NORTH HENDERSON, Ill. — Almost 80 years ago Bill Meeker’s father and grandfather bought an Oliver 70 tractor. It was the first Oliver in the family.
“It’s a 1942 model. I’m a 1943 model. It’s been restored. I haven’t. So it’s in better shape than me,” Bill said.
It is among about 75 tractors he and his wife Kay have collected on their northwestern Illinois farm.
“At one time we had 90. We sold the common to get the rarer,” he said.
The couple started their affection for Oliver tractors on their first wedding anniversary when they attended a tractor show together in 1986. A year later they bought their first Oliver, an 18-28 model.
They joined the Midwest chapter of the Hart-Parr Oliver Collectors, a national organization where members have become like family to them. They meet several times a year.
The couple decided to buy one tractor a year.
“Then we had to buy extra for the years we didn’t buy any,” Bill said with a chuckle.
Nestled in their Mercer County farm buildings are mostly Oliver tractors, with a few Cockshutt and White tractors — owned by the Oliver companies. There is also a splash of red in honor of the tractors Kay grew up with.
“She converted well from red tractors,” Bill said. “I always liked tractors even when I was a little kid.”
He started working with tractors and planted his first corn crop for FFA in 1958. He finished planting his 63rd corn crop on May 14 this year.
It’s not only the tractors but also the related Oliver memorabilia which makes their collection fascinating. It includes dozens of toys, model tractors, pedal tractors and signage, including a neon Oliver sign from 1951 which glows bright among the collectibles in their basement.
Every item in their collection has a story. Kay is currently counting their signs, recording where they bought them, how much they paid and any interesting stories that go along with them. So far, she’s counted more than 100 — many of them vintage Oliver, but also reproductions and just plain interesting signs.
“Signs hold their value,” Bill said, noting that some also appreciate significantly. One sign they originally paid about $300 for is worth more than $6,000 now.
Among the signs with a serendipitous story is a rare Hart-Parr “Founder of the Tractor Industry” sign. A friend was showing Bill his purchases of odds and ends when they turned over a piece of metal and found this valuable sign. If it has been stored right side up, it would have been weathered and ruined.
Once she finishes getting the signs recorded, Kay may start recording the stories of the tractors.
“I did write down what we paid and where we got them for about the first 20 years,” Bill said.
Sometimes Kay can see he really wants to buy something. At one auction, he spent the day looking at one item, and when he was outbid at the end, she quietly put in the winning bid for him.
“I knew he would say on the way home ‘I wish I bought that,’” she said.
Even illnesses wouldn’t prevent a special purchase. One time Bill was at an auction and Kay was in the hospital. He brought her safely home, made her comfortable and went back to the auction to buy something they wanted.
“I was fine,” she said and laughs at the memory.
Bill’s interest in collectibles is shared by his two children and four grandchildren. Bill’s son, Sam, is a key element in another part of their collection. He works for Caterpillar, specializing in marketing dozers in North America. He has helped the couple find an interesting array of Caterpillar memorabilia and equipment. Today, a whole room in their home is dedicated to Caterpillar items, as are parts of their sheds for equipment.
They don’t hide their collections away in a barn. They often take tractors to shows and parades. They may take as much as two trailer loads of tractors to the I & I Antique Tractor & Gas show in Penfield, Illinois, and have loaded tractors for shows as far away as New York.
“Without tractors, there is no show,” said Bill.
Sitting on the high crop Oliver, Kay explains, “I’ve driven this tractor in a lot of parades.”
And sometimes they display them on the farm. They may have 30 or 40 out in the yard for their annual open house.
“Sometimes people think we are selling out,” Kay said.
At the open house they welcome friends from tractor clubs, tractor enthusiasts, neighbors and family to the outbuildings and inside their North Henderson home to see the toy tractors and other collectibles. Sam is already thinking about preparing the smoked meat for the big event in August this year.