Photos by L.G. Patterson
Although he lives on 9 acres in the heart of Columbia and has three metal sheds full to the brim of tractors and engines, Kee Groshong isn’t about to get up in the morning and plow his small acreage. He’s more prone to start his day with a wrench in one hand and a tractor manual in the other. Groshong, who at age 82 can look back at a long and successful career as a University of Missouri administrator, looks forward to working on old tractors, traveling to tractor shows and enjoying his collection for years to come.
Sporting a Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association ball cap while standing in the middle of one of his metal storage sheds, Groshong says, “I’ll keep going to old tractor shows for as long as the boys will put me in the back seat of our pickup and take me with them.”
That should be for a good many years. Groshong has the sturdy build and sure gait of someone who could easily yank on a thick bolt or carefully maneuver a heavy engine part onto a drill press. Two gigantic metal contraptions take much of the space in this shed. Iron wheels — about 4 or 5 feet high — steering wheels, motors and rectangular chasses are clues that the thousands of pounds of metal must be tractor bodies. The walls of the shed are decorated with antique tractor signs, and along the perimeter hand tools, power tools and collections of nuts and bolts are arranged neatly. This is not a showroom but a working metal shop where Groshong and his son and friends put the bits and pieces of antique tractors — some more than 100 years old — back into working condition.
The process is anything but simple and straightforward. “Getting parts for these old tractors is challenging. That’s one of the enjoyable parts of this hobby, learning where to ferret out and find these pieces. It’s like a game of hide and seek,” he says.
Groshong talks about his hobby enthusiastically and knowledgeably. He knows when every one of his couple dozen tractors has been manufactured, knows the history of the company that produced it, knows each model’s limitations and strengths. And he doesn’t restrict his collecting to tractors. Somewhere among the clutter of machinery in his three sheds are a Model T pickup, an assortment of early Caterpillars and one half-sized model of a steam-powered tractor. While walking among his tractors, Groshong is in his element, as comfortable among the machinery as he was in Jesse Hall when he spent his days as vice chancellor for the university and found time in the evenings to tinker with old tractors.
He seems to always have had a knack for mechanics, having enjoyed four years of vocational agriculture courses at high school before going on to college at MU and becoming an accountant. He later turned to administration. Groshong grew up in the country, just outside of Troy, Missouri, where his father worked the family’s small farm, relying on a 1930s John Deere tractor. Although Groshong didn’t see a future for himself as a farmer, he liked fixing machinery. “I’ve always enjoyed fooling with things and studying how agriculture evolved. Collecting tractors gives you a lesson in how that happens,” he says. Groshong then proceeds to give a thumbnail sketch of the history of American agriculture, from the horse and oxen days to today, when a new combine can cost half a million dollars or more.
By restoring old tractors, Groshong makes sure that the story of American agriculture is continually on display before new audiences. He hauls several different tractors to antique tractor shows at least three times a year, going to Albert City, Iowa; Boonville, Missouri; and Rollag, Minnesota. The number of people who attend these shows indicates that the history of rural America is appreciated by more than antique tractor collectors: About 6,000 people will visit the Missouri River Valley Steam Engine Association show over the four days its gate is open.
Then there are the other shows, where Groshong goes to search for parts and to enjoy the company and collections of others. He hits as many as possible accompanied by his son Reese, who also shares an interest in the family’s hobby. “I’m very fortunate that I got my son involved in the hobby. I got him hooked on it. It’s something he and I have done since he was little boy and we started going to shows together,” he says.
Now that Reese is an adult, they still travel across the country to different tractor shows. “It’s a lot about the other collectors you meet at the shows,” Reese explains. “We’ve met a lot of good people who share a common interest.” Reese takes his hobby seriously and is on the board of directors of the Rumely Products Collectors Association, which promotes the preservation of that company’s tractors and engines. Reese and his father own a variety of Rumelys, ranging from a turn-of-the-century model that burned kerosine to more modern versions (relatively speaking) that burn gasoline. All their Rumelys, as well as the other brands they collect, have one thing in common. They were mostly manufactured in the days before rubber tires became available. Although the tractors could break down in the field, they couldn’t have a flat tire.
Collecting tractors is a hobby that allows Groshong to get his hands dirty, to challenge his mechanical skills and to share his love of agricultural history. But it doesn’t interfere with his community involvement. As a past chair of the board of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, he’s still an active member. He has served on the Missouri Credit Union Board since its beginning and he is treasurer of the Daniel Boone Regional Library Foundation Board. In addition, he volunteers for several other community groups.
Is Groshong finished adding tractors to his collection? “My son says we don’t have any more space,” he says. “I’m not always looking, but if I found one and it worked out, I might consider it. You never say never.”