A treasure trove of tractor stories resides in the mind of 90-year-old Louis Miller
The massive thing was sinking in the dirt in Angleton, Texas. Salt from the sea air had eaten it up.
“They didn’t know what [kind] it was. They’d heard about me and asked me to come tell them who made it,” Louis remembers. The thing turned out to be an extremely rare 1913 Fairbanks Morse tractor. For years after identifying it, Louis kept visiting the owners and asking to buy the tractor, but they always said no. Meanwhile, the hidden treasure sat deteriorating while rumors of the tractor’s existence flew among collectors all over the United States.
“It was a secret for years. I told people I knew where it was. But I told them it was in Sugarland. That was a bunch of bull. I didn’t want them to know,” Louis said, grinning. After 20 years, the family finally agreed to sell the rare tractor to Louis. He was in his 80s by then, too old to restore it himself. So he told a close friend, who bought it and arranged for the $200,000 restoration. After the restoration was complete, the Fairbanks made its debut at a 2013 tractor show in Temple, Texas. “They had me drive it in the parade,” Louis said.
Louis Miller began collecting and restoring antique tractors 30 years ago. He’s collected around 150 antique tractors, putting more than 600,000 miles on his pickup as he traveled all over the United States for tractor shows, located parts, and inquired about old finds. Even today, he’s still looking for that rare tractor. Antique tractors seem to multiply and flourish on his property. These rusty artifacts lure photographers with their interesting lines and symmetries, steel spokes, exposed gears, and seductive textures of rust and peeling paint. Art clubs sometimes meet across the street, setting up their lawn chairs to paint and draw pictures of the tractors.
View photographer Andrea Hunter and I were curious about the tractors on Louis’s property, so one evening we knocked on his door. Louis, now 90, invited us in. He sat in his recliner, looking out the window at times, his dog snuggled in his lap, and captivated us with stories for the next hour. His voice, strong but raspy, still had a bit of a mischievous tone.
The First Find
Louis owned a tractor repair shop and was in the tractor business in Georgetown for years. “I wanted to put an old Fordson tractor on a pole out in front of the business. I bought one but never put it on the pole. People would say, ‘You ought to get that running, it’ll be worth something someday.’” So Louis did just that. He remembers people in town bringing friends by to see it. After he restored his first tractor, he was hooked.
Before her passing last year, his wife of 70 years, Gladys, always went with him “without complaint” as he tracked down tractors. He and Gladys slept in the camper shell of his pickup along the way, cooking meals on a Coleman stove.
Antique Tractor Hunting
Louis pulled one of his favorite tractors out of the Rio Grande in 1988. I asked how he knew it was in the river. He said a customer talked about someone who was digging for sand down on the border and hit an old tractor. “He talked about it the whole time I was doing the work for him. I didn’t say a word,” Louis said. Finally, breaking his silence, he told the customer he wouldn’t charge him for the work if he’d check on that tractor. “He came back, told me it was still there, and made arrangements to take me to the Mexican border. When I saw it, it looked terrible. It fell into the Rio Grande in 1927 and stayed there for 61 years,” he said. Louis hunted for parts all over the United States to restore the old Mogul tractor.
One lead on a tractor in Comfort, Texas, started out a bit dicey. “I went to this house, and a man asked me, ‘Können Sie Deutsch sprechen?’ which means, ‘Can you speak German?’” Louis said. He explained that the man’s question implied he would rather deal with someone German.
“Did you answer him in German?” I asked.
Louis grinned. “You bet I did! I bought a Hart Parr and two Case tractors from that man,” he said. The same man told Louis about a cousin in Sisterdale. “I had to go to a dark room. There was an older lady sitting in a rocking chair. I heard, again, ‘Können Sie Deutsch sprechen?’ I answered her and bought two priceless tractors from her—a Rumely and a Waterloo Boy,” Louis remembered.
“You see,” Louis said, squinting, “it’s like digging in the rocks. You turn one rock over and there’s another one behind it.”
There’s one tractor in South Texas that still eludes him. “This guy, who’s older than me, told me his daddy was plowing with it when he was a little boy. It quit running. That thing is still sitting in a field today where his daddy left it before he got mad and walked home. It’s got trees growing all around it,” Louis said. When I asked if he’d tried to buy it, he answered, “You bet. I haven’t got it yet, but I’m still trying.”
Curious, I asked, “What kind is it?”
“I ain’t gonna tell you,” Louis said with a grin.
A Word About Respect
Louis pointed his finger with conviction as he stressed the importance of respect and honesty when dealing in antique tractors. “If you cheat or lie, you’re through,” he said. Once he had a t-shirt made that read, “I want to buy an old Bull tractor,” and wore it to a tractor show. After someone offered him a tip, he drove to Mustang, Oklahoma. He inquired about the owner of this tractor at a convenience store. He got a name, address, and phone number, but when he found the property, no one was home. “If there’s nobody home, you don’t snoop around,” he warned. “They’ll not do business with you.” Louis drove all the way back home and called the owner. “He asked me, ‘Did you see it?’ and I said, ‘No.’ That let him know that I didn’t snoop around. The tractor was in the back part of the property. I drove all the way back to Mustang from Georgetown and bought a very rare Gray tractor” rather than the Bull tractor he’d originally been chasing down.
Louis’s eyes lit up and his voice quickened as he recounted the stories behind finding and restoring what another person might call junk. Louis showed us some of his best kept secrets, buried behind other tractors and pieces of his past. “I had a museum in mind, but I’m glad that didn’t develop. Now everything still belongs to us,” Louis said. About his 30-year hobby, he added, “You don’t have to be crazy, but it helps. I enjoy it, and feel I’ve accomplished a lot.”
Our visit with Louis over, we walked down the steps of the old white frame house back to my truck, where sat, looking straight ahead, for a moment.
“Wow, I could have listened to him all day,” I said.
“Yeah,” Andrea replied. “Who knew he would have so many great stories?”
We rode in silence for a bit, realizing that we knocked on a door for a story about antique tractors but had instead found a different treasure: Louis Miller.
“One day, I thought, ‘If everybody sells everything for junk just because they don’t need it, someday there ain’t gonna be anything around for somebody to see.’”