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Crew salvages tractor from last U.S. homestead in Alaska

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 4, 2017
  • Published July 4, 2017

She was a city girl from Georgia who knew nothing about life on the farm, but while visiting northeast Nebraska in 1950, she climbed onto an orange Allis Chalmers tractor and posed for a photograph taken by her future husband, Dr. C.T. Frerichs.

It may have been the one and only time that Julia (Meadows) Frerichs ever sat on a tractor in her life.

But Dr. Frerichs, now 94, had that photo in mind a year ago when he read about an effort to retrieve and preserve an Allis Chalmers tractor in Alaska similar to the one that his father had used so long ago on his Nebraska farm.

Thanks to the retired family doctor, the tractor is now on its way to Nebraska, where it will be cleaned up by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Tractor Restoration Club and become part of an exhibit at the Homestead National Monument of America, about 95 miles southwest of Omaha.

What makes the Alaska tractor special was that it had been used to clear land on the last homestead ever approved by the federal government, a remote site along the Stony River some 200 miles west of Anchorage.

The homestead had been staked by Ken Deardorff, who purchased the 1945 Model C tractor in 1976 and had it flown to the Stony River in three winter loads. He started the tractor with a hand crank until he could repair the electric starter.

Deardorff, 73, now lives in McGrath, having long since sold the homestead.

"The tractor was a huge help in making progress on clearing the stumps from the area," he said. "I doubt I would have made enough progress to meet the Homestead Act requirements without the mechanical advantage it provided."

"It was such a dangerous task, because the tractor has a very light and narrow front end, and it wanted to go vertical,'' he told a Nebraska reporter. "You apply power and the front end comes off the ground almost immediately.''

He was thrown off as many as 10 times, but learned to be careful and later upgraded to a small bulldozer.

A Nebraska group that supports the Homestead National Monument of America had long liked the idea of getting the tractor from the last homestead to the museum that celebrates America's homesteading history.

But there was no money for the logistics of hiring a helicopter to lift the tractor out of the trees growing up around it on the old homestead and shipping it to Nebraska by barge and truck.

That's where Frerichs stepped in, pledging to underwrite the estimated $70,000 cost. A helicopter lifted it out of the woods in mid-June and flew it to Big Lake. It is expected to be in Nebraska within a couple of weeks.

"When I read about the tractor in Alaska, I thought it was a good project," Frerichs said. "So we did it in memory of my wife."

Ken Deardorff’s 1945 tractor is wrapped in plastic to help keep loose parts from falling off while it is slung in a net under a helicopter on the first leg of its journey to Nebraska for eventual display at Homestead National Monument near Beatrice. Deardorff is recognized as America’s last homesteader for his claim on the Stony River in western Interior Alaska. (David Hendee / Omaha World-Herald)

Julia, who had sat on an Allis Chalmers briefly in 1950, died a year ago in April and her husband wanted a fitting memorial.

Frerichs said it's not that his wife of 65 years was ever a tractor enthusiast, but she was always a big fan of the homestead monument and willing to aid good causes, such as buying the tractor and paying the freight bill.

There's also the symmetry of the Allis Chalmers tractors at the start and end of their married life and displaying a relic from the last homestead at the site of one of the first homesteads.

"When we think of the Homestead Act, we often think of the 1800s," said Diane Vicars, president of the Friends of Homestead. "This tractor represents the contemporary part of this epic American story. This tractor will be a great contrast to the single bottom plows pulled by a team of oxen or horses that can now be found at the monument."

Deardorff received a homestead patent on May 5, 1988, to 49.97 acres of land on the Stony River near Lime Village, which the Bureau of Land Management says was the last one approved. The museum includes information about his life in Alaska.

Soon it will include the tractor, which still ran when he left it there years ago.  The crew that drained the oil reported that no water or debris was in the engine and that three of the four wheels could spin.

"I suspect the tires need air, but they are in good condition too. Amazing after sitting all these years in the elements," Deardorff said.

The monument would love to have the tractor on display by the time of the solar eclipse in August; that part of Nebraska is one of the best places in the country to see the lights go out. But if the work isn't finished, the display may wait until fall or early winter.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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