Beware the power of grandchildren!
Cleveland Carter was not searching for an all-consuming hobby when he attended the Calvary Mule Day Festival with his grandson a decade ago. But he certainly found one.
The annual festival features old-timey farm attractions. And, of course, mules. Judges pick “the prettiest, ugliest, and most ornery” of that species. But it was another species that captured the attention of Carter’s grandson.
“They had John Deere tractors in the parade,” recalled Carter. “My grandson was small, and he thought we had to have one.”
Carter’s first restoration project was a 1956 model 70 John Deere tractor. Rather than sticking a toe in the water, Carter jumped straight into the deep end.
“I didn’t know anything about restoration,” he admitted. “We had no idea where we were going to find parts or anything. We had to ask a lot of questions.”
The model 70 had been permanently parked beside a fence on a farm for about 20 years. It was badly rusted, and the engine wouldn’t start.
An acquaintance introduced Carter to Green, a magazine for John Deere tractor, equipment, and memorabilia enthusiasts, and that publication helped Carter get started.
Carter’s background in construction didn’t hurt, either.
“I do construction work,” Carter said. “I own heavy equipment for construction — wheel loaders and excavators and so forth. If I don’t know how to do something, I get on the phone and call people.”
He also turns to publications, tracking down a book with details about each tractor he purchases.
Carter does all the mechanical restoration work, and he disassembles the machines and then sandblasts and primes all the pieces before turning them over to a neighbor for the final painting. But he’s learning how to do that, too.
“On the last tractor we did,” Carter said, his neighbor “gave me some lessons on painting so I can learn how to really paint. Of course, everything else we do in‑house ourselves.”
Now, not quite 10 years since starting his first restoration, Carter feels pretty comfortable with his process. “Oh, yeah, I got it now,” he said. “I figured it out.” But that first tractor was a test for him.
“The very first one was my toughest challenge,” Carter said. “That one was in real, real bad shape. I probably could’ve bought two tractors for the amount I put into that one. We really worked on it pretty hard.”
Carter had set a goal of presenting the tractor at the following year’s Mule Day Festival. “The restoration took almost a year,” he said, “but we brought it back to life and drove it in the festival. We got hooked from there.”
Before he and his grandson even finished restoring the model 70, they found a 1935 model A John Deere tractor. At least the model A came with a working engine, and once the restoration was complete, the tractor landed in Antique Power magazine. [Mar/Apr 2011 – Vol. 23, No. 3.]
From Magazines to Television
Carter lives in Baxley, a small town about midway between Atlanta, Georgia, and Tallahassee, Florida. His father farmed, but though he died when Carter was young, Carter still remembers the equipment.
“We had John Deere equipment,” Carter said. “My father had a ’58 or a ’59 John Deere 430, so after our second tractor restoration, I wanted to restore a 430 like my father had.”
He found one for sale in New Paris, Indiana. He purchased it, brought it back to Baxley, and restored it, adding a single-row corn planter with a fertilizer distributor. Carter uses it to plant about five acres of corn that he sells to local deer hunters. The tractor, a 430 S Standard, was also featured in an issue of Antique Power.
Around the same time Carter was interviewed for the story in Antique Power, he was approached by Green magazine for a feature on the first tractor he renovated and by the producers of a television show called “Classic Tractor Fever.” Carter already had developed a passion for restoring John Deere tractors, but he said the media exposure “just fueled the fire. We go places and people still come up and say, ‘I remember you. I saw you on TV!’ That’s very neat.”
Search Leads to Midwest
For people concerned with farming in the U.S., all roads lead to the upper Midwest — the most productive region in the nation’s farm belt — which is why Carter found himself on the way to Iowa a few years ago.
For each of the tractors in his collection, which now totals 16, he has purchased an appropriate John Deere implement. When a couple plows became available in Iowa, he turned the purchases into a road trip, the first to the Midwest for the life-long Georgia resident.
“I’ve never seen so much corn and open land in all my life,” Carter said. “We thought we were farming in Georgia, but we just had a garden compared to the farms out there. I’m telling you I was just overwhelmed. It was such an eye-opener.”
Carter and his grandson did more than look at farms while in the Midwest. They camped along the Mississippi River and visited several Illinois-based John Deere facilities, taking tours of John Deere Harvester Works in East Moline and the John Deere Historical Site in Grand Detour, as well as strolling around the John Deere Pavilion and the Display Floor at Deere & Company World Headquarters in Moline.
Good, Good People
For Carter, restoring tractors isn’t the only attraction. The people are important, too.
On their way back to Georgia, Carter and his grandson stopped in Kentucky to visit a fellow enthusiast who had sold Carter some parts.
“I had never met him,” said Carter, “but he took us to his place and showed us all the tractors he had restored. And he told me about a guy in Alabama, so we went through there and we got to be real, real good friends.”
So good, Carter said, that if he needs a motor or some other part, his friend in Alabama will ship it. Even before asking how or when Carter will pay him.
“And that’s what the tractor restoration business has done,” Carter said. “It’s put us in touch with a lot of good, good people who trust you and care about what you’re doing and care about you. It’s just a lot of fun.”
Although he’s 72 years old, Carter still sees plenty of restoring ahead.
“Oh, I’m not done by a long shot,” he said. “I’ve got six tractors in original condition for the most part, and hopefully we’re going to start on some more soon.”
To decide what restoration project to tackle next, Carter goes by age — he likes tractors that were built before 1960 — and affordability. Like other antiques, tractors are priced based on age, condition, and relative scarcity, as well as some intangibles. “I’m a poor boy with a rich man’s hobby,” Carter said, “but the people just make restoring tractors super nice.”
Carter stores his tractors and implements in a building on his property and one of his goals is to turn the building into a museum. He knows there’s already interest.
“When we take the completely restored equipment outside,” he said, “there’s always somebody stopping by to look at them. I love it — I love to talk about them and I love to talk to people about them. I’m still having as much fun as I had with the first one.”