Mike Willems was a quiet man.
He didn’t say much, his grandson Doug Willems said, and when he talked, it was something worth listening to.
He could express himself with just a smile, and he taught Doug and another grandson, Drew Chamberlain, everything he knew about his livelihood and passion: John Deere tractors.
His smile, calm wisdom and love of green were the legacy he left when he died in 2008 from emphysema.
He also left behind two antique tractors, a 1939 Model B and a 1948 Model M, the last two he ever restored.
Doug and Drew took their grandfather’s treasures into their own hands, changing the oil and the spark plugs.
It was all the tractors needed.
Both recall the moment the Model B shivered to a start.
“It was like he was here with us,” Drew said.
“It was surreal,” Doug added. “It’s a feeling you just can’t explain.”
A month after their grandfather’s death, the cousins entered his tractors in the annual Grand Olde West Days Antique Tractor Pull, and have been on the local circuit ever since.
On Saturday morning at Precision Auto Service, the cousins worked on the two machines, changing the oil and tweaking a few parts to prepare for this year’s event.
The tractor pulls will start at 8 a.m. May 29, 30 and 31 behind the ReMax building on Breeze Street in Craig.
It will be the cousins’ third Grand Olde West Days without their grandfather.
Growing up green
The shop was quiet Saturday.
Oil dripped from the antique machines into waiting pans and a country music station played softly from a radio mounted on the wall.
“Have you noticed that they’ve been playing a lot of tractor songs this morning?” Drew said.
“Yeah, but this one isn’t right,” Doug said.
The song playing at that moment was called “International Harvester,” named after a tractor brand.
To own one would be considered treason in the Willems family.
Working on John Deeres came naturally to Doug and Drew, as Mike owned Willems Implement Co., a John Deere dealership he sold to the owners of Tri-State Equipment in 1994, after more than 30 years in business.
Doug said he grew up believing a John Deere was the only farm implement worth its salt.
“I don’t think it was until I was about 8 that I knew ‘brand X’ wasn’t actually a brand of tractor,” he said. “Grandpa always told us there was John Deere and then there was ‘brand X.’”
Drew said his father once bought a Massey Ferguson tractor to plow the driveway.
“Grandpa gave him burning hell for it,” said Drew, a hint of nostalgia in his voice.
Pulling the past
Mike was one of the founding members of the Yampa Valley Antique Power Club, an antique tractor enthusiast group that participates in local events.
“If you’re in a room of people and there are two people who have antique tractors, you’ll find each other,” Doug said.
He said some club members are ranchers who use their antique tractors on a daily basis.
For others, it’s a hobby and a passion. They keep their machines sheltered and pristine all but a few times a year for tractor shows and pulls.
But, Doug and Drew participate in the pulls so the legacy of their grandfather will live on.
A tractor pull consists of a sled filled with weights and fitted with a variable transmission.
As the tractor pulls harder, the sled becomes heavier.
The tractors are judged on how many feet they can drag the sled.
The Model B has pulled hundreds of feet, Doug said, with just 18 horsepower.
“There’s no money in it, no trophies,” Doug said. “Just bragging rights.”
He said there are many antique tractor enthusiasts around the country, and some take the competition to the next level.
There are plenty of ways to “hot rod” an antique tractor, increasing the torque and chances of winning a pull.
But, for Doug and Drew, that’s not the point.
“We’re not changing anything on this one,” Doug said, patting the Model B. “It’s the way grandpa had it.”