A 1945 tractor connects the first and last homesteaders

The 1945 Allis Chalmers Model C tractor once used by Ken Deardorff, now on display at the Homestead National Monument. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
UNL Tractor Restoration Club students get the tractor ready for display. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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December 28, 2018 - 8:30am

An old tractor used by the last homesteader is now on display at the site of the first homestead. But it took a huge effort to get the tractor to the Homestead National Monument in Beatrice.


VIDEO: Watch "The Last Homesteaders Tractor" story, produced for NET Television's "Nebraska Stories."

 


VIDEO: How do you get a tractor out of the Alaska wilderness? Hint: it involves pushing, pulling and a helicopter. (Video courtesy Homestead National Monument)

 


Want to experience the tractor in even more detail? Explore it with our interactive 3-D model.

 


Ken Deardorff using the tractor on his Alaska homestead in the 1970s (Photo courtesy Homestead National Monument).

 


Last homesteader Ken Deardorff (Photo courtesy Homestead National Monument). Learn more about him HERE

 


Government document granting Deardorff his Alaska homestead; note that the process wasn't officially finished until the mid 1980s, after Deardorff had moved off the land, and that the size of the final homestead was approximately 50 acres, less than the 80 acres in the original application (Photo courtesy Homestead National Monument).

 


The tractor sank into the mud for several decades before it was rediscovered in 2016. (Photo courtesy Homestead National Monument).

 


Restoration expert Al Levitan talks to UNL Tractor Restoration Club students. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 


UNL Tractor Restoration Club member Asha Scheideler cleans mold and dirt off the tractor. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 


UNL Tractor Restoration Club member Chuck Krueger works on the wooden box Deardorff used as a tractor seat. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 


Dr. C.T. Frerichs, a retired Beatrice physician, speaks to the Homestead National Monument crowd at the unveiling ceremony for the tractor. Frerichs helped fund the recovery of the tractor. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News).

 


Daniel Freeman is considered the first homesteader. The site of his 1862 claim just west of Beatrice is now home to the Homestead National Monument of America. (Photo courtesy Homestead National Monument). More about Freeman HERE

 


More Information

Homestead National Monument of America

U.S. Department of Interior "Homestead Entry Final Proof" document, which provides detail on Ken Deardorff's homestead and how he lived.

David Hendee of the Omaha World-Herald followed the tractor's journey from Alaska to Nebraska. His stories HERE

"The Story Behind 'America's Most Famous Tractor." NET-produced radio story airing nationally on "Here and Now"

The Homestead National Monument’s newest display is a not-so-new 1945 Allis Chalmers Model C tractor. Most of its original orange color is worn away. The seat is a beat-up wooden box. But this weathered workhouse has a story to tell.

“It’s this tractor that represents the end of our nation’s epic homestead movement,” Homestead National Monument superintendent Mark Engler told an audience at an unveiling ceremony for the tractor last fall. “A tractor that was used by the nation’s last homesteader, Ken Deardorff.”

The Last Homesteader

Here’s Deardorff’s story. He grew up outside Los Angeles dreaming of a life he had read about in outdoor adventure magazines. After high school he entered the Army, was wounded in Vietnam and came back to California to earn a college degree. In 1974, the 30-year-old Deardorff filed a claim on 80 acres of isolated wilderness on Alaska’s Stony River, built a log cabin and became the last person to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862.

Life here wasn’t easy. He battled fire, weather and grizzly bears.

“I think what makes Ken's story so unique and so different is the isolation that comes with Alaska,” Engler said. “When his wife was giving birth to their child, she had to basically wade across the Stony River while it was down to try to get to a plane to get her out of there.”

Deardorff managed to buy an old tractor to help clear and cultivate his land.

“Ken was out in the wilderness and worked primarily with hand tools to build his cabin,” said Al Levitan, who spent years working on restoration projects for the National Park Service. “Part of the Homestead Act required the homesteaders to clear a certain amount of land and plant. Now, up in this part of Alaska, it's not particularly practical to do agriculture. But nevertheless, Ken had to clear a certain percentage of the land in order to get title to it. So, he was using that tractor to clear the land, pull stumps, and then eventually plow.”

Deardorff grew crops like rye and brome with varied success. Engler said that tractor gave him fits at times.

“When Ken would be on this tractor pulling stumps, at times the tractor would rear up. It may have gone quite a ways back, so that his back may have even been close to being parallel with the ground,” Engler said.

The Rescue

Deardorff moved off the homestead in 1984 but that tractor stayed behind, sinking into the mud for decades, until the Homestead National Monument launched a rescue effort funded by retired Beatrice doctor C.T. Frerichs. A really difficult rescue effort.

