Tractor Temples: The Charles Klein Farm
On the banks of the Pedernales River, only a few miles from the home in which Lyndon B. Johnson was raised, the late Charles Klein built his dream garage near Stonewall, Texas (pop. 469) in the mid-1960s. Klein’s dreams were not of diamond-plated wall coverings and recessed lighting. Klein simply wanted a dry place to work on his bulldozer when it rained.
Klein was a partner in a small business offering bulldozer services. Business was good, and he and his partner built roads, leveled farm land, and dug basements for their neighbors.
Tractors first came to the farm in 1939, when Frank Klein traded most of his horses in on a brand-new Farmall F-14.
The problem was Charles didn’t have a place to work on his equipment. He needed a shop, a place to stay out of the heat and rain of the Texas Hill Country. The business was doing fine, but that didn’t mean Klein was rolling in money and accoutrements. His assets were limited to cheap tools, low-dollar materials, and time—but he made the most of them. His neighbor, Mr. Meyer, a man whom Klein said was like a father to him, helped out.
“I had never built anything,” Klein said. “I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have a square. Mr. Meyer came over and he helped me square it up. I didn’t have a hand saw, just a chain saw.”
The garage was assembled using a chainsaw, old telephone poles, and second-hand tin. The structure withstood Texas sun and rain, and hosted not only repair and restoration, but also card games, pool battles, and birthday parties.
Klein kept at work, cutting telephone poles to fit and covering them with second-hand lumber and tin.
“I guess if I had it to do today, I’d put up a metal building. But I had to do it all myself,” Klein said. “I was happy to have what I did.”
The shed served well for Klein. He repaired his bulldozers in the shed, out of the blazing sun or pouring rain. He restored several old cars in the space, including a 1934 Ford Coupe he bought in 1950 for $35. He did a frame-off restoration of that car, and will never sell it.
In 1975, Klein was fed up with bulldozing. The business was going well, but it wasn’t something he liked to do.
“We did real good with the dozers. But you couldn’t get good help. You thought you had a good hand and next thing you know, he got tired and quit and you were sitting there again.”
The property is only about five miles from the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch.
He loved farming, so he sold his half of the business to his partner and turned his attentions full-time to farming his 500-acre spread near Stonewall, Texas. He had purchased the farm from his father, Louis, in 1974. The land has been in the Klein family for three generations.
His grandfather, Frank, bought it as a 1,000-acre parcel in 1911. He had 200 acres, and wanted more. They cleared out the land and started planting cotton. Frank had five sons and two daughters and a stable full of horses to work his land.
Frank built a little blacksmith shop on the land to shoe his horses. There was an old house on the hill, and a stone smoke house. The smoke house is the only original building left. While most of the buildings—including the garage—were built relatively recently, the smokehouse was built in the mid-1800s.
The 500 acres of land near the Klein farm have served farmers since the turn of the century.
Cotton farming was hard work by then, with all the crop picked by hand and bound into 500-pound bales. The eldest daughter, Erna, picked 13 bales of cotton one year—a legendary feat that is still the topic of dinner conversation at the Klein family.
When Frank decided to retire, he sold the farm in two 500-acre parcels to his sons. They switched from cotton to peanuts, and then added peaches as a cash crop. Peach trees take four years to mature, so the return on the planting is slow, but it’s good business once you are established.
Charles Klein driving his Farmall Super M in September, 2016
The family bought their first tractor in 1939. Charles remembered the event well.
“It had starter and lights and everything on it. I was a kid then—I was six years old. He traded in all but four or five of the horses.”
By 1974, Louis Klein was 74 years old. He was ready to retire. Charles had a few dollars because of the dozer business, and he was ready to take over. He bought the land from his dad and he and his wife moved in.
“I did a lot of truck farming. I would plant 40-50 acres of squash and 90 acres of peaches. I had to irrigate all of them. We had to move pipes, every day all day long. Sometimes at night, too. I moved pipes in the moonlight.
"I had a contract with HEB in San Antonio. There was good money in peaches, but the squash was actually better than peaches. Peaches you had to plant and wait four years before you see any income out of them. With squash, you could plant them and in 30 days you had income.”
When Charles had a little spare time he’d restore old cars with his brother. His brother was a mechanic, and a good one, plus he did all the bodywork. When the crops were fallow in the winter there was plenty of time to tinker with the cars.
Charles Klein built a garage in the late 1960s to work on his heavy equipment. He and his brother, Marvin, restored about 12 cars in that garage.
They restored nearly a dozen cars, and Charles kept most of them around for the rest of his life. When his brother passed away ten years ago, he lost interest in doing cars. He started restoring old tractors in his self-built old pole shed.
The first tractor he restored was an F-12 Farmall he bought in Childress, Texas. It was a two-row tractor, just like his Dad’s. He also did an F-14 he found equipped with an electric starter. He had the old lights from his Dad’s tractor, and put those on the F-14 he restored.
Over time, he restored more than a dozen old tractors. People knew it was his hobby, and would call from time to time when they heard one was for sale.
The shop he built was the center for all this activity. Charles welded whatever he needed out there, built fence posts, repaired everything from lawn tractors to bulldozers, and even added a little recreation room with a pool table and deer heads on the wall.
“We used to have fish fries out here, and play pool,” Charles said. “We’d play for a quarter each game.”
The rec room gradually began to hold more and more of the things he acquired over the years, mostly tractor odds and ends. “I kinda lost possession of it,” Klein said. “We got all kinds of stuff out there—including John Deere parts.”
The rest of the farm is covered with old farm tractors, a dozen or so of them restored and the rest in various stages of restoration. There’s an old bus where his help used to stay, and a couple of ramshackle outbuildings. Each machine had a story Charles could tell; each one a project waiting for his attention. He made sure that throughout his life the old tractor farm stayed stocked, always ready for a cool winter day when the crops were dormant and he could escape to his not-quite-square telephone pole and tin refuge to cover his rusty entourage with fresh paint, new-old parts, and Marvels Mystery Oil.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Charles Klein, an amazing man who led the kind of life most can only dream of. He passed away on Wednesday, April 19, 2017 , two days after his 84th birthday. He will be missed by all who knew him.