Tractor of Fern lore donated to Historical Society, Old Engine Club

July 8, 2024

David Holmes, right, and Gene Duncil with the WC

The Allis-Chalmers WC was purchased new from a Scottville dealership in 1941 

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

Editor’s Note: Where the heck is Fern? According to longtime resident Estella Stickney, it is located on South Custer Road, in Eden Township, between Hawley and Marrison roads with the epicenter being the intersection of Custer and Sippy roads. So, if you didn’t know, you do now. 

SCOTTVILLE — David Holmes made a promise 23 years ago to take care of a piece of Mason County’s agricultural history. On Sunday, he ensured that his promise will be kept for generations to come by donating his 1939 Allis Chalmers WC tractor to the Mason County Historical Society.

In 2001, David took possession of the tractor from Jean Stickney of Fern, Eden Township. The tractor had been in Jean’s family for about 50 years. David wasn’t necessarily seeking to buy a tractor to work up some land. He wasn’t really seeking to buy a tractor at all. Jean sought him out because she knew it had a special meaning, not only to her, but to David as well.

Eden Township farmer Joseph Bedker (1903-2002) purchased the tractor new in 1941 from Briggs-MacArthur Co., the Allis-Chalmers dealership in Scottville. The dealership was owned by John “Jack” MacArthur (1904-1980), Holmes’s grandfather.

In later years, the dealership became MacArthur Implement Co. and was located on US 10 just west of the village of Custer.

In the Sept. 6, 2001 edition of the Ludington Daily News, Jean Stickney, who was a columnist for the newspaper, wrote about the tractor, which was rather famous out in Fern.

Jean recalled the story about how Bedker was shopping around for a new tractor.

“As Joe shopped for a new tractor in 1941, two dealers, both of Scottville, and their product were in contention for a sale: Jack MacArthur of the Briggs-MacArthur agency and his Allis Chalmers WC and Charles “Chub” Reader of W.E. Reader and Son with his International Farmall H. The two tractors were well matched for power.

“To make the decision between these competitors, a show of ability (a tractor pull) was staged on a suitable piece of heavy ground at the neighboring farm of Byrl Huddlestun.”

Bedker was the son of Herman Bedker (1862-1932) and Clara Elizabeth (Carr) Bedker (1868-1953), who were among some of the earliest settlers of Mason County. His 155 acre farm was located on both sides of modern Sippy Road just east of Custer Road. Huddlestun (1903-1974) farmed along all four corners of Custer and Sippy roads.

The account of the tractor competition was told to Jean by Erv Bedker of Virginia who was visiting his then-98-year-old dad at Oakview Medical Care Facility in Ludington.

“I was just a kid but I surely do remember that day,” Erv Bedker told Jean. “It was an amazing and exciting contest. As we stood watching them, the Chalmers walked away winning the pull hands down. Dad made his decision.”

Joe Bedker purchased the tractor by trading in five horses and his old McCormick-Deering 10-20 tractor, Stickney wrote.

The Model WC was made by Allis-Chalmers from 1933 to 1948. It was designed as a nimble, low-cost, but well-powered row-crop tractor. The WC was the Model W variant tailored to cultivating; the “C” stood for “cultivating.” Other later “W” variants included the WD and WF.

The WC before it was restored by Duncil

The WC had a 201 cubic inches (3,290 cc), inline-four engine and was offered in multi-fuel capacity, running on gasoline, kerosene or alcohol. The WC engine tested at 22 horsepower at the drawbar and 30 hp at the belt. It was the first farm tractor to have rubber tires as standard equipment and the first tractor tested on rubber in the University of Nebraska tractor tests. Since 1939, electric start became standard on the WC. The WC was the best-selling tractor ever built by Allis-Chalmers.

The Allis-Chalmers Company was formed in West Allis, Wis. in 1901 as a consolidation of the Edward P. Allis Co. (which produced steam engines and mill equipment), Fraser & Chalmers (which produced mining and ore milling equipment), the Gates Iron Works (producer of rock and cement milling equipment) and Dickson Manufacturing Co. (maker of engines and compressors). It was reorganized in 1912 as Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company.

Allis-Chalmers tractors were produced tractors until 1985 when the company sold its farm equipment business to K-H-D (Klöckner-Humboldt-Deutz, Deutz AG) of Germany.

Joe Bedker farmed with his WC until the early 1950s, Jean recalled, when he traded it in for a WD.

Jean Stickney was the daughter of John Wilson (1909-1983) and Louisa (Rozell) Wilson (1909-1990). The Wilson’s 200 acre farm was located on the northeast corner of Custer and Meisenheimer roads. John was the son of Harry Wilson (1875-1959) and Joanna (Eastman) Wilson (1875-1951).

Both John and Louisa had graduated from Custer High School and both were certified teachers. John attended Western Michigan Normal School in Kalamazoo (now Western Michigan University) and Louisa attended Central Michigan Normal School in Mt. Pleasant (now Central Michigan University). Eventually John returned to agriculture and took over his parent’s farm. In addition to farming, John was an electrician and worked for 19 years for the Western Michigan Electric Cooperative of which he was a charter member and served on its original board of directors. Today, the co-op is part of Great Lakes Energy co-op. The co-op was formed as a result of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which is why it was often referred to as REA.

