Looking for Allis: Man restores vintage garden tractors
JANESVILLE—Bruce Wellnitz remembers the happy day a few years ago when he picked up the pieces of an old lawn and garden tractor.
His two sons—Mitchell and Maverick—had taken it apart a few years earlier.
“We didn't restore it right away because the economy was bad and money was scarce,” Bruce explained.
For six years, the 1967 Allis Chalmers sat in storage.
Then, one day, Bruce remembered the pile just begging to be put back together. When he picked up the parts, they felt like heaven in his hands.
Bruce had spent a lot of years working as a master carpenter and seeing in his mind what he was going to build. After the economy tanked and people stopped buying houses, he started his own trucking company.
But his hands felt restless.
“The only thing my hands did all day was hold a steering wheel,” he said.
The antique Allis proved to be just what he needed.
Today, the little yellow tractor with the shiny chrome is part of Bruce's growing fleet of restored Allis Chalmers lawn and garden tractors, built from 1962-69 in Milwaukee. The Janesville man and his teenage sons have restored four of the original B series models, including one of the first hydrostatic tractors built in 1967.
They are working on two more and have another three waiting for new life in the garage. Bruce owns a tenth one, which he still has to rescue from a pig hut in Iowa.
He finds the machines with the help of friends and has gotten to know other collectors in the Midwest.
“When I come home from driving, I'm itching to work on the tractors,” Bruce said. “I find myself waking up at 3 a.m. on some mornings because I'm so eager to get started.”
Maverick shares some of his dad's excitement.
“I enjoy seeing what is inside the engines,” the 15-year-old said.
On a recent Saturday morning, Bruce planned his strategy for restoring a 1963 tractor named “Little Louis” by one of his sons. Bruce bought the B10 model in St. Louis and hauled it home in the back of his truck.
“I mowed grass with it less than three weeks ago,” he said. “It was spitting and sputtering, so I walked through the fleet and decided I would restore it next.”
He took the machine apart, piece by piece, until it lay in a heap on the garage floor.
“Every tractor is completely disassembled,” Bruce said. “Every part is cleaned and painted. If it needs to be chromed, we chrome it. Then, we put everything back together with new stainless steel bolts.”
Sometimes, he improves on the original machine. In one case, he redesigned the steering wheel so it fit tightly without play.
Since 2009, Bruce has been restoring the sturdy machines and sees no end in sight.
He enlists the help of 10 small businesses, including one that cleans and paints the parts, to get the tractors in tip-top shape.
Bruce is sentimental about the aging tractors for good reason. His father, Bob, was an Allis Chalmers dealer in Fort Atkinson for more than a decade.
In 1991, Bob gave Bruce a 1968 tractor he took in on trade. Bruce mowed grass with it for years before restoring it.
“Mechanically, I rebuild the tractors, and they are good for another 50 years,” Bruce said.
But don't even think of mowing with a restored tractor.
Bruce has put too much effort into making it perfect, right down to the Allis Chalmers decal.
“If I see a dog hair on the hood, I brush it off,” he said. “Every tractor is completely covered so no dust gets on it.”
He loves to park the machines on the front lawn and watch the reactions of people when they drive by. Once, a motorist offered him a lot of money for one. Bruce declined, explaining it would be like selling his much-loved chocolate lab.
“I don't keep track of how much it costs to restore the tractors,” Bruce said. “But they are not for sale. They look like little orphans when we bring them home because they've been used and used. But we restore them back to their original glory.”
The tractors are getting harder to find, but Bruce enjoys the hunt.
“My boys say I have an addiction,” he said. “I call it fun.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.