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Building a ‘bomb’ in his garage

By Staff | Jan 24, 2011

Steve Pilcher with his nearly restored 1919 General Ordnance tractor. It is one of only seven known to exist in the United States.

The second stall in Steve Pilcher’s two-car garage isn’t used to house the family automobile. Or the pickup he drives for his work as owner of Pilcher Construction.

No, the Blue Earth resident has been using the stall to completely restore an old tractor.

And, not just any old tractor. An extremely rare one.

“I tell people I am restoring a 1919 General Ordnance tractor, and they all say, ‘What the heck is that?'” Pilcher says with a laugh. “They expect it to be a John Deere or Massey Ferguson, I guess.”

It might be painted red and green, but it isn’t a tractor anyone will see very often.

The back end of the 1919 G-O tractor is shown.

“There is a guy in Iowa who owns one, and he says there are only seven in the whole United States,” Pilcher says. “And only two of those actually run.”

Pilcher’s runs, thanks to a lot of work by his older brother Virgil, who lives in Waseca. He did all of the engine work. Pilcher’s younger brother, Mark, of Faribault, has also done a lot of work on the tractor.

“Mark has tried to do research about the tractor, but we haven’t found out a lot,” Pilcher says.

The tractors were only made for about a year and a half, maybe two years, Pilcher says they learned.

“It started as a company called Denning Tractors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa,” he says. “They quickly became the National Tractor Company, then just as quickly went bankrupt and were bought out by the General Ordnance Company in New York City.”

They, too, eventually went bankrupt. It was tough economic times.

“We think they made bombs and shells and other ordnance for the U.S. in World War I,” Pilcher says. “But, the only thing we know for sure is that they made depth-charge launchers for the Navy.”

And, for some reason, they made tractors for a brief period of time, and called them General Ordnance, or G-O.

“This one is a Model 14-28,” Pilcher says. “Our research says it weighs 4,300 pounds and sold for $1,485 when it was new.”

When Pilcher first saw the tractor, however, he had no idea what it was. It was barely recognizable as a tractor.

“I found it totally by accident,” he recalls. “It was buried in a fence line on a farm near Guckeen.”

Pilcher and his brothers had restored a couple of F-12 tractors, and he heard there might be an old junked one on the Dewayne Hanneman farm.

“There were several tractors, all rusted and in bad shape, but no F-12,” Pilcher says. “But, there was this one in the fence line, and I didn’t know what it was.”

The G-O was in pieces, scattered about. The engine was sitting sideways on the frame. The front wheels were buried in dirt. A tree grew through one of the large rear wheels.

Pilcher decided he wanted this unknown tractor, and made an offer to Hanneman, who accepted it.

“First thing we had to do was cut down that tree,” Pilcher says. “It looked like most of the main pieces were there, so we scoured the area and dug out and took every hunk of iron we could find.”

After they hauled it all to Pilcher’s garage, the work began.

“We found the guy in Iowa who had one, and we went there and took a lot of photographs of it, from every angle,” Pilcher says. “We used the pictures to figure out what all the pieces were, and where they fit.”

Pilcher estimates the G-O tractor had been sitting in the Guckeen fence line for more than 50 years.

Remarkably, when Virgil Pilcher took the engine apart, it was relatively clean inside, with little rust.

“I think it had been used long after the tractor wasn’t,” Pilcher says. “Probably as a power source. And they had kept it covered.”

The honey-comb style radiator was not in as good condition. The core had completely rusted away, and mice had taken up residence in it over the years.

“We ordered a new core. It was made in New Zealand and cost $2,000 – more than the whole tractor cost new,” Pilcher says with a laugh.

The brothers did a lot of the work themselves, but they also hired out some of it.

Electric Service did some of the work on the radiator. Kenny Stewart did some soldering work. Lee’s Body Shop painted the gas tank.

Meester Machine Works in Fairmont manufactured a few of the parts that could not be restored.

A welder south of Kiester is going to make the lugs for the rear wheels, and another one in Mankato is going to make new fenders for the rear wheels.

“The old ones were too far gone to be restored,” Pilcher says.

The brothers found a photo of a similar tractor on the internet, from South Africa.

“We saw the General Ordnance logo on that tractor, and had decals of it made by Blue Earth Sign,” Pilcher says. “We put them on the two engine hoods.”

They painted the tractor red and green, basing it on those pictures.

“But, if someone comes along and tells us it is the wrong color, I guess we will just have to repaint it,” Pilcher says.

It has been a very interesting couple of years of restoration work, mainly because the tractor is so rare, and no one has heard of it.

“We hauled it to the Faribault County Fair this past summer, because it was the 150th fair,” Pilcher says. “We are sure the tractor runs, but we hauled it by trailer.”

There is a real art to starting the engine, including having to crank the engine over by hand.

“We have a check list of things to do before cranking it over,” Pilcher says. “And I will start it with my two brothers here.”

The three Pilcher brothers were originally from East Chain, but moved to Blue Earth when Steve was a sophomore in high school.

“Our father and grandfather all farmed at one time,” he says. “So I guess that is where the interest in old tractors comes from.”

When they finally get it totally restored and completed, the brothers won’t keep it, but actually plan on trying to sell it.

“I think it will have a good market value, because it is so rare,” Pilcher says. “We will just have to find someone who really wants it. Better yet, two of them, so they bid against each other.”