backroads schwanke

Schwanke Tractor and Combine has had a parts business in Willmar, Minn. for over 60 years. It began as a tractor salvage business. One day Virgil Schwanke came across a tractor he didn’t want to scrap, so he fixed it up and put it in the back of a Quonset building. That tractor seemed to have a magnetic attraction. It was joined by more tractors — as well as trucks and cars — until the Quonset was full.

After two more Quonsets had been built and filled, Virgil thought it best to share his collection. A building was constructed to connect the three Quonsets, vehicles were arranged to allow walking aisles, and the public was welcomed in.

As the collection of an individual, it is astounding: 175 tractors, 85 cars and 24 trucks (of which eight are fire trucks). Sprinkled among the vehicles are vintage gas pumps. There are steam engines (the oldest item is an 1899 stationary engine) and a wall of press drills that looks like an installation in a museum of modern art.

Among the agricultural implements is a huge 1922 Minneapolis tractor — 10 feet tall, 9 feet wide, and 17 feet long. There are Farmall tractors with off-set steering wheels, Co-op branded tractors, and skeleton-like Thieman tractors. (Thiemans were sold as kits to be assembled by the farmer, who had to add the engine and transmission.) If your interest is in a particular company, you will probably find it here.

The automobiles are equally diverse. The oldest is a 1910 Hupmobile. The 1928 Franklin has a tilt steering wheel and powered convertible top. A beautifully restored yellow and brown 1923 Anderson is one of only about a dozen in existence out of about 6,000 that were built. There is a blue Ford Model A Tudor Sedan, and two small, no-frills vehicles built by Crosley.

Minnesota car manufacturers are also represented. The 1981 HMV Freeway on display is a one-person commuter car built in Burnsville. After building 700 cars, the unsuccessful company was purchased by a St. Cloud group and redesigned as the Minikan, but that folded after 17 vehicles.

Following Virgil’s death a few years ago, the family determined to keep the museum open to the public. It is closed during the winter because the Quonsets are not heated. The museum is accessed through the main store entrance. There is a small admission charge and a gift shop.

Explore their website, www.schwanketractor.com, for museum information and its 2021 opening date; a complete list of the vehicles on display; and a short video featuring Virgil Schwanke. You can also find them on Facebook, and at their blog, http://schwankemuseum.blogspot.com.  

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