Doug Lansdell’s farm tractors of the past

Photo by Tim Johnston

While adjusting the threshing machine, Doug watches harvested wheat pour into a waiting truck box.

One morning a few years back, Phyllis Lansdell looked out the kitchen window of her home in the hills south of Turner Valley. What she saw prompted her to call to her husband, “Doug, somebody has dropped off another tractor.”

That someone would intentionally leave a farm tractor at the Lansdell’s is not so unusual given Doug’s renown as a collector and restorer of antique farm equipment. Inside a purpose-built shed near the house, with a sign reading “Grandpa’s Toy Box”, reside 18 fully-restored examples of motive power that helped change the Canadian prairies into productive farmland. Some of these tractors had been given to the Lansdells because their owners had no further use for them but wanted to see them kept intact for posterity. Others came as direct purchases or trades and all have interesting stories of discovery, recovery and restoration.

Doug Lansdell grew up in this part of the province on a farm near Waite Valley. In 1967, he graduated from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology with a certificate in mechanical engineering technology intending to find work in the petroleum industry. At the time, Banff Oil was hiring tech graduates but was simply stockpiling them for the construction of a future gas plant. Doug hired on but rather than wait around doing little, he started driving trucks part-time and helping his father on the home farm. When Doug and Phyllis acquired their own land the stage was set for a fellow with high-level mechanical skills to begin acquiring interesting examples of early farm tractors that had once populated the countryside near his home.

Tractor brand names familiar to many populate the collection. John Deere, Case, Massey-Harris, Cockshutt, McCormick-Deering, Alice Chalmers and Caterpillar tractors exhibit the state of tractor technology in the 1920s and 30s. The collection reflects the on-going mergers of several tractor manufacturers into fewer but more robust companies. If asked, Doug can trace the lineage of present day agricultural manufacturing companies back to the roaring 20s and beyond.

While each tractor has a story, Doug told me of four. The first, a 1927 Hart-Parr Model 18-36, had previously belonged to Cameron Lansdell, Doug’s father, who many years before had traded three calves for it. The old Hart-Parr holds special memories as early in their marriage, Doug had taken Phyllis on a drive around the farm on this very tractor. Deciding to restore the Hart-Parr, Doug was helped by Phyllis’ father, Stuart Cameron, who was very adept working with machinery. Cameron contributed to many of the restorations that followed.

Discovered abandoned in a patch of bush on a farm near Millarville, a 1936 Massey- Harris Model 25 was eventually purchased after several visits by Doug to its elderly owner. While the old tractor had rusted away in the bush for years, it had not been forgotten. When Doug came to haul the Massey away, the original owner was very upset that the old tractor was about to leave his farm.  A few years later, with the tractor fully restored, Doug invited him to drive it at a threshing bee pulling a binder. Doug spoke of the old farmer’s surprise and joy as he once again drove the beloved Massey, now dressed as new in its original shiny green paint.

Another of Doug’s tractors, a John Deere Model 15-27, has the distinction of travelling the farthest to join the collection. Originally belonging to the Leftwich family, long-time friends of the Lansdells, the tractor moved to a farm near Lake Koocanusa in southeastern British Columbia after the family pulled up stakes at Millarville. Because of their many years of friendship, Doug decided to find and restore the John Deere as a special link to his now distant friends. On a winter trip to the area, Doug found the tractor at the bottom of a gully on the friend’s farm. He spoke of how a fire had to be built under the tractor’s transmission to thaw ice inside that had accumulated from condensation over the years and of the work required to construct a ramp upon which to winch the old tractor from its resting place.

A 1919 Rumely is the first tractor at the entrance to Doug’s toy box. Rumelys are very distinctive machines featuring massive oil cooler boxes on the front of their frames. Bud Long, a friend of Doug’s, was restoring this pioneer tractor but was becoming discouraged with his lack progress at having the machine start and run satisfactorily. Doug offered to buy the five-ton tractor and his friend gladly agreed.

Rumely tractors led the transition from steam-power to petroleum power and uniquely used oil to cool their massive two-cylinder engines.

As beautiful and pristine as Doug’s tractors are, they are not static museum pieces. They all run and on special occasions, some of them leave the shed for public appearances at local fairs, parades and tractor pull events. In late September, Doug drives all of them out to a nearby wheat field where they are on display for folk attending the annual Lansdell and Long threshing bee. Three or four of the tractors take turns powering the belt-run Keck-Gonnerman threshing machine while others haul the bundle wagons collecting stooked sheaves.

I spent a day with Doug and his treasures this summer and, in September, visited the threshing bee. Photographing the tractors, first in neat rows inside the shed and later in their natural environment in a field on the farm, made me realize the historic value of Doug’s collection of farm motive power. In our rapidly changing technological world, it is rare to have such superb examples of older functioning machines to visit and to reconnect us with times gone by.

Doug told me that he’s pretty much finished adding to his tractor collection. But maybe, if you know of an old Oliver, Cockshut, Minneapolis-Moline or other tired old tractor, you might want to contact him. Or, just drop it off in his yard. Phyllis will let him know it’s there.