Wilma Willems sits on a John Deere M tractor Thursday in her late husband's shop at their home in Craig. Mike Willems rebuilt the tractor before he died, and it was one of many he worked on throughout the years. Mike recently was honored with the publication of his antique tractor photos in the calendar Old Iron.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Wilma Willems sits on a John Deere M tractor Thursday in her late husband's shop at their home in Craig. Mike Willems rebuilt the tractor before he died, and it was one of many he worked on throughout the years. Mike recently was honored with the publication of his antique tractor photos in the calendar Old Iron.

For the love of the green

Willems had passion for tractor restoration

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— Call it taking care of unfinished business.

Call it a bittersweet success.

Or, just chalk it all up to coincidence.

Whatever the cause, Mike Willems' legacy is a little out of the ordinary.

Mike, former John Deere tractor dealer, took machinery that was past its prime and, piece by piece, restored it, inside and out.

At one point, he had five tractors in his shop at one time, his wife, Wilma, said, all of them John Deeres.

"A fellow told him once his blood was green," Wilma said.

And time and again, Mike had submitted photographs to Old Iron, a calendar dedicated to showcasing vintage tractors. Finally, he made the cut this year with pictures of a 1948 John Deere M tractor he restored.

Wilma received the letter this spring notifying her that her husband's photographs would be included in the publication.

The letter came about a month after Mike died of emphysema.

But, that's not the end of the story.

Mike left behind more than a couple of photographs proving what he could do with a life's work of mechanical skill and some free time. He also left behind two beautifully-restored, working tractors.

The roots of Mike's passion extend deep into his childhood. And, ultimately, he left behind a mystery that, if one local resident has his say, won't go unsolved.

Proof of passion

One glance at Mike's shop proved restoring out-of-commission John Deere tractors wasn't just his hobby - it was his passion.

Antique advertisements for John Deere tractors hanging on the walls of the shop sported descriptions such as "simplicity," "dependability" and "trouble-free operation."

A green and yellow sign on the door of a nearby refridgerator read, "Sometimes I feel like I'm running on only 2 cylinders."

Another on the wall read, "Wanted: Good woman with John Deere.

"Send picture of John Deere."

And, in the center of the shop sat the last two tractors Mike ever restored - one, a John Deere M, the other a John Deere B.

Wilma said Mike loved seeing tractors come into his shop badly in need of repair and leave looking like new.

"He felt like he had accomplished something," she said.

Depending on how much repair was needed, restoring a single tractor could take one year of work. Mike restored about eight tractors throughout the years, Wilma said.

"He had a terrible time finding parts," she said. "A lot of times you do because, of course, they're old."

Mike made a profession out of selling the tractors he loved. Together, he and Wilma owned a Craig-based John Deere dealership, Willems Implement Co., for 23 years.

"I know, 20 years ago, he was trying to trade me out of an old John Deere," said Lou Wyman, a member of the Yampa Valley Power Club.

"I always kind of discounted John Deeres," he said, adding that he use to kid Mike about his preference for the brand.

Wyman and fellow Power Club member Smokey Werner shared an interest with Mike in antique tractors.

The fascination, they said, is grounded in similar childhoods in which tractors made a difference in the lives of people who worked the land.

"We never had a tractor on the ranch until 1947," Wyman said.

The first tractor his family bought, he said, put four teams of horses out of commission instantly.

"That first summer, my brother drove it," Wyman said. "Hell, he wouldn't let anybody else on it."

A final wish

Tractors remained a constant topic of conversation with Mike, Werner said, even when his health began to deteriorate.

"He was always talking about old tractors," Werner said.

Doug Willems, Mike's grandson, can attest to that.

About a month before he died, Mike still was talking about tractors. And, not just any tractor.

A 1958 John Deere 730 L that, to Doug's knowledge, was the first new tractor Mike bought.

"I remember Grandpa talking about it numerous times when I as a kid," he said, adding that Mike sold the machine when he moved to Colorado from Kansas, where he had been farming. "He always kind of wondered whatever happened to it."

When Mike brought up the tractor weeks before his death, Doug revealed for the first time that he and his father, Rod Willems, were looking for it.

"When I told him that, he seemed pretty excited," Doug said. "He didn't say a lot, but Grandpa never did say a lot. He was pretty quiet about things."

Today, Doug still is looking.

He and Rod have received many calls, some from as far as Iowa, with leads on where the old tractor may be. But none of them have panned out.

Doug didn't kid himself by thinking this task would be an easy one.

"It's every bit as difficult as I expected," he said.

He has no intentions of giving up.

Doug, who spent summers at Willems Implement Co., said he knows how much antique tractors meant to Mike.

"I think it's even more important now to do everything I can to find that tractor - for me, personally, anyway," he said.

'It was almost like Grandpa was there'

In the meantime, Doug found a way to honor his grandfather's memory: driving the tractors Mike restored in local antique tractor pulls.

The first time Doug and his cousin, Drew Chamberlain, used one of his grandfather's tractors for this ritual was during the 2008 Grand Olde West Days in May, shortly after Mike died. Today, Doug still has difficulty describing the emotion he felt when he started the tractors for the first time.

"It didn't take anything to get them running," Doug said.

After popping in a cleaned spark plug and pouring in some fuel, the machines "fired right up," he said.

"It was really strange," he said. "I don't know even how to describe it.

"It was almost like Grandpa was standing there, smiling about it."

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