Big tractors are cool in and of themselves. A Big Bud, though? That’s cooler than most. A pair of ’em? AWESOME. These big farm tractors were built for one purpose, and one purpose only. To be worked to death!
And as of this writing…I don’t think anybody’s ever been able to kill one from working it too hard, either. There’ve been a few that been destroyed by fire, and one got hit by a train, but that’s about it. (If anybody knows more about the one that was hit by the train, holler at me. I want to hear the story!)
Go Big (Bud) or go home…
In the early sixties, a guy named Willie Hensler owned a pretty successful Wagner dealership out in Havre, MT (pronounced “hay-ver”, by the way). They sold and serviced a lot of the big yellow tractors that farmed the great wide open spaces. Life was great!
Then Wagner signed a deal with Deere on December 31, 1968, and that changed everything.
That contract, although it was only for 100 tractors, effectively killed Wagner’s business. The fine print of the contract stated that they couldn’t build their two most popular models, the WA-14 and WA-17 – nor could they launch anything new – until five years after they’d finished building the green ones for Deere. At the time, Wagner was struggling, and they did what they needed to do to keep the lights on. In the end, though, that deal with Deere put them out of business. The Deere-branded Wagners didn’t sell well in the heartland, and the contract wasn’t renewed.
In turn, that also put the brakes on Hensler’s dealership. No new tractors = no new sales. Suddenly, Willie had to figure out what to do. Without sales revenue, they weren’t going to be around for very long. Relying on service dollars wasn’t a good strategy, either.
Hensler wasn’t about to give up, though; one aspect of their service included re-powering Wagners in the area, and that was very successful. Thanks to “Big Bud” Nelson, the dealership service manager, they’d become known as the go-to guys if a farmer’s tractor didn’t have enough oomph for the field. After a bit of strategy in 1969, Willie Hensler and Bud Nelson formed the Northern Manufacturing Company. The goal? Build the ultimate Wagner. Repower them, overbuild the heck out of them, and sell ’em to Montana farmers.
The first model they built was the Big Bud HN-250. A “super-Wagner” if you will. It had a lot of Wagner parts in it, but the powerplant was a big 855 Cummins with a 12-speed Fuller transmission. Rated at 250 engine horsepower and tipping the scales at 34,000 pounds, this was a serious tractor!
Not bad for two guys and a welder, huh?
(Side note: My good friend Sherry Schaefer, editor of Heritage Iron magazine, had the opportunity to sit down and talk to Bud Nelson back in 2008. How cool would it have been to be a fly on the wall for that conversation? There’s a very good story in Heritage Iron’s issue #66 about Northern Manufacturing Co. and the HN-250 where she recaps a few of the stories from her chat with Nelson. For six bucks, it’s well worth picking up the back issue while they still have ’em!)
It didn’t take long for word to get out that there was a new player on the big tractor market, either. For the next few years, Northern Manufacturing turned out a dozen or so tractors a year. Big Buds were almost cartoonishly overbuilt, easy to work on, and used off the shelf parts that weren’t hard to get. Farmers had figured out that Willie & Bud were on to something; no wonder they never had an issue selling them!
Innovation through simplicity…
Perhaps the best innovation the company ever came up with was the flip-top cab. By essentially putting the cab on big hinges, a farmer could tilt the cab out of the way to maintain the engine or the driveline. That may not seem like much, but with gargantuan tractors, anything you can do to make it easier to maintain things is a big bonus. Later models would put those flip-top cabs on hydraulics, making it even easier!
Turning the page…
By the mid-70s, the company was doing pretty well, but Willie Hensler and Bud Nelson were getting older and wanted to slow down a little. Fortunately for them, Ron Harmon, a successful businessman in the area was there to buy the company in 1977. He continued the work that they’d started – and expanded it quite a bit. He knew there were more buyers out there, and over the next few years, he sold Big Buds to customers all over the globe!
1978 was a banner year for the company. That was the year that the Rossi brothers, big cotton growers from Bakersfield, CA, called Ron and told him they needed a tractor. The result? The 16V-747…the biggest farm tractor on the planet. It’s 27 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 14′ tall, and tips the scales at well over 100,000 pounds! It’s truly a monster! The Rossi brothers took the 760-horse tractor home and used it for 11 years or so for deep ripping in Bakersfield. It eventually ended up going back home to Montana to live on a great big farm owned by the Williams brothers, where it’s still earning its keep today!
The company stayed true to the original plan, too. They continued to trickle out massively overbuilt tractors that were easy to work on up until 1991. It wasn’t always an easy road; the last 8-10 years of Big Bud’s existence were plagued with financial issues caused by some transmission issues from way back in the late 70s. The downfall part is a story for another day, though.
The South Dakota Big Buds that you can bid on…
These two Big Buds – a 400/30 and a 525/50 – live on a great big farm of their own in Miller, SD (about 3 hours northwest of Sioux Falls). For many years, both of these big fellas were the primary workhorses for Darrell Wangsness’s row crop operation.
Darrell passed away in February of this year, so some of the details on these tractors aren’t real clear. I called Clay Keck (Dacotah Diamond Auctions), the auctioneer handling the estate auction for the Wangsness family this morning, though, and we did piece together a few details on each tractor.
Both tractors were completely overhauled (mechanically) about 15 years ago, but they’ve been sitting for about 4 years. That said, they’ve only got about 2-300 hours on ’em since, so they weren’t used much after the overhauls. They both fired up and ran/drove without issues. Still, it’d be a good idea to go through the belts, hoses, and anything else made of rubber to make sure it doesn’t need to be replaced. Clay did tell me that Darrell had over $60K in the rebuild of the 1150 Cummins in the 525/50! (That’s not surprising…it’s not cheap to overhaul KTA1150s! The two biggest complaints about those big Cummins motors is that they’re thirsty, and they’re spendy to work on!)
The 525/50 is the cleaner tractor of the two, but I’d say that they’ve both weathered the last 40+ years better than lots of other tractors I’ve written about!
Between 1969-1991, a total of 516 Big Buds left the factory in Havre, MT. And, with the exception of a few that were destroyed in fires and the one that got hit by a train, the majority of them are still working today! They’re virtually indestructible. That’s what happens when you build a tractor out of 1″ plate steel. You can’t hardly kill ’em. If the engine dies, you put some money into it and get it going again, and life continues!
Still, they don’t change hands very often, and there aren’t many to go around. The 525 was the most popular of the bunch, but they still only made 150 of them! The last one that crossed the auction block was an Ohio tractor, and that one sold for $78,100 back in February 2020. It wasn’t quite as clean, but it did have better service records. I’d imagine this one in South Dakota will probably come reasonably close to that price. My guess is that it’ll go to an internet bidder in North Dakota, Montana, or Idaho (or possibly Canada, if the border opens up soon).
As for the 400/30…your guess is as good as mine. I did some digging earlier and I don’t think I’ve ever seen records of a 400/30 changing hands at an auction – not within the last 10 or 15 years, anyway! I don’t want to even hazard a guess as to what that’ll sell for!
Honestly, these tractors have a somewhat limited market. To use one of these big guys properly, you really have to have big acres and use great big tillage equipment. That’s why a lot of these tractors end up heading home to the great wide when they change hands. Still, while the bidder pool is a little smaller, that doesn’t mean they won’t fight over ’em!
It’ll be fun to watch these Big Buds sell on Monday!