by Lawrence Lannoo
His obsession with collecting tractors has made Ken Harpelle’s farm yard more of a playground than a retirement home for the machines of a bygone age.
Harpelle’s interest in four-wheel drive tractors began decades ago and never waned.
In particular, he collects Versatile and Steiger four-wheel drive tractors from years past, and his collection now includes 19 different machines.
He has ten running Versatile tractors, with another currently in the shop for repairs, and nine models of Steiger machines.
“Both brands of tractors came up from the same type of story and same time in the sixties,” Harpelle said. “Both were made out of regular parts that you could get from NAPA, such as universal joints and stuff like that.”
He added while Versatile made their own transmissions, Steiger relied on truck parts, transmissions and pieces from other industries.
“Parts are readily available for both of them because they are so common,” he said.
The two companies were also tough competitors with one another in the four-wheel drive market, Harpelle said, when the need arose to pull heavier and bigger implements on farm fields across North America and the world.
He noted Steiger started building tractors in a dairy barn in the 1950’s, beginning their operation in Red Lake Falls, Minnesota.
Eventually, Steiger moved its operation to Fargo, North Dakota, Harpelle said.
Versatile, on the other hand, was a Canadian story beginning in Ontario, but soon moving operation to its current site in Winnipeg.
“They started with augers and sprayers,” he said, “and then started to make tractors in 1966. They were made in Canada and extremely popular. At one point, Versatile had 75% of the four-wheel drive market in the world.
“They were big players because their tractors were inexpensive to build and they had lots of dealer networks for support.”
Harpelle said Steiger were more expensive to buy because they were more heavily built, but the two brands shared certain traits that made them both popular among farmers.
“When they each started, both companies produced extremely well-made four-wheel drive tractors,” he explained. “Like Versatile, Steiger began producing fully articulated tractors, which meant the frame bent in the middle when the steering wheel was turned to round a corner.”
Harpelle once had the opportunity to meet Douglas Steiger, one of the founders of his company who had designed all their four-wheel drive tractors from the beginning of production to the day the Steiger business was sold to the Case company.
“He said I was the only one with a collection like mine,” Harpelle said.
His Versatile collection includes tractors produced between 1968 and 1985, though there are many he would still like to add to the group.
Harpelle occasionally welcomes visitors to see the machines on his farm north of Cypress River.
One of the jewels in that collection is the first Versatile four-wheel drive he ever bought: a model 836.
Considering his fascination with the four-wheel drive legacy established by Versatile and Steiger, Harpelle sounds like he is speaking about a valued friend.
“It is what you grow up with,” he said. “When I bought my first one thirty years ago, I loved it, and I still own that tractor.”
“It’s one of the nicest tractors I’ve ever driven.”
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