Grey Eagle man collects antique John Deere equipment to keep past alive
By Emilie Thiessen, Staff Writer
Thirty-five years and 35 tractors — Grey Eagle resident Joe Kemper has one John Deere tractor for every year he has been collecting, and a whole other shed full of John Deere machinery.
“I grew up with that stuff, so I know just how they work,” Kemper said. “I get them all running. All of my tractors run.”
Kemper’s history with John Deere tractors began on his family’s dairy farm in Melrose, where he used a John Deere tractor to cultivate corn as a young boy.
“I grew up with a B John Deere Tractor, and in those days, there weren’t a lot of herbicides or pesticides to spray your crop, so we did cultivating. I cultivated lots of corn every summer.”
Kemper said it took him two solid months — all of June and July — to cultivate the crop with the Model B tractor, which pulled a plow that was able to selectively kill the weeds while at the same time retain the corn crop.
The Model B, which Kemper’s father bought new in 1952, was a medium-sized tractor first introduced to the market in late 1934. Models A and B were the first tractors to be built with the modern, streamlined look styled by famous New York designer Henry Dreyfuss. The model B was replaced by the Model 50 in 1952.
Kemper moved to Big Lake in 1976, but after so many years on the farm, just couldn’t shake his interest in the tractors. After visiting a threshing show in 1977 in the nearby town of Rogers, Kemper said he was drawn to the John Deere Unstyled tractors.
“I decided I needed one of them,” he said. “I found one, bought it and that was it. I just kept buying more and more.”
Kemper, who moved to Grey Eagle with his wife Bonnie in 2005, has purchased most of his tractors at auctions around Minnesota and fixes them up right away. He gets them all running, and for a few of the tractors, sends them out to a friend for a new paint job. Kemper said he is proud of one of his greatest treasures, the old Model B that his father passed down to him after he retired from farming.
“I overhauled it and fixed it up, so I still have that in the shed,” he said.
Kemper has had to slow down recently, however. After years of collecting, space for the large pieces of equipment is now hard to come by.
“My shed is full of tractors,” Kemper said. “So I don’t buy any more tractors.”
But instead of tractors, Kemper said he buys mostly John Deere Machinery now — plows, diggers, grain drills and corn planters.
Kemper said he is especially interested in older horse-drawn machinery, which frequently falls prey to scrap workers at auctions, who purchase the equipment to recycle the metal.
“That has been going on forever, and it is still going on,” he said.
Because the number of smaller area farms continues to dwindle, auctions that feature antique John Deere equipment are becoming less frequent, Kemper said, and the larger farms that now use modern machinery usually have auctions for bulky, expensive equipment that is not good for collecting.
“I am not interested in too much of that,” he said.
Not a lot of well-kept, antique John Deere equipment is kept around, Kemper said, and it is more important than ever that collectors correctly maintain their privately-owned machinery. Kemper said he is always pleased to see younger generations taking an interest in the old equipment and farming techniques and has even come across some younger men who have started their own collections.
“Get them fixed up right, for the next generation,” he advised private collectors, “so you can show how things used to be.”
Kemper said he will continue to fix as many pieces in his collection as possible and host his own auction someday.
“That lets the next guy enjoy them,” he said.