The Man Who Fell in Love with Antique Tractors

Jim Erdle Sr. with one of his favorite tractors.

They called it “legendary” and “one of a kind” and “not to be missed.” People came from all over the United States and 35 other countries to witness, bid on or buy a piece of American history. Depending on your connection, the moment was nostalgic, sad, exciting, or even unbelievable, but definitely not an ending.

After nearly 50 years of collecting, last September Jim Erdle, Sr. auctioned his collection of more than 153 complete antique tractors, 122 lots of antique project tractors and parts, 141 engines, and 110 lots of tractor manuals and catalogs. The selling price ranged from $25 for a 1922 Case Company repair price list to $375,000 for the 1917 Flour City 40-70 Prairie Tractor. Those in the antique tractor collectibles community recognized Erdle’s collection as one of the best, if not the best collection in the nation for the number of unique and rare tractors he had. They consider him a pioneer of the antique tractor hobby.

The Aumman Auction house, nationally recognized for its antique tractor auctions, hosted the event in Canandaigua and had a hard time figuring out which of Erdle’s tractors to feature. “He had 100 stand-out tractors,” says Bridget Hill of Aumman Auctions in Illinois.

“There are defining points in history,” writes Kurt Aumann, auctioneer. “Collectors will refer to the time before Erdle’s auction and the time after Erdle’s auction.”

Forums, blogs, newspapers, television stations and even the local library helped herald the value of Erdle’s work. Through his love for old iron and an eye for the unique, he saved parts of history that don’t exist anywhere else. Through the auction, others built their collections and history gets carried forth.

Dudley Diebold, of Roxbury, Connecticut, bought the Flour City tractor to complete a series of three. He also brought eight others home. Visitors can see them and hundreds of Diebold’s other tractors on display at the farm’s DD Living History Museum.

“These antique tractors, especially the prairie tractors like the Flour City, are a testament to the American farmer,” says Diebold. “They were built to work – not for safety, not for comfort.”

50 years of collecting 

Erdle developed his collection carefully. Through books and magazines he identified tractors he wanted and worked for a deal. Most antique tractors sell in private sales, not through auctions. “If they ask for $1, offer them 80 cents,” he says.

The tractors he bought came to his farm and didn’t leave until this past September. Erdle says he didn’t sell any tractors, though he would sell parts if someone was looking for something. Over the years he built two large workshops for restoring one to two tractors a year, and employed mechanics to do the work. Correctly restoring an antique tractor can cost $30,000.

The tractors weren’t ever formally on display, but Erdle welcomed visitors who stopped by. Gregarious and with an old-timer’s sense of humor, no one left disappointed.

With 50 years of emotional and financial investment, one would guess selling the tractors would have made Erdle sad. He grew up on a family farm in Canandaigua driving his dad’s Farmall tractor, and bought his own farm as an adult. He didn’t keep farming, finding it hard to make enough money, but started collecting tractors in his early 30s “‘cause I always liked them,” says Erdle.

A family affair

The family definitely found it a bittersweet event. Growing up at the Erdle farm meant growing up with the tractors. “Everyone played on them,” says wife Anne, “especially the horse-line drivers.” These tractors steered with reins like those attached to a horse pulling a carriage.

“I was sad to see it go,” says son Jim Erdle, Jr., “but I know I was fortunate to grow up with it.”

Even the grandchildren enjoyed the old iron. “When all the kids wanted to go to the playground, I said, ‘I’m going to Grandpa’s!’” says granddaughter Ann Erdle, now 20.

When asked about his reaction to the auction, Erdle says, “It was just another auction. I can’t last forever. It was time to get rid of them so my wife doesn’t have to deal with them. I don’t miss them; I had ’em long enough.”

But Diebold, a longtime friend of Erdle’s, thinks it might be different. “I know he says he’s not sad, but I don’t believe it. It’s like selling part of the family.” That sense of privacy surrounds Jim Erdle. If he is sad, he’s not going to say it. He is a close-to-the-vest kind of guy. He also didn’t get rid of all his tractors. Erdle bought back two tractors at the auction, including his very first antique tractor, because he didn’t think they sold for enough money. He has some others in his shop to restore and two more he is working on buying.

That sagacious part of Erdle has made him one of few sellers to give bidders the ability to buy a tractor on installment. A successful buyer could pay one-third of the cost at the auction and the rest over two years, but needed to leave the tractor at Erdle’s until the final payment.

“I could get more bidders, and more money, by offering that,” says Erdle.

His one disappointment at the auction was the top-selling Flour City. “I thought it would sell for $600,000,” he says, “but the rest of the tractors sure made up for it!”

Giving back to the community

Erdle doesn’t talk about the overall proceeds of the auction. Rumors say it grossed 7 to 8.5 million, with lots going to the auctioneer. He doesn’t really talk money at all, like how much he spent on the tractors, or how much he made through the auction, or any other financial gains or losses. All he says about the auction money is that he is giving it away, and he doesn’t talk about to who.

“We live simply, we don’t need it,” says wife Anne. Their warm, comfortable, practical and entirely modest home testifies to the couple’s disinterest in an extravagant lifestyle.

It is only by talking with others that the full sense of Erdle’s legend and legacy comes through. He leaves an obvious and public legacy with the tractors. Quietly, he leaves a legacy of charity.

Only through others do you hear that he let each of his three children keep their favorite tractor; that he left tractors with the New York Steam Pageant so that they could keep displaying them on the Gehan Road show grounds in Canandaigua; and that he generously supports his church, anonymously.

He only mentions the donation to Canandaigua Comfort Care Home (CCCH) by name. In fact, he suggested I make a good part of the article about them. “There’s something to talk about,” says Erdle. He gave $323,000 to the nonprofit to buy a house up the street. Once fully renovated, the house will provide hospice care. It will be the first one to do so in the area.

But Erdle still showed his enjoyment of congenial deal making. Mary Brady, board member of CCCH, repeatedly visited Erdle for over a month before he decided to donate. “I think he was going to give it to me all along, he was just playing with me,” says Brady.

Erdle doesn’t want any large acknowledgement for the donation that saved the organization’s hopes to open a hospice house in Canandaigua. “We were a pony without a cart until Jim’s donation came through,” says Brady, “but whenever I visit him to update him on the project, he always thanks me for what I’m doing for the community!”

Anne says she is sure they aren’t done giving yet. Other donations will happen through the Finger Lakes Area Community Endowment (FLACE), which is hosted by the Canandaigua National Bank as a community service to provide a way for area individuals and groups to donate or raise money as nonprofit organizations.

“To me, [the tractors] just looked like a pile of junk,” says Anne.

Erdle adds: “I never thought they might be worth something. I was happily surprised.”

by Barb Frank

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