PAXTON, Ill. — Kelly Birkey’s interest in restoring or customizing tractors of all sizes goes back to the beginning of World War II when he was a young farm lad and had an entrepreneurial idea.
“I was 12 years old when World War II started. Of course, you couldn’t buy new bicycles, but I’d scrounge the country finding old bicycles and I’d bring them in. You could buy parts from Montgomery Ward. I’d fix them up, paint them and I’d take them to the local hardware store. I’d make $5 apiece,” Birkey said.
“I love mechanical work. One time we had an old car door and we put on there ‘Kelly’s Service — Don’t cuss, call us.’ I was probably 14 years old then.”
His interest in restoration continued into adulthood, and now at 90, he has several Cub Cadet rebuild projects in his shed.
Across the span of eight decades, Birkey also has been on the ground floor of several agricultural advancements and organizations that celebrate and preserve farming history.
Several of those advancements will be observed July 11-14 at Historic Farm Days at Penfield, hosted by the I&I Antique Tractor and Gas Engine Club.
The annual celebration will highlight International Harvester, the 80th anniversary of the introduction of the Farmall H and Farmall M, the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the axial flow combine and International Harvester 2+2 tractor and the 25th anniversary of the IH Collectors Club Illinois Chapter 10.
Farm To Store
Birkey and his five brothers grew up on their parents’ farm near Rantoul. Two of his brothers went on to become ministers, and the rest eventually started what is now Birkey’s Farm Store with 16 locations in Illinois and one in Indiana.
It began for Kelly when his brother, Lloyd, was managing Springer Implement, an Allis-Chalmers dealership in Fisher, Illinois.
“I was 18 years old. My brother returned from serving in World War II. He had worked at Springer Implement before he was in the Army. He was 28 years old and I was 18 and he came out to the farm where I was helping dad farm and he hired me,” Kelly said.
The first Birkey’s Farm Store opened in 1954 when Ellis (Turk), Marvin and Floyd Birkey and Jack McJilton acquired the International Harvester franchise in Dewey and started Birkey’s Farm Store in Fisher. Three years later they acquired the franchise in Thomasboro.
The Fisher and Thomasboro stores were closed in 1959 and a new store was built in Rantoul. They acquired the IH franchise in Paxton in 1967 and constructed a new building along Route 45. Gary Hedge and Kelly Birkey became stockholders that same year.
Kelly bought stock into the company in 1967 and operated the newly-purchased Paxton IH franchise before moving to manage others.
“I’ve had an excellent history and I don’t know if I could have been more satisfied with a job. Sometimes you worried about going broke, but the people you work with — the American farmer — how can you beat them. They are incredible,” he said.
Birkey sold his Birkey’s Farm Store stock in 1989 and became involved in the I&I Club when it was first based in Middlefork. After his retirement five years later, he devoted his additional spare time to his hobbies of restoring and customizing tractors and more involvement in the I&I Club.
The first tractor he restored, while still managing a Birkey’s store, was an International Harvester F-12, following by an F-14, an H Series, a couple of Bs and Cs, and some implements.
His interest in the International Harvester and preserving its history stretches beyond his workshop. He is a charter member of the National International Harvester Collectors Club — his membership number is five — and helped establish the IH Collector Club Illinois Chapter 10 25 years ago.
The national organization has thousands of members across all 50 states, as well as members in Europe and Australia.
“I got in on the ground floor of it. I went to the original national formation meeting. I was on the first board of directors. I had just retired and sold my stock in Birkey’s Farm Store, so I was pretty free. I kept working for them, but I was not a manager anymore. My wife and I had a camper at the time. We drove the wheels off that camper to meetings all around. We really had a good time doing it and met an awful lot of nice people, good people,” Birkey said.
He was on the national board of directors when interest in an Illinois chapter was expressed.
“Darius Harms was very involved in the clubs and I called him and I said, ‘Let’s start a chapter, and No. 10 is the next number coming up.’ He said, ‘Sounds good to me, lock down that number.’ So, I called the national director right away and said hold the number,” he said.
Birkey’s interest in refurbishing farm equipment transitioned down years ago to the Cub Cadet, and he continues to be involved in the state and national organizations.
IH branched out into the home lawn and garden business in the 1960s with a line of Cub Cadet equipment, including riding and walk-behind lawn mowers and snow blowers, all carried by Birkey’s Farm Stores.
