Jon Kinzenbaw owns hundreds of tractors. Red, green, yellow, gray and blue. He collects them all. They’re all unique. All have a story to tell. But none quite like the one he affectionately calls “The Old H.”
That’s because it’s his first tractor. How amazing that is to consider: That for a man who owns hundreds of tractors, and has no doubt driven hundreds of others, there could be one tractor that was his very first. The first he rode on. The first he drove. The first he put to work in the field.
In the spring of 1946, upon returning from overseas after World War II, Jon’s father bought the new Farmall Model H Tractor. After a few years of use the original hand throttle eventually wore out and Jon's father fashioned a homemade replacement. In addition, as young Jon began to operate the tractor his father fastened an oak 4x4 block to the clutch pedal so that Jon could reach it and drive the tractor. This particular Model H was unique.
When Jon was about four years old, his father set him on the seat, put it in low gear and then they started off across the barnyard. His father soon stepped off and walked along behind. Jon Kinzenbaw, age four, was driving a tractor. “I can remember that as if it was yesterday,” he said. “To this day I could take you out to within five feet of where that took place in our old barnyard.”
And yet, for 38 years, he was unable to place The Old H. Its whereabouts were unknown. In 1956, they had traded it for a Farmall Model M, a trade Jon certainly approved of at the time. “I was glad to see it go because we got a newer, better tractor,” he said. “Then we completely lost track of it.”
For 38 years.
The dealer had eventually gone out of business. The records had been destroyed. Jon couldn’t quite remember the serial number, so he wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to identify it even if it somehow crossed his path. That didn’t stop him from looking. “Any time I’d see one, I’d always take a second look to see if I recognized anything on it,” Jon said. He never did.
Then, in 1993, a sequence of curious events reunited Jon and The Old H. That year he and son Jonathan collaborated on a project that Jonathan entered in the Iowa County Fair. Unfortunately, heavy rains that summer all but washed out the fair. Saturday and Sunday events had been cancelled. Most of the folks still hanging around on Friday night sought shelter in the main building. Including Jon.
He moseyed around a few exhibits. There were some woodworking projects that piqued his interest. Then he stumbled upon a series of five old photographs taken by a boy named Tanner. They were of old, rusty tractors. Literally in the weeds. There was a blue ribbon next to the photos, one of which featured an old Model H. This one – unlike all the other Model H’s he’d seen – had something special about it. “It was the homemade throttle that my dad had made,” Jon said. “It never occurred to me that that old tractor still had that homemade throttle.”
Jon set out into the fairgrounds (never mind the rain) in search of Tanner’s mother. He found her and, containing his excitement, inquired as to whether they owned that old model H in the photograph. They did. He asked whether it was for sale. A few days later her husband phoned to say it was. Asking price: $400-500.
“I cautiously said, well, it’s pretty rough. It was outside. It didn’t run anymore,” Jon said. Of course, its condition was of no real consequence. Jon admits he’d have paid much more than the top asking price. He’d spent years looking for that tractor. Here it was. A few hundred dollars away. They agreed on $400.
They made arrangements for Jon to come pick up the tractor. After 38 years, in which time he’d driven and collected many tractors, Jon would finally get to see The Old H again. The only tractor he could call his first. When he arrived the gentlemen asked that Jon make the check out to his wife, Pam. Jon obliged and wrote her a check for $400. The Old H belonged to a Kinzenbaw again.
“They were all standing there and I thought I could at least show them why I wanted the tractor,” Jon said. So he brought out the wooden block his dad had made for the clutch. Almost 50 years before. That old oak 4x4 – the hinge still fastened to it. The other half of the hinge, after all those years, was still on the clutch petal. “So I told the family I was going to put the pin through the two halves of this hinge that hadn’t been mated at that point in 38 years.”
Not wanting the family to think he’d somehow taken advantage of them, Jon offered to pay the full asking price of $500. Jon went to write Pam a second check, then paused. “It occurred to me that Tanner was standing there and it was his photo entry. So I gave Tanner the hundred bucks and his eyes were as big as baseballs.”
Just like Jon’s eyes must have been when he first saw Tanner’s photo. The Old H. Custom hand throttle and all.
Want to see The Old H up close? It’s fully restored and now on display as the Tractor of the Season at the Kinze Innovation Center.