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Tell It Like It Was - Bill Ferris - One Man, Many Tractors

Adapted from the original e-mail story sent by Paul Ovaitt November 8, 2022


One Man, Many Tractors – Bill Ferris – ready-mix truck - president of Teamsters Local 682 – Osthoff Brothers – Anita Mallinckrodt – ’34 Ford Cabriolet – Christmas tractor - tractors driven with reins?

What is a tractor? – noun- A vehicle having a powerful gasoline or diesel motor and usually large, heavily treaded rear tires, used especially for pulling farm implements or machinery.

Etymology of tractor - From Latin, the agent noun of trahere, to pull

Q: What do you call a bunch of tractors parked in front of a McDonald's on Friday night in Missouri?

A: Prom night.


Gentle readers, I bet you thought I had exhausted this topic, but I’m still plowing on. In part one I told you I had called on Bill Ferris to check out his tractors, but I didn’t realize I was walking into The Lower Street Vintage Tractor Museum of Augusta. I was simply overwhelmed…not only by the variety but by Bill’s enthusiasm for his machines.

Bill’s an unusual guy, but that may sound less-than-credible coming from a guy like me who goes around Augusta recording anything that walks and talks. Whatever…I quickly knew Bill was worthy of a full interview by ye olde towne painter…turned flaneur…turned interviewer…even if he’s seemingly not related to the guy who designed and constructed the original Ferris Wheel for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

(((Anything in parentheses is my addition.)))

Paul: What year were you born?

Bill Ferris: 1937 in STL County in the city of St. John.

P: Tell me about your parents.

B: I’m a very, very lucky guy. My parents were about the best I could possibly have. My dad was a hard worker; he worked at Monsanto for 40 years. And my mom was a homemaker…when we were little…made all the clothes, canned everything…we always had a big garden.

P: Okay…you had almost a rural lifestyle.

B: Well…my mom and dad are both country folks that moved to the city…the first generation that left the country…left Owensville. That’s where they were from.

P: So, you wore clothes that your mom made? Some interviewees have said their mom only made the girls’ clothes.

B: She only made clothes for us boys when we were little bitty boys. (Bill has one brother who lives in California, and one sister in Gerald, MO.) After my girls were born, mom made clothes for them too. She upholstered all the furniture…we never had a new piece of furniture…but it all looked great.

P: Very handy person…so I guess you get some of your skills partly from her.

B: Well…my dad was a master carpenter…and I’m the first Ferris for about 5 generations that didn’t end up being a carpenter. But I was around it my whole life…and the family never had any money…so if we wanted anything, dad had to fix it. I never had a new bicycle in my life…if it wasn’t run over first, we didn’t have it. (We both laugh.) I would bring it home…and what we had was a shop…and dad had a great big vise…we’d get it in that big old vise…and straighten it out.

P: That’s really cool. And where’d you go for grade school?

B: I went to Home Heights School, which is in St. John…it’s not there anymore. And high school at Ritenour…Vic Brown used to teach at Ritenour.

P: No kidding? Thanks for throwing that in there. Any college?

B: No.

P: Okay. I’m guessing you were taking jobs, maybe as early as grade school.

B: Oh yeah. I always had a job. Back then they didn’t have automatic pinsetters, so, we set pins at the bowling alley. I guarantee you, if you set pins, you got bruises. You set the pins and you jump up…there’s a little bench back there…just a little higher than the pins…but they still get you.

P: I can see you give a good interview. (We laugh.)

B: And I had a paper route…sold the Sunday paper. When I was in high school, I was in a program called Diversified Occupations, where you worked half a day and went to school half a day. And I worked in a lumberyard, Bixby Jones Lumber Company, during that time.

P: After high school I guess you got a job.

B: Yes, I did. I went to work for Breckenridge Material Company. I worked for them 30 some years.

P: I guess you were kind of young when you retired.

