Family inspired restoration

Nudged by his father and driven by his grandfather’s legacy, a college student gives new life to a vintage tractor.

Mason Thill is restoring his great-grandfather Leo Thill’s Farmall tractor on the Town of Fredonia farm it was used. Mason Thill (above left) stood next to the tractor with his father Paul and grandfather Gordon. At right, Gordon’s mother Susan took a photo of her son on the tractor the day his father bought it and surprised him with it after the bus brought him home from Port Washington High School. Top photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Seventy-five years ago, Gordon Thill remembers coming home from Port Washington High School and seeing that his father Leo bought a new Farmall tractor for their Town of Fredonia farm.

“That was a complete surprise,” he said. “That was quite the day.”

His mother Susan took a photo of Gordon sitting on the shiny new tractor. That won’t be, however, the last time he sees the tractor similar to how it looked coming off the assembly line, thanks to his grandson.

Mason Thill is restoring the tractor to as close to its original state as possible.

The endeavor started on a whim soon after he graduated from Ozaukee High School in 2019.

“I was just walking around bored,” Thill said. “My dad told me, ‘You’re bored? You want to do something? Start working on that tractor.’”

The machine hadn’t moved in 20 years.

But Thill’s father Paul had put oil in the tractor’s cylinders to preserve it. That allowed the tractor to be restored to working order rather than replaced.

The first thing Mason did was to hook up the tractor’s plugs and start the machine slowly. He made sure it had a spark and ended up rebuilding the carburetor.

Mason didn’t know everything about how to fix up the tractor but had a good foundation. He grew up on the family farm and had taken a small engines class in high school. His father also bought him three books on how to restore Farmall tractors.

Mason got help from another family member — his cousin Tom, who farms nearby and used Farmall tractors.

“A lot of it was just going over to Tom,” Mason said.

Mason can describe the inner workings of the engine clearly and casually as if he knows it like the back of his hand.

The tractor has four-intake pipes and two exhaust pipes. Two cylinders share the same exhaust port, he said.

He added a new muffler. The original rusted out and was replaced with just a pipe years ago. But that didn’t dampen the sound.

“This thing is so loud,” Mason said.

Work came with its challenges, but Mason’s creativity was up to the task.

The gas tank had rusted, so Mason took it off, hooked up another tank for power, strapped the old tank on the back tire, propped up the tractor and started it. The movement of the tire knocked off the rust.

Taking off the hubs from the tractor’s two large back tires was the biggest obstacle. After sitting for so long, the bolts had rusted through.

“I wrecked an impact wrench,” Mason said.

He used a pry bar and stood on a four-foot extension bar to release the hubs.

He then sandblasted the hubs with Tom’s equipment and painted them before putting them back on the tires.

“He’s learning by doing,” Gordon said.

New tires were also added, which increase the tractor’s speed from 16 to 17 mph.

The tractor only had one mishap. Mason’s aunt, Donna, clipped the side of a shed while her brother Paul — Mason’s father — stood on back telling her to go faster. A fender got bent.

“Forty years later, I straightened it out,” Mason said.

Despite the project’s hurdles, it became a labor of love for Mason “once we started talking about the tractor and that it had been in the family for four generations,” he said.

“It’s a piece of history that should be restored.”

The Farmall model M originally took leaded fuel and served the Thill family well, replacing their smaller steel-wheel tractor. They also had several horses.

“That was quite an improvement,” Gordon said of the new tractor.

His father bought it for $1,600 at Wilke Implement in Random Lake.

The family used it with a two-row corn cultivator to ready fields for planting. It also pulled a grain chopper, manure handler and wagons.

During winter, a windshield was added to keep the driver out of the wind and a mounted canvas was put on the top and sides so engine heat would funnel to the driver.

“It was the workhorse,” Mason said.

“It served its purpose for many years,” Gordon said.

The Thills still live on their homestead, now more than 120 years old, but they rent out their land to be farmed so the tractor doesn’t get used often.

More recently, the tractor was ridden in last year’s Flag Day parade in Waubedonia and this month in the annual tractor parade in northern Ozaukee County.

Mason’s friend Sam Schubert rode in the parade. He came over the day before to test drive it.

Work left includes fixing the spring below the seat — it sits to high — replacing some wires and gears and the battery box. Then, Mason will repaint the tractor in its original Farmall red.

“Progress is slow, but it’s going to be nice when it’s finished,” Mason said.

His father had planned to restore the tractor in coming years.

“I’m glad I don’t have to do it when I retire,” Paul said, lauding his son’s dedication.

“It was a lot of work, but I don’t have to tell him to do it. He gets an idea, he goes for it,” he said.

Paul’s father is also pleased to see his grandson’s follow through on his commitment.

“It does make me proud he had the gumption to keep going at it,” Gordon said. “I give him credit. He got it to work.”

Mason said he works on the tractor every day after his groundskeeping job at Hawthorne Hills Golf Course in the Town of Saukville.

“I have no idea how many hours I put into this,” he said.

But Mason knows when he wants it done. In several weeks, he returns to the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he is majoring in supply chain management and business administration. His deadline, he said is Sept. 25 ­— his grandfather’s birthday.

“I’m hoping to have this done before he turns 91,” Mason said. “I want him to be able to see this thing restored.”



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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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