‘Every Tractor Has a Story’: Al Deiss is on a mission to restore heirloom tractors to their former glory

Al Deiss of Rosewood Restoration // Photo by Emily Winters

Every tractor has a story.”

Al Deiss smiles a bit under his salt-and-pepper mustache and puts his hands in his pockets as he tries to find the words to describe the tractor culture he’s spent decades preserving. 

“Ask about someone’s tractor, and you’re going to learn more than you ever expected to,” he says. He mentions the Thursday before, when he brought a grown man to tears as he dropped off a completed restoration. Then he mentions his own Allis-Chalmers C—one of three bright-orange tractors parked on an angle out front of his shop that he restored as a raffle prize in 1999. The winner sold it to another guy who eventually sold it back to him, and now he hauls manure with it and also uses it—and its tandem front seat—to take his wife RoseMary to the bowling alley for dinner on date night.

Deiss never went to school for tractor restoration or auto body repair but instead built a career in dairy herd management. But living in Centuria, Wisconsin—a farming community of 950 just over the border from Taylors Falls—he knew just about everyone in town, so it wasn’t hard to get into auto body repair and painting as a side business. He set up a makeshift paint booth and workshop in his pole barn and did jobs for friends. 

Al Deiss’ Allis-Chalmers // Photo by Emily Winters

“Then someone asked me to paint a tractor. And when I did, and the word got out, I was just bombarded,” Deiss recalls. He explains that tractors were once as common as cars in communities like his, and while there are companies that will fix them functionally, not many will take the time to honor their history and restore them back to their fresh-out-of-the-factory condition.

He made up for a lack of knowledge by doing his homework, tractor by tractor, piecing together the complex history and nuances of the companies that have made tractors throughout the years. As we talk, he looks up models’ production years in a huge white manual, piled on a workbench along with Oliver tractor decals and Cow Tales candies. Parts were especially hard to find back before the internet existed and tractor restoration became popular—and for a guy who’s holding out on buying a cell phone, his mostly analog system of hunting down parts still fits. 

Somewhere along the way, Deiss realized he had found a niche. In 1992, he launched Rosewood Restoration and slowly eased out of his day job, bringing together his technical ability, knowledge of the state’s agricultural community, and penchant for digging up quirky bits of history in order to correctly restore a tractor.

Al Deiss working on his current project in his shop // Photo by Emily Winters

His one-man show has been in near-constant business ever since, with a major project or two taking up the main bay of his shop and a few more waiting their turns between his farm’s other outbuildings. He starts each project the same way: asking the owner to make a list of what they’d like fixed. Sometimes, they know exactly what’s wrong—an engine’s seized because the tractor’s been parked in the woods for 35 years and has become “a solid piece of rust,” or an owner remembers when he was a kid and his grandpa climbed down for lunch but left the tractor in neutral; it rolled down the hill and straight into a tree, putting a huge dent in the grill and a new story into permanent rotation in family lore. 

The one he was working on the day we talked—a midcentury Farmall M—had come in with a mystery under the hood. Deiss picks up a dried black walnut from his workbench and exclaims, “We found the problem!” When he had begun taking apart the bell housing, he’d found 100 of the nuts, left there by a squirrel. His plan involves taking the tractor apart, cleaning it out, sanding down the parts that had rusted or corroded, replacing the broken or missing ones, giving everything a fresh coat of paint, and reassembling it. 

Deiss has amassed three massive books of business cards because, even with eBay and bringatrailer.com, listings for tractors and parts aren’t as digitized as one would think. Instead, you have to know where to look. Each vendor, most of whom Deiss is on a first-name basis with, has a specialty in a certain make or model and can spit out facts and information on the fly. 

After explaining this, Deiss gives me a cheeky smile. “The 1965 Ford 6000 Commander. It was such a failure that Ford will not acknowledge that tractor existed. It’s not in any of the catalogs,” he says, adding that the company still has very little information on the model. When he was hired to restore one—complete with its quirky Select-o-speed transmission, a precursor to the automatic—he had to scour the United States and Canada for parts. “A goofball like me who wants to restore one? I bought up every new old stock part I could find. I’m literally the last person to have been able to restore one of those.”

Deiss does everything but engine rebuilding in-house, charging a few hundred dollars for minor work to upwards of $30,000 for a complete restoration, depending on the availability of parts and the condition of the tractor. One of his projects is now on display at the Pioneer Museum in Roseau, Minnesota. 

Deiss does run-of-the-mill maintenance, too, squeezing in neighborhood tractors when a farmer is late for harvest and can’t get one to start up. With that, he can name most of his friends’ tractor loyalties.  

“Two-cycle John Deeres—you either love ’em or hate ’em. Just like Ford, Chevy, and Dodge, you have IH guys and John Deere guys. I’m an Allis-Chalmers guy. But you like what you grew up with,” he says. Originally, he explains, tractors were painted a utilitarian field-grey, like the Army used. Paint pigment wasn’t weather-resistant years ago, but that changed and tractor companies evolved, too. “In the 1920s and 1930s, everyone wanted to make a tractor! And manufacturers wanted the people driving by to take one look and know exactly what their neighbors were driving down the rows.” 

Once, he restored a rare red 1937 Graham-Bradley. The model was only made for two years and sold in the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog. But its Art Deco-style lines were a little too advanced for the conservative market and the style fizzled out. The owner remembered driving the new tractor onto the farm in Braham, Minnesota, when he was eight; Deiss restored it to its former glory. “When they’re restored, they’re so bright and attractive,” he says. “They were really painted and made to catch your eye.”  

Deiss aims to please the owners who hire him, but he has another motive in mind: inspiring the next generation of tractor enthusiasts. He says that when he goes to big tractor shows across the state, the average age of the attendees climbs a little higher each year. After he converted his 1945 Allis-Chalmers W-C, he got his daughter Jennielle into tractor pulling. She won a slew of ribbons and eventually took her wedding photos on it. He also helped launch the Youth Tractor Restoration Program and opens up his shop for teens to help work on the annual raffle tractor for the Almelund Threshing Show, which Deiss has donated the restoration for since 1998. He’s noticed that, when given a chance, even non-farm kids are eager to get their hands greasy and help wrestle off the gigantic tires. 

Al Deiss // Photo by Emily Winters

“Ninety-five percent of the tractors I restore are ‘the family tractor.’ They’re the last thing left of the family farm. Farms are businesses these days, and tractors aren’t made like they used to be,” Deiss says. He says that often, tractors were sold off at farm auctions, but decades later, he’s heard of families tracking down their long-lost machinery. A newspaper or Craigslist ad later, and they’ll often turn up with a phone call: “‘By golly. I think I have your tractor!’” says Deiss. “There’s a lot of nostalgia that comes in here.”

Today’s huge farm machinery is made to make life easier, with GPS and automatic detection handling every step of the growing season. In many ways, little vintage tractors are obsolete. But with each one that rolls out of his shop, Deiss is preserving a bit of farming culture and a simpler way of life.

“I can walk into any tractor show, look 100 yards down the aisle, and know instantly, ‘I did that tractor,’” he says. “I might not recognize the owner at all, but I never forget a tractor.”