What is more American than driving an old John Deere to Rushmore?'

Keeping it running

Brooks' dad never got a chance to hear his old tractor running again. But his son plans to keep the old B on the road. He'll travel to tractor shows and pull his trailer to camp in state parks. But he plans to stay a little closer to home, within 200 miles, he said.

He also uses the B to haul logs, the same task it had on the farm in Sparta. Brooks said his dad would be happy to know the tractor is still at work.

As for the 2,000-mile journey, he said his dad probably would shake his head. 'He would have been proud but still said I was crazy,' Brooks said.

Heading back home

The day after he reached Rushmore, he began the journey back home. Before hitting the road, he reversed the front tires on the old B and added a quart and a half of gear lube.

His return journey got just as much attention. He heard people say they saw him on TV, and one man wanted him to autograph a picture.

As car collector, Brooks took an extra day on the way home to visit the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota.

The worst of the weather hit on Memorial Day in Forrest City, Iowa. Heavy rain poured down, and the gutters filled up with water. With no fenders, the water sprayed off the tractor's back tires, four or five feet high. 'I could hardly see to drive,' Brooks said.

The next day, Brooks had to take shelter in his trailer as a storm passed through Saratoga, Iowa. He was running out of clean, dry clothes.

'Basically I was soaked, but I laughed about it,' he said. 'What thrill is staying dry?'