Roots Run Deep

Arley Berkbuegler discusses the tractors on exhibit at the Perry County Tractor Museum in Perryville.
Aaron Eisenhauer

American Tractor Museum showcases rare machines from across the U.S.

Kenny Buchheit runs his hand along the wheel hub of an orchard tractor with a preserved rusty patina at the Perry County Tractor Museum in Perryville.
Aaron Eisenhauer

The two tractors that are in the movie “Walk the Line,” the 2005 film about Johnny Cash’s life. A Co-Op #1 Orchard tractor manufactured in 1933 that is the only one like it in the world. A threshing machine from 1896 and an Avery Steam Engine tractor from 1911.

Kenny Buchheit lifts a side panel to access the engine of a tractor on display at the American Tractor Museum in Perryville.
Aaron Eisenhauer

These machines and more than 50 other tractors are all part of Kenny and Rhonda Buchheit and family’s collection, tractors the family will be showcasing for visitors at the American Tractor Museum in Perryville, Missouri, when it opens Aug. 8. Each tractor has been restored by Buchheit’s friend Arley Berkbigler so that it runs; nearly all of them have been painted to look like they did when they were new.

Belts thread through pulleys on a threshing machine that was made by Cape Mfg. Co. in 1896. The implement is part of the exhibit at the American Tractor Museum.
Aaron Eisenhauer

Buchheit’s and Berkbigler’s friendship goes back to the time when they attended grade school together in a three-room schoolhouse without indoor plumbing at St. Maurus Parish in Biehle, Missouri — “Biehle Tech,” Berkbigler jokes.

A 1959 Minneapolis Moline 4-Star sits on display alongside toy pedal tractors at the Perry County Tractor Museum in Perryville.
Aaron Eisenhauer

The friends began collecting and remodeling tractors together 18 years ago, after Berkbigler retired from his career in construction and worked for a year on his farm and remodeling his house. One day, Buchheit called Berkbigler to ask him to work on the brakes of an Oliver 55 that he had.

“So I went over there and tore it apart, and we put it back together,” Berkbigler recalls. “It was assembled wrong and so we fixed that, and [Buchheit] said, ‘Well, I might have a couple more,’ and so that’s how it started.”

Since, Berkbigler has restored each tractor Buchheit has purchased from across the country at auctions and from individuals. Although 62 of them are housed in the museum, Buchheit owns more, which he hopes to rotate into the museum exhibit as time goes on. The collection includes tractor companies still in business today such as Case International Harvester, John Deere and Ford, as well as tractors from pre-World War II companies. Many of the tractors in the collection are rare because of the pre-World War II focus.

“The thing you’ve got to understand is these tractors were made prior to World War II, which is kind of important because during the war effort, if you had something sitting, a lot of the tractors got melted down for metal,” Buchheit says. “They were looking for any type of old scrap metal, and a lot of tractors disappeared during that time. And then the manufacturers, too. They had to use their plants for construction of materials for the war effort. So a lot of them never came back after World War II; a lot of them disappeared because of that.”

The American Tractor Museum is one place where you can still see these pre-World War II models; many of the tractors in the collection are from the 1920s and 1930s and even older.

Berkbigler says it takes approximately three to five months to fully restore a tractor. The friends are a fount of information about each piece in the collection, able to tell the history of each tractor as well as talk about its restoration process and sometimes even share personal stories and connections they have to the tractor, although they caution they’re just doing their best from the information they’ve researched. They welcome hearing about corrections that need to be made.

Their knowledge, however, also comes from lifetimes spent on farms and in the agriculture industry.

“I was born and raised into it,” Berkbigler says. “I set there in the shop on the wall and watched my dad and my uncles many times tear tractors down and rebuild them themselves. That’s basically how I learned to do it.”

“He learned how to use a wrench before he learned how to use a fork,” Buchheit quips.

Although his family didn’t own a farm, Buchheit’s father owned Rudy Buchheit General Store which sold merchandise needed by area farmers. During the summers, Buchheit and his brothers worked on neighbors’ farms hoeing weeds out of corn, stripping sugar cane and working the threshing machine.

The museum collection includes a Huber that is the same model Berkbigler’s father farmed with, which he remembers riding on in the fields, sitting on the toolbox and laying his head on the gas tank when he got sleepy. It also includes a tractor Buchheit painted his wife’s name on — “Miss Rhonda” — which he purchased for her to “mow their lawn” so he could buy another tractor. It also includes tractors from local community members, such as the Werner-Klaus family from Altenburg, Missouri, the Kasten, Manche, Kaempfe, and Gremaud families, and John Hall of Egypt Mills.

“We try to get anything local that we can and then recognize the family that owned it,” Buchheit says.

The museum also houses more than 100 pedal tractors owned by Richard Moldenhauer, as well as an antique washing machine, cash register, cistern pump with buckets and more.

The highlight of the museum, however, is the one-of-a-kind thresh machine from 1896 that was manufactured in Cape Girardeau.

The steam engine and threshing machine take up nearly all of one row in the museum, they are so grand in size. In its heyday, it took many people to run it: four people on the grain wagon, two people bagging the grain, one person tending the thresher, one person hauling water for the engine and one person hauling wood to burn in the engine to create the steam that made the threshing machine work. Additionally, another six men would haul the shocks to the threshing machine, while another two to four stood in the fields pitching the bundles of grain up to the wagon. Men would then make a chain up the stairs of the farmer’s grainery, passing the bags up the chain to be stored. The grain was used to feed the livestock on the farm.

Berkbigler and Buchheit say that often, seven or eight neighbor families would get together to form a threshing ring and help each farmer in the group put up their crop, staying at each others’ houses overnight because it took too long to travel between the farms with horses and wagons. The families would get up, do their chores and make and eat breakfast all before 6 a.m. Then they would go out to the fields to thresh. In addition to doing manual labor with the men in the fields, women often got up around 3 a.m. to butcher chickens, cook and bake bread to feed their families five meals each day — breakfast, lunch, dinner, second lunch and supper.

When the museum opens, visitors will be able to take self-guided tours to learn these facts and more, scanning a QR code with their cell phone at each tractor to hear Buchheit, Berkbigler or another knowledgeable source with a connection to the tractor talk about the machine’s history.

Additionally, the American Tractor Museum invites the community to donate to the collection.

“The American Tractor Museum is a nonprofit organization willing to showcase local family history when room is available. Arrangements can be made for a time period or if the family desires, it could be part of a permanent display and a tax receipt would be issued,” says Alissa Ernst, assistant marketing director for Buchheit’s who works in designing the museum. “We want the community to be engaged and know that they can come here and see their neighbors’ heritage.”

Berkbigler hopes the museum is a space for children to see how farming used to be done. Buchheit, too, hopes the museum becomes a community venue.

“We just want to see it succeed and so people enjoy it,” he says.

Want to go?

The American Tractor Museum is located at 508 N. Main St. in Perryville, Missouri. The Grand Opening will take place Saturday, Aug. 8, with special exhibits and fun for everyone.

Each week after this, the museum will be open for self-guided virtual tours from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment only on Saturdays. Admission is free, but the museum operates on donations, so $10 per adult, $8 for groups of 25 or more, and $5 for students, military, senior citizens and Perry County residents is suggested. Call (573) 547-1097 for more information or to schedule a Saturday appointment.