B: No…65. Well, after Breckenridge there was another job. At Breckenridge, that was a good union job with benefits and retirement and the whole program…and I became involved with the union…and I ended up being a full-time union employee for 10 more years after I quit driving a ready-mix truck. First, I was hired as a business agent…and I did that for a while, but in the end, I retired as a two-term president of Teamsters Local 682.

P: So, even when you were with Breckinridge, I guess you were a member of the Teamsters Union. I’m not trying to stir things up, but often when the Teamsters Union is mentioned, people start talking about the Mafia…and you don’t even have to answer this, but is there anything you want to say about that?

B: Well, the only thing I can tell you is I went in there first as a rank-and-file trustee…that was the first job I had, and through the years…they usually hire from within…I got to be president. And the only thing I can tell you is that…there is not one thing that I did while I was in there that I’m ashamed of…or ashamed to tell you. And nobody came by and squeezed my head and tried to make me do anything.

B: Now, I will tell you that I went to a lot of big-time meetings…and I certainly would not deny that there’s a lot of them big local unions…out in New Jersey and New York that…are mobbed up…I’m sure they are.

P: Well, thank you for being willing to answer that.

Gentle listeners, it’s time for a Union break. Sit back and open the virus free attachment I sent you of my version of James Taylor’s Steamroller Blues. Why that song? Well, it contains a verse about a cement mixer.

Steamroller Blues by James Taylor, Performed by Paul Ovaitt

P: Let’s see, when did you come to Augusta?

B: 1996.

P: Had you ever heard of Augusta before that?

B: No.

P: But something drew you to it. How did you even know about Augusta?

B: Well, I didn’t…it was just a beautiful day, and I was out riding around, and stumbled upon Augusta…and this old house I’m sitting in right now was for sale. And I looked at it…and thought about it…and time went by…and I made an offer on it. Well, let’s back up…I lived in St. John all that time, but my high school sweetheart…my wife…passed away at 49yo from cancer. And our house had an awful lot of bad memories for me…so I saw this place here…and I was always a country boy at heart anyway…so, I was interested in it, and I made an offer on it. And the lady that owned it…was a nasty person. I made an offer, and she was all unhappy about that…and several months went by, and she finally called back…and Genie was the real estate lady…and I lowballed a number…and finally…I don’t know what was going on in her life…but she took it.

P: So, you were single at that time?

B: Yeah, and I was still working; even after I moved here, I was driving back to the city every day.

P: And you’re married now to Barbara?

B: I call her Barbie. We’ve been married 19 years. (Barbara is retired from Magellan Healthcare.)

P: Do you have any children from your first marriage?

B: I have 2 girls and Barbie has 3 boys.

P: Do you have any grandchildren?

B: Fifteen, and 17 greats.



P: I’m working my way around to tractors, but first let’s talk about your house because…I think you told me that you are aware of a lot of the history of the house, and…may I take a picture of it?

B: Oh, absolutely. What I’m told is that the Osthoff family had the store on the corner…where there’s an antique store now…it was a grocery store.

P: Oh, the brick building, known as the Uptown Store.

B: And the family lived upstairs. I think that store opened, probably in 1905 or 06. (From Anita’s Augusta’s Harmony, page 77: “Young Carl Wencker assumed his father’s business there in 1876 and also supervision of the Post Office within the store.” And on page 117: “In May 1903, it was Osthoff who supplied the Maifest with 54 pounds of ham, at 22 cents a pound… By the next year, the Augusta Meat Market serving the Harmonie-Verein and others was owned by Frank Groenemann; the Osthoff Brothers had moved into a ‘General Merchants’ business, as ‘successors to Carl Wencker & Co.”)

B: The store, apparently, was pretty successful, and they came around the corner over here and built this house…in 1913. And…one of the interesting things to me…about the house…is that…apparently, one of the guys who helped build the house…is the guy that the American Legion is named after.

