Shop, sheds, hold place for enthusiast
By Larry Dreiling
A farm shop can be many things to many people.
It's a workspace, certainly. There needs to be a place for everything and everything in its place. To some, it's a point of profit.
For Vernon Berens, however, his shop has evolved from a farm equipment maintenance base to a headquarters for his new hobby of collecting and restoring all kinds of things.
Berens retired from farming and teaching middle school science in his adopted hometown of Victoria, Kan. in 1993. He began restoring old farm tractors soon after. His collection of John Deere two cylinder tractors numbers over 20 dating from 1936 to 1956.
He then took up refurbishing horse drawn grain wagons. Berens' collection dates from 1890 to 1930, and he has been growing his interest into one of the most extensive collections of the genre in the Midwest. He also has a small collection of horse drawn surrey buggies and doctor buggies built in the early 1900s.
"Built for me"
To house this extensive collection, Berens has two large sheds besides his workshop. Like championship banners in a winning team's arena, Berens has a display hanging from the rafters of the shop of over 50 barn lanterns, old oil and gas cans, buckets, cattle yokes and numerous other antique farm equipment items.
He is now collecting labeled egg baskets, which was the way eggs were collected in hen houses and displayed for sale in general stores long before cardboard and foam packaging. In addition, there's one other thing he's collecting.
"I'm now going to try and collect old pipe tobacco cans," Berens said. "At one time, there were dozens of brands that were available. So there's a bit of nostalgia there."
Like a lot of people who needed to expand their operations, Berens had a smaller workshop when he was still farming but his hobby outgrew his job and he found he needed more space.
He found it when a local auto repair shop closed.
"It used to be a commercial garage back in 1920s. It's been added onto to include the two sheds," Berens said. "When I bought the place in 1996, I knew this place was really built for me, with a space for the tractors and a place for the wagons and buggies, along with the nice-sized shop. I think I've organized the shop pretty well. It works for me."
For things remembered
Berens accounts for his things remembered from his days as a boy on the family farm south of Walker, Kan., just east of Victoria.
"My dad was a real horseman. He loved these buggies and that's how I went to school in those days. I went to school in a one-room schoolhouse. I was one of just two in my class," Berens said.
His love for machinery came from a summer job on the Union Pacific Railroad, where he worked on steamer trains at the railroad's shops nearly 30 miles west in Ellis, Kan.
After graduating from Fort Hays State University in 1961, Berens began a 32-year career as a middle school science teacher and basketball coach.
His retirement brought him back to all that love for machinery and to his passion of making them run and look like new again.
"I spent hours and hours on my first project, a John Deere R," Berens said. "It was the first diesel tractor that John Deere made. It was the big daddy out here in western Kansas. The period for the R was 1949 to 1954. In all those years, they never changed anything on them."
He ought to know, Berens owns five of them.
"Once I restored my first tractor, one thing led to another. Now I have a shed full of them," Berens said. I've got five Rs, some Ds and a few others. I try to restore one tractor, one wagon and a buggy every year."
One of his proudest restorations is of a John Deere Model 80. It is considered a rare model, Berens said, because its time in production was quite short, just nine months.
"It's in the same design as the model R," Berens said.
Steering the future
Apparently, John Deere had a marketing change soon after the release of the Model 80, adding the now iconic JD leaping stag to the front of the tractor for the first time.
"That's when they then went to the 820 series," Berens said. "There's three differences between it and the 80. There's the change with the symbol on the hood of the tractor, different shape of fenders and the spokes on the wheel."
Berens said the spokes on tractor steering wheels are among the greatest changes in tractor design and among the biggest challenges in determining a wheel's authentic place on a tractor in the era he prefers collecting.
"In 1936, Deere went from flat iron spokes on the steering wheel to round spokes," Berens said. "It's a big difference in how these tractors look."
Multi-purpose task floor
The main part of shop floor can be configured for whatever Berens is working on. There is a pit with a lift-off floor that can be used for working on the underside his current project. While the entire shop is not heated, radiant heaters hang like additional lighting around this main area, keeping Berens toasty through the winter.
Berens shop also has an enclosed heated and air-conditioned office, used for bookkeeping and records of equipment maintenance, all of which is stored on computer.
Still, Berens enjoys his hobby and talking about it as much as working to make things new again.
Taking a walk to his buggy and wagon shed, Berens spins a pretty good tale.
"In their heyday, 36 different companies made grain wagons. The average wagon could hold 60 bushels of grain and 75 bushels with extensions," Berens said. "I have wagons from most of the major makers of the day and I'm thinking if I'm old enough I might be able to find a wagon from each maker before I go.
"I fix them up and paint them, then have a local artist, Rick Rupp, do the finish detailing work and lettering paint. I do a lot of research on the lettering and show him what I need before I hand the wagon over to Rick so he'll have just what he needs to finish them."
As you survey this bit of farming from the "good old days" you may even learn something you didn't know.
"The word truck came from the wagon industry," Berens said, "with their wide wheels that were called trucks. It didn't come from the automobile industry. Those big wheels, or trucks, didn't sink into the mud as easily as a buggy's wheels."
The wagons and buggies are likely Berens' real pride, since he often lets friends borrow them for use in parades.
"Just recently, I've had surrey buggies in the Christmas parades in places as far away as Lawrence," Berens said. "I always get some horses and drive a buggy in parades around here myself. I really enjoy fixing them up, restoring the upholstery and making them look wonderful for people to enjoy. And I'm always taking tractors to open houses. Deere dealers love me."
Berens' primary tractor restoration this year is on a 1946 John Deere B.
"I had trouble with the transmission, that's why it's taking me a bit longer than normal," he said. "We'll be OK soon. We'll give her a bath. Paint her. Polish her up. My son, Mitch, will apply the new decals. He's good at that. She'll look great when we're done."
A new project
Berens also is adding a new project for winter: Restoring his 1953 Chevrolet pickup truck.
"Does it run? It sure runs," Berens said and with just one crank of the starter the old engine roared to life.
"All the gauges work. It just needs a little updating," Berens said.
Berens is happy to share his collection with others and welcomes visitors by appointment only. His visitor's register is filled with names from all over the world. He's open to see folks most days except Mondays, when he gets involved in another passion.
For many years, Berens was a Victoria city commissioner and later served six years as mayor. He's now begun his fourth term on the Ellis County Commission.
"I got into politics because of a single cause. We didn't have any signals and cross arms on the railroad crossings here in Victoria and an 18-year old girl was killed while trying to drive her car across the tracks while a train was moving through one night.
"I thought it was a crying shame that the town didn't have cross arms at its railroad crossing. I ran with that issue in mind and I've been on the railroad's case ever since. Now we have signals and cross arms at most major rural crossings in the county."
A simple request
Meanwhile, Berens agreed to this article if he could get in a request for a collectable he's sought for a long time - a John Deere gas can.
"I have a John Deere can. I looked for five years to find the one I have. I've been looking for another one. I can't find one so far. Want to give me some help?" Berens asked.
You can contact Berens to make a deal on that gas can or make an appointment to see Berens' shop and sheds full of antique equipment at (785) 735-9364 (home) or (785) 735-2883 (shop).
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at email@example.com.