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"First Person" Slideshow: Tractormen Bergmeyer and Holthus

Nebraska bankers with “pull”

 

 
 

 

 

Tractor-collecting CEOs enjoy farm history on wheels

 

"First Person" Slideshow: Tractormen Bergmeyer and Holthus

 

 
 Slideshow starts automatically in seven seconds.
 

 First Person, Harley Bergmeyer Interview (listen):

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 First Person, Kelly Holthus Interview (listen):

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Ever since Captain Ahab, collectors have sought their own “white whale,” an elusive item whose very rarity makes it desirable. Nebraska’s C.G. “Kelly” Holthus found his: a white International Harvester tractor, circa 1950.

 
Kansas banker responds with photos and comments

 

 

The article “Nebraska bankers with pull”—and slide show “The tractormen”—about two bankers who collect old tractors prompted a response from Kansas banker Bill Wyckoff, president of Labette Bank, Altamont, who collects—and uses—old tractors and autos. As you can see from the photo above, Wyckoff is partial to John Deere machinery. Read his narrative for a little Kansas banking flavor.

 

Typically, International tractors bore a coat of red paint, Holthus explains, but a handful of demonstrator units were specially painted white. Farmers, who tend to be loyal to their brand’s color, didn’t want a white tractor. But the white International caught the fancy of Holthus, chairman, president, and CEO of $924 million-assets Cornerstone Bank, York, Neb.

A friend knew of his quest, found one, and Holthus added it to his collection. Today he owns 20 tractors of varying vintages that he keeps in buildings on his 100-acre farm.

Holthus, who was ABA president in 1989, downplays his hobby. He calls his collection, other than the odd special like the white International, “not collector’s items, just old tractors.” He compares his collection unfavorably to those maintained by those he considers real experts, who, being professional farmers or farm equipment mechanics, seek out historical machines like numismatists seek rare coins. He’s not even that good at mechanics, he says, and has an expert on call to help him keep his machines in running order.

Driving the things can be challenging, too. More than once, he’s cut it too close to a ditch with one of his machines, Holthus admits, and one of his farmer friends has had to come along to pull his tractor out. 
 
Behind the wheel with Dad
Fellow Nebraska banker Harley Bergmeyer, a personal friend of Holthus, shares this interest in vintage tractors, and the heritage of growing up on a farm. Asked for their first memories of riding on a tractor, both men recall being around 7, riding with their fathers.

As farm kids, Holthus and Bergmeyer’s lives were wrapped up in tractors, the most important piece of equipment on a farm. Both bankers started their hobbies in the course of seeking to recover something of that farm legacy.

“I guess you can take the boy off the farm,” says Holthus, “but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”

The first tractor Bergmeyer drove, not long after that first ride with his dad, was a Farmall B, around 1948.

“I was probably too young,” says Bergmeyer, ABA treasurer from 1997 to 1999, “but it was a smaller tractor.” Even the Farmall M that his father, Harold Bergmeyer, bought a year later—a mega-machine in its day—is dwarfed in power, size, and sophistication by modern tractors.

Bergmeyer, chairman of $350 million-assets First State Bank, Lincoln, Neb., tracked down both machines for his collection, which he started in the 1970s.

“There’s a lot of sentimental value there,” says Bergmeyer. The pride of ownership a farmer felt in the old days is incalculable. Bergmeyer’s father, having survived the Great Depression and seeing the near-loss of the family farm, avoided debt, but managed to purchase the Farmall M, something of a “BMW of tractors” in its day.

“It meant a lot to my dad, to own that tractor,” says Bergmeyer.

In 1949 Harold Bergmeyer bought an International Harvester pickup truck—“kind of a rare bird now,” says Harley. In the late 1970s the banker located the old pickup and bought it back for his collection.

Holthus got into tractor collecting in the 1980s. First he bought a green 1941 John Deere Model B. When he and his wife dated, his car would often bog down in the mud of her family’s farmyard. Her dad would pull Holthus’ car free with that very model, he explains. His second acquisition was an orange 1936 Allis-Chalmers WC, like the one he first rode on with his father.

“So now I had one my dad had and one my father-in-law had,” says Holthus, “and the collection started that way.” What’s the largest he has? A 1954 Farmall Super MTA. The smallest is a Farmall Cub, he says, “which has less power than a modern lawn mower.” The oldest is the Allis-Chalmers.

In 2004 Bergmeyer got out of personally farming the family’s 2,000-acre spread, in the wake of a tornado that destroyed some buildings, including those that housed parts of his collection—35 tractors at its high point. Holthus bought two of the machines that Bergmeyer had decided to sell in the course of downsizing to a 12-tractor collection.

What does one do with so many tractors? Actually, both bankers find them frequently in demand for parades, farm museum events, and such. Bergmeyer recently bought yet another tractor to have something special for the 50th Czech Festival in his native Wilber, Neb.

In spite of computerization, air-conditioned cabs, seriously powerful engines, and more, Holthus notes one thing that hasn’t changed: Tractors are still built for power and pull, not so much for speed. Hence it’s more than likely that he’ll trailer a tractor to an event, rather than driving it there on its own power.

Political pull with a tractor
While owning such collections chiefly brings personal satisfaction and the ability to share the collection with the community, other advantages can come up now and then. In Bergmeyer’s case, there was actually a political plus.

In 1999, Republican Congressman Dennis Hastert of Illinois was named Speaker of the House. Bergmeyer received a call from then-ABA Executive Vice-President Donald Ogilvie. An ABA delegation would be calling on the new Speaker in Illinois, and could he join the group?

Bergmeyer found himself on a plane, poring through extensive ABA briefing materials, but wondering how he, a Nebraskan, could make a personal connection with the Illinois congressman. He’d never even seen the man.

When the two met, somehow Hastert began talking about the enjoyment he took mowing his lawn with his Allis-Chalmers tractor, and what an impediment the necessary security of his new position was to his enjoying that periodic relaxation. Bergmeyer mentioned his collection and the pair began talking tractors, building a personal bond that lasted for years.

“Having the antique tractor interest in common,” says Bergmeyer, “really helped us to hit it off.”

Looking to the future
Both bankers acknowledge their spouses’ cooperation in their maintaining their collections. There are limits, however. Kelly Holthus’ tractor building is filled to capacity at present.

“If I buy anymore, I’d have to build another building, and my wife would frown on that,” he says. So, unless he sells a few tractors out of the collection in favor of some new find, “I probably won’t acquire any more.”

Both bankers’ interest in tractors was kindled by their involvement with their fathers, and both look to their families, most likely, to carry on the tradition of maintaining their “ag-Smithsonians” in the family.
 
 
GALLERY OF READERS' TRACTORS
 
If you have a photo of your collectible tractor, please send it, along with up to 60 words of description, and your name and bank affiliation, to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
 
 

Kansas banker responds with photos and comments

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Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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