“The tractor was in the midst of what looked like a forest,” said Levitan, who traveled to Alaska to help with this project. “Trees had grown up right through it and around it, and it also had sunk down, it was about probably 14 inches down into the soil.”

A team of six dug and pulled the tractor out of the mud. After they wrapped it in a cargo net, a helicopter picked it up, delivered it to a boat and then a truck for a trip to Nebraska that totaled about 4,000 miles.

“It’s really a complex story from the standpoint of the logistics that are tied to getting it here,” Engler said.

The Restoration

Last summer it was delivered to a metal shed behind the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum for a few weeks of work by students in the university’s Tractor Restoration Club.

When we visited one evening, Asha Scheideler of Scotia was scrubbing one of the tractor’s tire rims with a small cloth. “I’m just trying to clean off the black mold and wiping down the dirt and stuff that’s on there,” she told us.

Her brother Jaythan Scheideler was using a shop vacuum on the tractor’s engine. “Right now I’m just kind of vacuuming to get all the debris and the dirt that’s been built up on this tractor,” he said.

Chuck Krueger of Lincoln was picking off moss growing on that wooden box Deardorff used for a tractor seat. “Once I pull the moss off I'm looking to see how much of the wood is still laminated together. And after assessing that we’re going to take glue and we’re going to fill the cracks.”

The goal? Make the tractor look like it did when Deardorff was using it.

“We'll do a little bit of prevention, some rust maintenance on it and see what we can do with the seat, if we can get it slowed down a little bit in the deterioration without changing it,” Doug Koozer said the night we watched the club working on the tractor. Koozer runs a tractor supply business, advises the UNL Tractor Restoration Club and helped rescue the tractor from Alaska.

“We're going to clean it up some. We're going to try and stabilize it. Part of conservation work, you try any slow future deterioration,” said Levitan, who was also on hand to help the students. “We don't want to restore it to an as-new appearance; we want it to look as closely as it possibly could as to when Ken actually used it.”

The Tractor Restoration Club normally takes old tractors and makes them brand new. This was a much different project and experience for these students, who come from farms and farm towns but also large cities.

“This seat would not be what I would want to sit on, but you know it’s all he had. So he made due with what he had,” Krueger said, talking about the wooden box Deardorff used for a seat.

“It’s crazy that this is pretty much all he had out in Alaska there, to do all that he did.” Jaythan Scheideler said.

“The story behind it is very cool and it’s very interesting,” Trisha Hruska of David City said.

“I think it’s a lot more fun when there’s a story,” Marydith Donnelly of Katy, Texas added, as she scrubbed dirt off of a tractor tire.

The History Lesson

Koozer talked about lessons learned from that story to the crowd at the Homestead National Monument ceremony.

“When school started, the club met and they looked at this thing and they go, you went where? You could have bought a hundred of them between here and there. I understand,” he said. “But does anybody know what the Homestead Act is? And it got kind of quiet.

“A greater respect for history is what we’re after,” Koozer said.

So the students who helped get the 73-year-old tractor ready for this day got a history lesson. The Homestead National Monument got what they’re calling “America’s Most Famous Tractor.” Restored to its middle-age Alaskan glory, forever connecting the first and last homesteaders, Daniel Freeman and Ken Deardorff. Two men a century apart with a lot in common: 30s-ish war veterans moving to faraway places looking for a new start.

“So to have this treasure, this tractor at Homestead National Monument of America, kind of represents a bookend,” Engler said.

“This brings the whole story full-circle in that this is a vehicle by which you can interpret the life of the last homesteader in the country,” Levitan said. “The tractor being in kind of the rough condition that it's in tells that story of him being out there by himself. He ‘jerry-rigged’ things together. He used a plywood seat rather than a cushioned seat. Whatever he had, he used, and he kept the thing running.”

It’s gone through a lot, this old tractor. A little battered but not beaten. Not unlike Freeman, Deardorff and other homesteaders who often endured a lot in return for free land and the new lives that came with it.


About the UNL Tractor Restoration Club

Started in 2005 in connection with the Larsen Tractor Test and Power Museum, the club's mission "is to preserve, restore and maintain antique tractors, primarily, but also other farm equipment," club president Josh Bauer of Lincoln said at the unveiling ceremony. "We typically work with tractors anywhere from the 1920s to the 1960s. This tractor here was an incredible opportunity for us. It presented some very unique challenges, and was overall a wonderful experience. In the club, typically what we do is full restorations. Whereas with this, it was quite a unique challenge. We wanted to do a preservation."


VIDEO: How do you get a tractor out of the Alaska wilderness?

Hint: it involves pushing, pulling and a helicopter. (Video courtesy Homestead National Monument)

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