Wrenching for a Living: Rusty Acres Tractor Restoration

By Lee Klancher
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In a small town in central Iowa lies the epicenter for tractor restoration: the Peterman family shop. For over two decades—and between two generations—Rusty Acres Restoration has serviced some of the rarest tractors in the world. At the heart of the operation is Dan Peterman, who took over the family business after his father’s passing and who practices his craft with care, meticulousness, and genetic wisdom. Read more in this original article by Lee Klancher. 

          Bounce down the dusty dirt road in central Iowa optimistically called 180th Street, a few miles north of Webster City, Iowa, and you’ll find the shop and home of Dan Peterman, one of the country’s best-known tractor restorers. In the grand scheme of things, this is a bit like being one of America’s most skilled Eastern uncrossed knitters. He won’t make the cover of Vanity Fair or even the National Enquirer, but his name carries weight among those intimate with the hobby.
Peterman is hardly the only celebrity in his county. The town of 8,176 has had an uncanny number of famous denizens, includingdistance runner Jennifer Barringer, who finished ninth in Steeplechase at the 2008 Olympic games. Webster City also claims two Pullitzer Prize-winning journalists, MacKinley Kantor and Clark R. Mollenhoff as well as Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, a nationally-known turn of the century sculptor.
The town also claims Rod Rust, a football coach whose undoing was serving as head coach for New England Patriots in 1990, when they went 1-15 and recorded the worst record in team history. An unfortunate claim to fame, but considering most small towns’ pride ina favorite son or daughter’s appearance on David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks or a few bad solos and an ousting from American Idol, Webster City’s notable list is a long one.
Peterman threw his hat in the ring genetically. His father, Ken, was a machinist at Arnold Motor Supply in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Ken loved old cars, tractors, and airplanes, and he restored cars on evenings and weekends as a hobby as well as a way to put a few extra dollars in for the Peterman family kitty. He restored everything from late 1930s Cadillacs and Packards to mid-1950s Thunderbirds as well as the cars in his own collection. He had an eye for detail, and his restorations were known to be meticulously finished.

The shop is based in a shed that has served as home for the Peterman family restoration services since 1984. The shop is located not far from Webster City, Iowa, and has restored some of the rarest collectible tractors in existence. Lee Klancher

Ken also had the airplane bug, and constructed several home-built airplanes. The planes were a passion that wouldn’t last. In 1978, Dan’s brother was killed in a plane crash at a small airport near their home.
“When my brother passed away, it kind of took the wind out of Dad’s sails. And he needed a hobby,” Dan said. “He kept the airplane for a couple of years but he didn’t really fly it. He sold it off, and it’s still flying.”
The loss drove Ken to abandon the plane hobby in favor of pursuits that kept he and his other two boys closer to terra firma. Tractors were of particular interest to Ken, and the hobby was just getting serious at that time. Ken’s personal interest merged with his business, and he began to restore a lot of farm tractors.
Dan was seven years old when his brother died. He spent a lot of time in the shop with his Dad. By the time he was eight years old, he was restoring a tractor of his own.

Dan Peterman draped over one of his restoration projects at Rusty Acres Restoration. He’s been restoring old tractors since he was eight years old, and doing it professionally for 26 years. Lee Klancher