P: Yeah, Harry Haferkamp. (Augusta’s “Harmony”: On October 31 [1918], the Theodore Haferkamp family received a telegram telling them that their son Harry Haferkamp had been killed in action on Sunday, September 29, in the battle of St. Mihiel, Bellau Woods, France. In that U.S. offensive, led by General Pershing, 550,000 troops were involved, suffering 7000 casualties.)

B: There’s places in the attic where Harry Haferkamp has signed a rafter, and there’s a place chiseled in the basement where Harry signed it. And the thing is, there’s still material in the attic here, stamped from the Augusta lumber company. It came from right down the street there where the White House is now.

P: Does it say Koch on it?

B: It says Augusta Lumber Co. on it.



P: So, it begins with the Osthoffs…

B: Okay, and they lived here, from what I understand, and I’ve checked a lot of this stuff with Paul Kemner…and he told me that he thought I was right with what I’d come up with… They had 2 or 3 kids, and they all got married and moved away, except one…Frieda. Frieda Osthoff became Frieda Koetter. She got married and lived here…and then her husband (Melvin) died…and she lived here until she couldn’t take care of herself anymore, and she went to assisted living. But she didn’t sell this house because she thought she was gonna get better and come back. And it stood here empty for a long, long time after that.

B: And then this other lady bought it, and I can’t remember her name…but never lived in it. Then I bought it through Genie (Hofstetter of Countryside Brokers).

P: I’m getting closer to the topic of tractors, but…tell me again how you met Anita Mallinckrodt (Augusta historian, now deceased) …and how you eventually became friends.

B: I went down to the historic Augusta…historic house down there…and I parked down on the end of the parking lot…and then there was a bus parked crossways up there on the street…right? …nobody on the bus that you could see, anyway. I was walking into the museum there…and as I got close to the bus, a car pulled up alongside…and I didn’t know who it was…but it was Anita. And she says, “You can’t park that bus there!” And I started to say something, and she says, “I’m telling you to get in that bus and move it right now!” I said wait a minute. She says, “I’m not waiting a minute.” And I told her I’m not moving the bus, and I went on inside. Later I was sitting at the table with Mary and Leyton (son of the blacksmith, Wilbert) Holt…I’m sitting there talking with them and Anita comes in and she says, “You weren’t driving the bus, were you?”

So, that’s how I met Anita, and we became friends after that, and I’ve got all the books on Augusta, and she signed them to me, “from Anita”.

Gentle readers, in an earlier conversation, Bill told me that he had told that story to Anita’s brother, Hubie, who immediately repeated it to all his friends. Hence, Bill figured it was okay to tell it to me.

P: That’s great. Okay, you want to talk tractors? I don’t even know where to start. I could look at some of the photos I took that day when I was at your place. Well…I’m just curious…is there one of these machines…that to you is a prize possession?

B: Not a tractor…there’s a car that’s a prize possession. The car is a ’34 Ford Cabriolet, which was Ford’s word at that time for a convertible. They made Roadsters in ‘34, and the side curtain just came out…you just took it out. It had isinglass in it. But this one…it’s got roll up-and-down windows, which made it kind of rare. But I bought it when I was 17yo, and I still have it. And I’ve…fixed it, changed engines in it, painted it, upholstered it two or three times, and so forth, but it still runs around. I drove it in Augusta’s parade this year

P: You’ve got history with that one.

B: Yeah, but I like them all. That was a problem over the years…if it’s old and rusty…I had to drag it home. That’s how come I have 7 or 8 cars.



P: I’m looking at the photos I took that day at your shop…we started with your lawn tractors…and I must admit I liked your White (brand name) tractor.

B: Yeah, that’s a pretty nice tractor. When I bought it, the engine was locked up…I got it going. I’m sure I bought it for virtually nothing because the people thought it was ruined, and so did I at the time. My garden tractor collection is all tractors that they don’t make anymore…and that one was of special interest to me.

P: It looks like the next one was a much more primitive machine…all rusty…

B: It was a David…a David Bradley Suburban, and Sears sold them. There was a lot of improvements between the David Bradley and the White. The White has got…basically, an automatic transmission in it…and the White is 4-wheel steer. You turn the wheel to the extreme, and the rear turns too.

