Arvada man unwittingly buys and restores his father’s John Deere 70
While living in Minneapolis, miles away from the North Dakota farm of his youth, Clint Rau was looking for a tractor to refurbish in his upcoming retirement. He stumbled across a farm auction offering a John Deere 70, a model his father, known as Pa, had years ago. Rau purchased the tractor and parked it in the farm shop of the family farm, now owned by his niece in Streeter, N.D.
Pa purchased the 70 in 1954 when Rau was 14 years old and it became a tractor Rau spent many hours driving. Pa was involved in custom silage cutting and Rau recalls one time when Pa was moving the tractor, cutter and silage racks to his uncle’s farm while Rau stayed behind to clean up the shop. When Rau made his way to his uncle’s farm, he could see the silage wagon sitting on the road.
“By that time, he should have been at my uncle’s house already,” he said. “I parked behind the silage racks and there were a lot of people around. I walked up to the front of the silage wagon and the cutter was on top of the 70 that was upside down in the ditch.”
Pa had fallen between the wheel and the seat with his foot pinned beneath the steering wheel. A nearby farmer heard the crash and found Pa pinned with the tractor still running. The growing crowd was able to pull Pa from beneath the 70 as the tractor caught fire, and then extinguished the fire.
“The farmer used a tractor and loader to get my dad out and that was about the time I came walking around the front of the wagon,” he said. “He couldn’t even tell me what happened, he was obviously in shock.”
The local implement dealer came out with a wrecker and hauled the 70 back to town to be repaired so Pa could again use it. The dealer returned the repaired tractor, with a new grill and paint job, in October so Pa could finish cutting silage.
When the tractor was back on the farm, Rau used it to do some fall plowing. Pa plowed during the day and Rau at night after school. Rau vividly remembers the smell of the freshly turned soil in the nighttime air and the birds that would follow him as he plowed the soil and exposed a smorgasbord of worms. Being a young man of about 17, the temptation to remove the muffler and plow at night in the glow of an 8-inch blue flame from the exhaust was too much to resist.
“It was getting pretty cold so we put the Comfort Cab on it and I filled it with fuel and went out to the field,” he said. “The first round I made, was on a pretty aggressive side hill. I didn’t notice it but fuel was running out of the fuel cap. I got to the top of the hill and changed direction.”
At the top of the hill, flames began shooting out from beneath the Comfort Cab. The fuel had run out from beneath the cap and when the tractor was again level, it ran across the hood and onto the distributor, igniting the flames. By the time Rau ran to a neighbor’s farm and used their telephone to call the fire department and returned, three of the tires had already exploded. The fire devoured the cab, seat, batteries and steering wheel.
The 70 was again returned to the implement dealer and the tractor was returned the following spring. Rau later learned that the fuel had run out as a result of an ill-fitting fuel cap, perhaps the fault of Rau or even the dealer when it had been removed to paint the tractor following the first fire.
March of 1963 marked Rau’s entrance to the service in the U.S. Navy. While in the Navy, he spent two years in Key West, Fla., during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He helped patrol Cuba and watch the cargo ships arrive from Russia. He sailed the Caribbean, Aruba, West Indies, Panama, Kingston, and Puerto Rico. His second two years were spent on a ship in Norfolk, Va., on a repair ship, a floating machine shop that repaired drone helicopters. He spent six months near Naples, Italy, on the USS Shenandoah. Upon returning, the Navy hoped to transfer him to the USS New, a destroyer ship that was going to Vietnam. He had two sons at that time — one is a now-retired C-130 pilot, the other works for an International dealership in Minneapolis — and decided not to re-enlist in the Navy.
“That’s when I decided to come home,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a farmer. I think God had a different plan for me.”
When he returned to North Dakota the ground was still wet from a late May snowfall. Rau was again taking turns with Pa, Rau’s plowing shift at night and Pa’s in the day. Rau was still removing the muffler and enjoying the glow of the flame while he plowed against the impossibly dark North Dakota sky. He was, this time, conscious of carefully refueling the 70 but he said he broke the spout from a funnel into the fuel tank. Not wanting to waste any more time, he replaced the fuel cap and returned to plowing.
A drought-riddled summer followed that meant no harvest at all on the farm that fall.
“That fall, I decided to change occupations,” he said. Rau went back to school to become a mechanic, eventually moving to Minneapolis. In 2000, Rau was considering retirement and was looking for a tractor to restore. In 2001, he was making frequent visits back to North Dakota to visit his mother in the nursing home (Pa had passed away in 1992) and he noticed a sale bill listing a 70 John Deere.
“I thought, ‘maybe I’ll restore a 70 John Deere. My dad used to have one of those,’” he said.
He went to the auction, purchased the running tractor, and parked it in the quonset at the farm, now owned by his niece. He parked the tractor safely in the shed only after changing the oil. He remembers making the comment to his niece that the tractor sure resembled the one Pa had. Her response was, “what are the chances of that?”
When Rau moved to Cheyenne, Wyo., in 2003, the 70 went with him. It was there that he met a woman living in Arvada, Colo., who was actually from the same area in North Dakota.
“I used to run around with her brother,” he said. “She was five years younger so there was no way he was going to let me ever date his sister.”
However, years later and the age difference aside, Rau made Bernice his wife. However, she had no intention of moving to Cheyenne. Her six grandchildren lived in Arvada and she complained that Cheyenne was too windy so he moved to Arvada. In their backyard, he built a garage in which to restore tractors. He also, he said, has a restored 1960 Chevrolet Impala, the same type of car as the first one he purchased when he was 20 years old.
“I sold it when I went into the military,” he said. “I told myself one day I was going to find another ’60 Chevy Impala two-door hard top.”
He found one in 1978 in Rockford, Ill., except this one has power steering, power windows and air conditioning, something that was unheard of in 1960 in North Dakota.
Once in the garage with the John Deere 70, Rau again changed the oil. There is a C clip on the oil filter that holds the spring and plate in the canister on a John Deere 70. When he changed the oil, he noticed the clip was missing. The clip holds the canister together until it is in the housing but a great deal of sludge builds up under the clip itself.
“I thought somebody had the same idea I did leaving the clip off,” he said.
Once the restoration process began, he noticed soot beneath the sheet metal of the hood. It had been rewired beneath the instrument panel as well. The question of whether the tractor was Pa’s remained in the back of Rau’s mind as restoration continued.
When Pa rolled the silage wagon, he recalled that the PTO had remained hooked, breaking the shaft inside the PTO casing as well as the case. One corner had even been braised, just as on this tractor.
“We had always had a leaky valve cover gasket and that was still leaking,” he said. “The last part that cinched it was when I removed the fuel tank. As we were lifting it off, there was something rolling around in there. I thought, ‘what the heck?’”
Rau used a long tool and fished out the part that was rolling around the tank and found himself holding the spout to the funnel he had broken off while refueling back on the farm.
“This is Pa’s tractor,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
The restoration on the 70 is now complete and he has driven in a number of parades. He is also a member of the Front Range Power Tractor Association. During the Pumpkin Festival at the Botanical Gardens in Chatfield, Rau takes the 70 and gives hayrides and shuttles visitors to the pumpkin patch on a trailer with hay bales.
Last year was the first year he took the 70 to the Festival and he relishes the opportunity to share Pa’s tractor with the crowds. He is truly taking a piece of the Streeter, N.D., farm and Pa to a whole new generation each fall.