          His father’s meticulousness served the growing side business well, particularly at a time when many tractor restorations consisted mainly of slathering a coat of fresh paint onto an old machine. Ken transferred the time and care he had taken to restore his cars, to the tractors.People who found rare machines, or simply wanted their sentimental tractor restored beautifully, called on Rusty Acres Restoration to do the work.
Ken eventually tired of his work situation as machinist, and in 1980 took a job teaching diesel mechanics at a local community college. He enjoyed teaching, and found the job gave him time to continue to grow his business. The combination worked well, and the business and Ken thrived.
In 1984, as the volume of work continued to grow along with the farm tractor hobby, Dan started working next to his dad on the tractors and cars that came through the shop. Dan was 13 years old. His love for old things and mechanics grew, as did his appreciation and understanding of his father’s meticulous nature. Only sandblast the machine if you do a frame-up restoration and can remove all the grit. Take great care with serial number plates. Hire only people who reflect and carry your same values.
Lessons learned at a young age. One that came through for Dan was that he preferred to do the old tractors. The mechanical challenges trump the fussy paint and details, while the opposite is true of car restoration.
In May 1992, the community college closed down the diesel mechanic program, and Ken was out of regular work. That worked out just fine, as the restoration business was strong. Dan graduated from high school that year, and he and his father went to work in the restoration shop full-time. A steady stream of classic cars and old farm tractors kept the father-son team busy enough that neither had to seek other employment.
Dan loved the work, never questioned whether he should be doing anything but work in the shop with his father. “I never went to college,” Dan said. “He taught me everything I needed to know.”

Dan’s father, Ken, started the business in the 1970s. He was an aviation buff, and assembled several home-built aircraft. Lee Klancher

For eight years, the pair worked hard and made a decent living. Business grew as the hobby grew, and they did more and more old farm tractor restorations.
On April 15th, 2000, Ken Peterman had a massive heart attack and died instantly. The inevitable came early for Ken. He was only 64 years old, and in good health.
“It was a surprise,” Dan said. “He was going to wean out of it and retire. It never did happen, so I jumped right into it.”
With strong support from friends and some of his long-time customers, Dan took over the business. He was 28 years old, and had racked up 15 years of experience restoring collectible vehicles. While this was not the path he envisioned or would have preferred, he was prepared to step up.
In the following 18 years, he has built Rusty Acres Restoration into one of the nation’s premier tractor restoration shops. He does most of the work for collector Paul Watral, who has some of the rarest John Deere tractors in the world. He has also done work for Bruce and Walter Keller, who have the largest collection of rare John Deere tractors, period.
Some of his most interesting restorations included a yellow John Deere 60 Orchard he did for Paul Watral. Only two of those were built, and the restoration was the only one that survived. He also has done a number of rare high-crop and orchard machines, as well as military tractors. While most of the work he does is on John Deeres, he restores all different makes and types of tractors.

Several sheds hold a mixture of Dan’s personal machines and customer equipment. A Massey-Harris 55 sits next to several high-crop John Deeres awaiting restoration. Lee Klancher

          As the tractor hobby has spread across the globe, so has Dan’s business. He has a connection to Holland that came at the 150th Anniversary for Massey-Harris held in 1997 in Racine, Wisconsin. While standing in line waiting for supper, Dan noticed a man wearing a pair of what appeared to be wooden shoes. Dan being Dan, he started teasing the man.
The men hit it off, and Dan ended up finding a Massey-Harris 444 for the man. He restored it at his shop, and had itshipped to him in Holland.
Through this contact, he got to know Arjan Van Lentehe, another Dutchman who was interested in starting a restoration shop in Holland. Arjan spent six months working for Dan at Rusty Acres, and went back and started up his own tractor business importing and selling tractors.
“We’re the same age and he lost his dad, too,” Dan said. The two stay in touch, and Arjan visits the U.S. a few times each year.
Dan doesn’t spend much time brokering tractors, preferring to focus on the mechanical aspect instead. The restoration. He’s a nuts and bolts guy.
He also isn’t one to second-guess his avocation. Coin collecting is a passion that appeals tremendously to Dan, but it’s not a living. So he sticks with what he knows well, his hands knuckle-deep in wrenches, torches and paint. “This is all I’ve been really made to do,” he said.
“I love being self-employed and doing my own thing. There’s pressure like just any other job . . . but if I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t still be doing it.” 

The shop has been in use continuously since the 1980s. Good lighting, heat, and a comfortable couch out back make it livable, and there’s room on the floor for four projects. Lee Klancher