P: What’s the comparison with power?

B: The older ones like that David Bradley…it’s a 6 or 7 horsepower, one cylinder…and the White is a 2 cylinder with 22 horsepower.

Gentle readers, I won’t attempt to tell you about every lawn tractor Bill owns, but on the phone, I quizzed him a little on each one. I described a photo, and Bill could instantly tell me about the machine, and how he acquired it…Speedex, Bolens Ride-a-matic, Swisherr, Bantam, Wheelhorse with a Kohler engine, Case, Rangerider by Root Manufacturing…

P: Are you sure it’s okay for me to use photos of all your stuff here…in terms of people getting nosey or stealing? On the other hand, would anybody want to steal it?

B: No, I’ve never had any problem at all, Paul. I don’t know. A lot of people think I’m nuts for dragging all this ____ home. I have friends that say, “what the hell you gonna do with all that stuff?”

P: I’m looking at my photos. The next one…it has a big exhaust pipe too, but it’s not all shiny like…it says Economy on it somewhere.

B: Yes, yes…that’s a Kohler powered, all-gear drive garden tractor, and it’s the one that’s referred to around here as the Christmas Tractor, because it’s the one that gets decorated out in the front yard at Christmas time.



Diligent readers, I have no idea how many of you are following all this. For your sake, I’m moving on to somewhat larger machines…like a 1940 Oliver Number 70 and a Massey Harris Pony.

P: Is Massey Harris related to Massey Ferguson?

B: Yeah. It used to be Ferguson, then it was Massey Ferguson, then it was Massey Harris…the company’s still around but it’s merged with several other companies. The only pure tractor company left is John Deere. All the rest of them are merged into something else. The biggest one was Case International, and it’s Case IH now.

P: Oh yeah, Case IH. Bob Struckhoff had a couple of them he joined together. That’s crazy.

B: Well…the farmers as they started trying to farm more and more acres…they didn’t have enough horsepower…so, they were doing whatever they could to get more horsepower. Now, the tractor companies will give you all the horsepower you want.

P: My next photo…is green and red…a real tall stack on it…roof overhead…looks like a very primitive machine; does not have rubber tires…they’re iron…it’s all painted…pretty fresh paint…

B: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s one I made…that’s about a ¼ size Rumely Oil Pull…the real Rumely Oil Pull is a huge machine…wheels that are 9’ tall. They bring so much money I couldn’t have one anyway, and I don’t know what I’d do with it if I had one.


So, I made one. (Here’s a video of a Rumely Oil Pull in action:



P: This may be a dumb question, but have you ever worked on a steam tractor?

B: No. That almost looks like a steam tractor, but it isn’t.

P: It’s almost like Rumely had that design in mind…they were still thinking the old way…

B: You’re absolutely right. I read that before. They made them look like that because the farmers were used to what that was supposed to look like…and they didn’t like change.

P: That’s funny!

B: Actually, they…I can’t tell you the name…they made tractors that you guided with reins…like a horse.

P: No way.

B: Yeah, they did! And there’s several that are restored and around yet. (You’ve got to see this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXXa03wf52k )

P: I would almost guess those were steam tractors because of the period. You’re going from horses to steam, but not necessarily?

B: No. The steam went away slowly. Heck, I remember when there were steam engines around Owensville…when I was probably 10. So, it was 75 years ago, there were still steam engines that they thrashed with…that’s where my grandparents lived. The minute school was out, we went to Lackland Station, got on a train (Rock Island Line), and went to Owensville and stayed there…played in the creek all day long…followed the thrashing machine around…just the most fun that boys can have. The best memories of my life, for sure.

P: I have a picture of a picture…it’s your Breckenridge cement truck. What’s the story on that truck?