In 1941, John Wilson purchased a 1939 Allis Chalmers WC on steel wheels for $1,000.

“Since my father knew the reputation of the Bedker tractor and could see use for a second one, he purchased the famed WC that Joe traded in,” Jean wrote. “The two tractors worked our farm until my father was farming alone in the 1960s.”

The WC after restoration

The tractor then went to Fountain where Jean’s uncle, Roscoe Brandt, used it for plowing snow.

“When Uncle Roc no longer used the Chalmers and our neighbor and pre-war hired man, Howard Shafer, retired from Oldsmobile in Lansing, my father loaned the Bedker tractor to him to plow his snow. The stipulation was the tractor be given to my husband when Howard no longer used it.

“According to my father’s wishes, when Howard could no longer operate it, the Bedker tractor along with ‘any piece of equipment around the place that was painted orange’ fell into our custody. The Bedker tractor became the nucleus for a string of antique working tractors and implements, all of them Allis-Chalmers orange…”

Jean Eloise Wilson was born on June 5, 1932, the oldest child of John and Louisa Wilson. Her sisters included JoAnne Heintzleman, Gertrude Orvis and Beth Bishop. She grew up in Fern and graduated from Scottville High School in 1950. On Feb. 11, 1950, she married Charles “Charlie” Stickney (1930-2000), son of Morris “Mike” and Viola (Wyant) Stickney. Charlie had three brothers, Don, Keith, and Jack, and a sister, Dorothy Tyndall. Don, Jack and Dorothy have passed away.

Jean passed away on Aug. 30, 2005.

Charlie had three brothers, Don, Keith, and Jack, and a sister, Dorothy Tyndall. Don, Jack and Dorothy have passed away.

In 1955, the Stickneys moved to Flint. Charlie was employed by the Flint Board of Education for 31 years. Jean retired from the clinical laboratory at McLaren General Hospital in Flint. After retiring, they returned to Eden Township.

Charlie and Jean were active members of the Western Michigan Old Engine Club and Jean was a passionate historian and storyteller. She wrote for the Ludington Daily News for many years, recalling stories of Mason County’s rural past. Her collection of work is invaluable to local historians.

Charlie died on Feb. 18, 2000 at the age of 69 following a five-month battle with cancer. Following his death, Jean started dispersing Charlie’s antique tractor and implement collection.

“‘This tractor’s history of continuous service holds a body of memories for the Chalmers’ line,” she wrote. “To have such a faithful old tractor sitting idly in our shed weighed on my mind as I talked with Mary Jo (MacArthur) Holmes (daughter of Jack MacArthur)…”

Jean wrote that Mary Jo Holmes asked if the tractor was for sale. Jean responded that she would like to see someone take care of and enjoy the tractor.

Mary Jo then told Jean about her son David and how he spend many hours with his grandfather.

David grew up in Scottville and now lives in Twin Lake in Muskegon County. He purchased the tractor from Jean making a promise.

“I promised Jean that I would take care of the tractor,” David said. “I spent a lot of time with my grandfather when I was young. When my dad, Fred Holmes, died in 1973, my grandpa Jack took on the role as a father figure.” Fred Holmes was 40 years old when he passed away on May 24, 1973.

A few years ago, David recruited his childhood friend, Gene Duncil, Jr., a member of the Western Michigan Old Engine Club, to restore the tractor.

“It was an honor to be able to restore a tractor with such a rich history to Mason County,” Gene Duncil said. “This tractor is directly connected to three families that have deep roots in this county.” Both Gene and David graduated from Mason County Central High School in 1986.

David said he loves the tractor but it’s time for it to go to another home. He and Gene began talking about its future and Gene suggested David consider bringing it back home to Scottville, to the Western Michigan Old Engine Club.

To assure the tractor is properly archived into the county’s history, David decided to donate it to the Mason County Historical Society with it being on loan to the Western Michigan Old Engine Club.

“As a part of the Historical Society’s collection, we can be assured that this tractor’s story will be told for many generations,” David said. “But, it also needs to be used. It’s a working tractor. I believe placing it on loan to the Old Engine Club will help assure that this famous tractor continues to run for many more years — because farm equipment is built to be used.”

The tractor will be on display during the 50th Western Michigan Old Engine Club Antique Tractor and Engine Show, Aug. 1-3 at Scottville Riverside Park. The Western Michigan Old Engine Club is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1974.

The Mason County Historical Society is a non-profit charitable organization that was founded in 1937. While at one time the Society was supported by a local tax millage, it has operated autonomously, without taxpayer support, for over 30 years. Its mission is to preserve and present Mason County’s rich history, inspiring visitors to appreciate and engage with their heritage. The Society owns and operates Historic White Pine Village in Pere Marquette Township, the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum in Ludington and the Mason County Research Center in downtown Ludington.

To learn more about the Mason County Historical Society, click here.

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