The Caretaker

The below story was written for the Upper Midwest A-C Collectors Club magazine and published in the fall of 2007.

“The Caretaker”

There are a few of us who don’t drive by our old childhood home, see a car like one we used to own, or walk through the halls of our old high school and relive old memories. We wonder what took place while we were away. We think of that old saying, “If only these walls could talk.” For Lon Saeger, it’s tractors doing the talking, not walls, when he sees the rusting hulk of an old Allis, left outside to corrode and disappear with all its history and memories.

Saeger grew up on a small dairy farm near Wausau, Wisconsin, with his brother and three sisters. His dad, Ervin, and mom, Elvira, raised 24 head of dairy cows. A 1949 WD, which his dad bought new in March 1950, shared the farm too. “I grew up with that WD,” Saeger says. “My dad dropped me in the seat when I was only seven. I drove it and helped work the farm by plowing fields and doing other chores with it.” While his siblings chose other life paths, Saeger remains a country boy at heart and became a lifelong gear head.

Storing Memories

The Saegers live on eight acres in rural Anoka County in Minnesota. As you approach their property, their lovely ranch-style home sure catches your eye, but if you’re a collector like Saeger, the “shed” will really get your blood pumping.

The Saegers built their home and guess what? The shed was done before the house. Not only that, but the tractors that Saeger owned were safe and sound in the shed before anything else got moved. “It took seven minutes by tractor to get from our old place to the new house and we used the hay wagon to move all our stuff from one to the other. It was just like the Beverly Hillbillies!” he says with a laugh.

Saeger’s “shed,” as he calls it, is a 48 by 75 foot shed, with a heated 22 by 30 foot heated shop; the rest is cold storage. It’s filled with Allis tractors in various stages of assembly and the walls are covered with hanging tin and parts that await their owner’s time. But it is also filled with the sentimental feelings of breathing life back into something that has nearly died. “I love to work the field with machines and equipment and I have great memories of doing that as a kid,” Saeger says. “I’m sentimental. I wanted to keep alive the memories I had with my dad and that WD and pass that on to my boys, so I bought it from him as my first restoration project.”

Saeger spent $750 on that 1949 WD and secretly worried how he’d take what looked like a big hunk of junk and bring it back to its original glory. Slowly he learned from restorers in the Allis Chalmers network. The project went well and gave him the motivation to continue.

His original plan was to restore the tractor just for show. Then his three sons came along and got rides on the tool box and wanted to drive it. He decided it isn’t much fun to just show the WD. Saeger’s love for using the farm equipment slowly but surely got the best of him and soon he was getting the WD a little dirty, but not too dirty.

His new property has a long driveway and he thought about putting a loader on the WD to do the maintenance and plowing. “But I decided to get another tractor instead,” he says with a chuckle. By 1992 he had finished the WD and then worked to acquire the other models that matched that style, like the WC, WF, and the WD 45 gas, propane and diesel versions. He has found them all and they are in various stages of restoration at this time.

The whole family has become involved with Saeger’s passion. His wife, Marg, comes to the swap meets and parades and supports his orange obsession. “Most wives might not understand why I just bubble over when I see all this ‘stuff’ at shows and swap meets, but Marg does,” he says.

It’s a wholesome hobby Saeger shares with their three sons by giving each one an Allis tractor as a birthday present. Saeger’s eldest, Peter, has a 1954 WD 45 narrow front with factory power steering. It’s about half finished, but the tractor competes with Peter’s college and career demands. Michael has a 1950 WD with a wide front. After two years of steady work it is close to being totally restored. Tim is the youngest son and is just starting his 1944 B.

“There’s no pressure on the boys to participate,” Saeger says. “They know when I’m working on their tractor and that the work moves along faster when they help.” The boys are building pride and memories with their father and, Saeger hopes, a desire to carry on the family tradition of collecting and restoring Allis Chalmers tractors.

His Claim to Fame

Saeger doesn’t exactly know how many tractors he has on the shelf in his jam-packed barn, but he suspects it might be 10. He has 14 in there that run. Saeger also has a running Gleaner E model combine, an engine-drive model 60 All Crop combine, an engine silo blower, and an engine-drive roto-baler, along with many other implements that fit those tractors. What fun is it to own a tractor if you can’t work in the field with it he asks? It boggles your mind to see just what is really hanging, stacked, piled, and parked in his barn.

Saeger doesn’t have a map or floor plan of everything in his barn and maneuvering tractors in and out is tricky. His son, Tim, is getting pretty at the maneuvering part. “The secret to getting things into the barn is to remove the air pockets,” Saeger says with a laugh. “I see a tractor and suck out all the air out of it. I collapse it down to a pile and put it someplace,” he says, “It all has to come apart to restore it anyway and if it’s inside, then it’s protected from the weather. When it’s time to assemble, there you go.”

Rebuilding Memories

The guy with the big blue eyes and ready smile is a very nostalgic man. “Behind every tractor are stories about people and family,” Saeger says. “Restoring a tractor is a chance to keep the memories alive and create more.”

The people Sager has met during his restoration journeys have almost become a more important part of his passion than the tractors. He appreciates the help and mentoring that Gary Agrimson and others have freely given to him. It is why he shares his talents with others in the Allis network.

“It’s not about who has the nicest tractor,” Saeger concludes, “It’s about whom you meet along the way.” Norm Steinman had a huge Allis collection. Some of it was rare and sought after, but he had an auction and sold it all. “I asked him why?” Saeger related, “He said, I had my fun with it and now it’s time for somebody else to have a turn and I want to see who ends up with all of it. I realized then that I’m just a caretaker. At some point, if I do my job well, the history will continue. “

You know it’s your passion if it gets you up early in the morning and keeps you up late at night, Saeger says. Marriage, kids, friends, and jobs all change over the years and you can’t predict how, “but I can always go in my shed and walk the equipment and think this is great. The iron is a constant in my life.”

Taken from “The Caretaker” Lon Saeger Keeps Memories Alive Through Restoration – by Margie Church, as published in the Upper Midwest A-C Collectors Club magazine Fall 2007.

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