Birkey’s Cub Cadets will be on display at Historic Farm Days and the Half Century of Progress Show Aug. 22-25 in Rantoul.
“I know I’ve owned over 200 Cub Cadets. I bought 53 from one guy and 37 from another guy and a lot of times I’d buy five or six at one time. I’ve had a lot of Cub Cadets,” he said.
“I’ve restored a lot of them. I’ve restored a Model 982, a larger of the Cub Cadet tractors. They only built the red ones four years. The Cub Cadet line was sold to MTD Products in 1981. So, in 1983 and 1984 they were built by Cub Cadet Corporation.
“And a collector wants the International Harvester words on the serial number plate. So, when I go to buy them I only restore the ones that says International Harvester with the exception of the 782 diesel. International Harvester didn’t make any diesel Cub Cadets. When MTD took over they made a diesel. I’ve got a 782 diesel ready to go.”
He’s also customized Cub Cadets.
“I took one and reversed its ring and pinion, so it goes backwards at a faster speed which would now become forward because I put a forklift on it. I just used it today to load up junk. We use it almost every day,” Birkey said.
“Then I built what you’d call a Cadet truck. I just extended the frame out and put a tilt bed on it and we use it almost every day.
“We don’t have it anymore but I built a Cub Cadet wheel-loader. It had four-wheel drive with big front and rear tires and articulated and it worked. A man up north saw it and he begged me to price it. They say if you don’t want to sell anything, don’t price it. I priced it and he bought it. I built two of the Cadet trucks.”
He has a customized four-wheel drive in his shop, retrofitted with a twin cylinder engine. The original Cub Cadet had a single cylinder.
“I’ve used that a lot at shows. They have plow days with Cub Cadets, so when I go I bring a little disc for it and disc while they plow. It works nice,” Birkey said.
“They never made this. I just took two Cub Cadets. This has the back frame of an original one and I moved the wheels. This has the rear frame of another one and so it articulates. I built this in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.”
His restoration or customizing process begins with removing everything down to the frame. The frame is then placed on a rotisserie he made that turns so he can paint it and apply the finishing touch. Once that’s completed, he’ll begin putting the pieces and motor onto the frame.
He recently acquired a Cub Cadet 982 and hopes to have it restored by next year.
His restoration work is global.
“One of the red Cut Cadets I sold went to Germany. I’ve had 15 of them and only one was sold in Illinois. I take it to the national show and there you get exposure all around,” Birkey said.
“Two years ago I had a 982 sitting there and a couple came by and he was looking at it. He asked how much I wanted for it, and his wife was hitting him in the leg, saying, ‘Buy it, buy it.’ Come to find out they came from Wyoming to buy a 982, and they didn’t expect to find one with power steering because they never made them with power steering on them. I put power steering on all of them.”
The Birkey family also has a proud history in connection with the 40th anniversary of the International 2+2 tractor, sometimes called the “anteater” because of its long design.
Unlike conventional four-wheel drive tractors, the 2+2s had their cabs located behind the articulation joint. This rear portion of the tractor was actually the rear half of the existing 86 series two-wheel-drive.
Furthermore, the power plants on the 2+2s were mounted ahead of the front axle, similar to the 66 and 86 series Internationals. Locating the engine there increased the weight on the front drive axle to improve traction.
“Birkey’s Farm Store in Paxton sold more 2+2s than any dealer in the United States. We did it by demonstrating. I remember one man’s tractor broke down and I said, ‘Take this 2+2 and go plow.’ ‘I ain’t gonna run that,’ he said. But he took it home and that evening I went by his farm on the way home. I stood at the end of the field and he was coming through and there was a wet spot there. He came right through that wet spot, he jumped out, turned around, put his hands up in the air and said, ‘I want one.’ I’d already priced one for him, and he said, ‘Get it for me,’ just like that. But they had to run it,” Birkey said.
Birkey’s father-in-law tried one out and said, ‘if I was going to plow the garden I’d use a 2+2.’
“He said wherever he turned it would go. He never had to use breaks, it would go exactly where he turned it and he felt safer in it than in a two-wheel drive tractor. Of course, all four-wheel drives are that way; they’ll go where you turn it. That was the first thing people who had never driven a four-wheel drive noticed,” Birkey said.