B: I was interested in that because I drove a Ready-Mix truck for so long, and that’s the oldest one that I ever saw in my life. It’s a 1927 Hug Roadbuilder truck. It has a Buda engine in it, and it has a Fuller and Johnson engine in it to run the mixer. And you had to crank both of them to get them started. It was in awful shape…and my father, the master carpenter that he was, rebuilt every board in the cab…and my mother upholstered it…and I sandblasted it and overhauled the rest of it. So, I had it here in Augusta, and drove it around a lot.

P: I remember it, yes, I’ve seen it.

B: But a guy called me up with an awful lot of money, and it’s now in Keystone Museum in Virginia. https://keystonetractorworks.com/visit-keystone/



P: It was a family project. Whose idea was it?

B: Mine. I drug it home…well, I drove my friends to go get it. It didn’t run…had to drag it out of the weeds where it was. We spent a day trying to get it up on a trailer, and so forth, to haul it home. You know…totally disassembled it and started sandblasting pieces…fixing things to put it back together again.

P: So, no doubt it spent its career in the STL area…

B: Yes, it did.

P: (Reading from a picture from a magazine put out by the American Truck Historical Society) …a one-yard T L Smith mixer…courtesy of Bill Ferris, Augusta, Mo, retired employee of Breckenridge Material Co., STL…

B: …the last one I drove was an Autocar with 12-yard mixer on it.

P: What a difference, huh?

P: Hey, let’s talk about the tractor of Earl Mallinckrodt’s father.

B: It’s a 1937 John Deere B. Jan (Mallinckrodt) asked Randal who would fool around with something like that, and Randal asked me. I went and looked at it, and I told her I need another project like I need a hole in the head. And she said, “I want to get it out of here; I want to tear this building down.” I said I’ll give you a couple hundred bucks for it, but I don’t really want it. And she said, “please come and get it.” I took the carburetor off of it…redid it and took the magneto off it…and I got it running. So, it runs and drives like it’s supposed to now, and I had to replace a couple old tires on the front… Jan and Jan’s daughter both told me they don’t ever, in their life, remember it running. We’re reasonably sure it sit in that shed for 50 years. And about the only one who knew it was there, was Anita’s brother, Hubie Mallinckrodt. (Check out my video of Bill hand cranking the old John Deere.) https://youtu.be/qEzar9ls6Gs

P: That day in your backward, when I first saw it, I didn’t even notice how the steering column is outside of the hood.

B: Well, when John Deere covered that stuff up, they called it “styled”.

P: One of my readers thought it was a G.

B: No, I used to have a G, which is a much more desirable tractor, but somebody came along with too much money and took that away too. I love this stuff, but I’m not crazy.

P: Is there anything you’d like to say about tractors and Augusta?

B: What I would say is, that I really, really like living here. I told you before, that some of the best life I can remember, was being a kid at my grandpa’s farm in Owensville…and I never got over that, I suppose. And, living in Augusta brings back a little of that, because…we’re not that far from the city, but this is still smalltown…all the good part and a lot of good people here. And I and my wife thoroughly enjoy living here.

B: Paul, most of these things that I laid out here…I don’t think I told you any lies, but some are stories that were told to me too. A lot of stuff came from Paul Kemner. A lot of stuff came from Leyton Holt, down the street. And a lot came from Hubie. You know, Hubie and I got to be really, really good buddies. And Bob Kemner too…he was a neighbor and a good friend too. I really liked all those people.

P: You hate to see them all disappear. Leyton Holt was such a sweetheart, such a good guy.

B: He was that…a pleasant guy to talk to. He had that 3-wheel bicycle with the big cushion, and he told me, “Yeah, I go down to the Katy Trail…I don’t like to ride, but I like to sit on my bicycle and talk to everybody.” …so many pleasant memories for me.

P: That’s a good way to end a story…a lot of my readers won’t have any idea who Leyton Holt is, but some of them will, so…this is for them. Thank you, Bill.

B: You’re welcome, my friend.

Winter is coming. Stay warm…and curious.

Paul

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