How a nearly 50-year-old tractor found its way back to the family farm

Fisher family

The Fisher family welcomed a little piece of their patriarch home to the Ypsilanti family farm, when grandson Tony Fisher, far left, purchased his late grandfather’s 1977 Versatile 950 tractor on an online equipment auction in April. Photo by Katie Ryan-Anderson

Tony Fisher, pictured with his wife, Lisa
The late Darwin and Helen Fisher

Some people say they sense their deceased loved ones. They see them in a cardinal, smell them in a soup recipe or hear them in a Johnny Cash song.

Tony Fisher and his family will sense his grandfather with every row tilled on the family farm near Ypsilanti.

Described as “neat, orderly and innovative,” Tony’s grandparents, the late Darwin and Helen Fisher, kept an organized farmstead – where every item has a place. Many of the items are original Darwin purchases and still in use on the Fisher family farm today.

One of those purchases was a 1977 Versatile 950 tractor. Darwin ordered it in 1976 after seeing it in a farming catalog.
Fast forward to 2024.

Tony found a 1977 tractor for sale online. He wasn’t in the market for one. In fact, he’d recently purchased one just like it. But the Versatile in the auction looked familiar, especially the hydraulics and the oil filter on the outside. Tony remembered sitting in a tractor like that. He remembered how his dad outfitted an external oil filter. Tony also remembered his grandparents selling the tractor when they retired in 1987. At the time, Tony was 5 years old, about the same age as his youngest son, Zane.

“There was a serial number listed on the sale bill. I knew that Grandpa’s original owner’s manual was still in the shop at the farm, so I decided to find it. When I opened up the manual, I was stunned to see the serial number that was handwritten on the second page matched the one in the listing,” he says.

Tony purchased the Versatile from a family in Milnor and brought it to the Ypsilanti family farm in April.

“It made it home after all of these years. This is the fifth generation of our family that has sat in this tractor,” Tony says.

Over Memorial Day weekend, the Fisher family – Tony and his wife, Lisa, his parents, Steve and Jackie Fisher of Ypsilanti, his sister, Mindy (Eric) Hochhalter of Bismarck, aunt, Jill Heil of Denver, and uncle, Trent (Coleen Spilde) Fisher of Jamestown – gathered in Ypsilanti for a celebration of life. Helen died in February.

“We think Grandma had a hand in this,” Lisa says. “Finding it and winning it.”

An emotional attachment comes with collecting sentimental items. Darwin and Helen saved heirlooms like that and frequented antique shops. Among the collectibles was a gold locket, Mindy remembers, with her initials on it.

“They would tell me, ‘This locket is for you, this locket is yours,’” she says. “The initials on it are M.H. At the time, I wasn’t even ‘M.H.’ yet. I was still Mindy Fisher. But somehow, they knew,” Mindy says, wiping a tear from her eye.

Those items help the Fisher family connect with their past. Today, the tractor will help them connect to the future. Tony plans to use the machine for tilling and rock rolling. He also plans to pass it down to his children one day.

People unaccustomed to agriculture might not recognize the significance of this purchase. They might not understand a farmer's responsibility – to the relatives who farmed the land before and the heirs who may farm it after.

“In some ways, it’s like bringing them home,” Steve says. “We’re glad to have it back.”

His sister, Jill, agrees.

“Dad’s home,” she says. “I know Mom would be so proud. I wish she could have been here, but I know she knows.”

Helen and Darwin were proud of their family. They were also proud of the farm. Tony remembers talking to them for hours each season about weather, field conditions and market prices.

“Even after Grandpa didn't farm for years, he would talk to anybody who would listen about anything regarding the farmstead,” Steve says. “I think they would be happy about bringing this tractor home. I know they would be.”

Tractors are a challenge to track. Unlike vehicles, they don’t have titles. The only way to find a specific one is to know a guy who knows a guy. Had the tractor come up for sale in a traditional method like a classified ad listing, perhaps this story would have a different ending.

When Jesse Arth, Milnor, listed the classic tractor for sale on an online auction, it was the first time he’d sold equipment using that method.

“This is the first time we’ve ever used an auction company,” he says. “Dad’s been farming since 1965 and I’ve been at it for about 30 years. It was just a sheer accident that we chose to go that route. Somehow, Tony Fisher found it. It was just a stroke of luck.”

Jesse and his father, Mike, purchased the tractor to pull a rock roller or disc about three years ago from a neighbor. The neighbor retired due to medical issues. Before retiring, however, he’d overhauled it – new motor, transmission, drive lines, axle bearings, air conditioning and tires – more than $70,000 worth of repairs.

“We wanted to buy it, because we knew what he had done,” Jesse says.

The Arths are hobbyists. In his life, Jesse has purchased, repaired and resold more than 90 Versatile tractors.

“I used to be pretty crazy for them,” he says. “We used to be the Versatile tractor hub of southeast North Dakota.”

When they decided to sell, the Arths never expected to get a call from the original owner’s grandson.

“When he called me, I just about fell out of my chair,” Jesse says. “The whole thing gives me goosebumps.”

A grandchild or descendant purchasing the equipment of a grandparent is rare, says Brad Olstad, director of agriculture at Steffes Group, an auction company headquartered in West Fargo. In his 46 years with the business, Olstad says he hears a story like the Fishers’ fewer than once every five years.

“I commend Tony Fisher,” he says. “He’ll get to relive his childhood on this tractor.”

Olstad says some generations don’t appreciate history.

“We live in a throw-away society or an ‘I don’t care’ society,” he says.

This tractor, with no air conditioning or auto steer, is an example of the true grit of American farming.

“He found a piece of history,” Olstad says.

Now that it’s home, the Fisher family plans to repaint the tractor this summer. Painting is the only work left after the extensive repairs made by a previous owner.

“I was fortunate enough to win the auction, and the tractor will be coming home to where it started its life nearly 50 years ago,” Tony says. “We lost Grandpa seven years ago and Grandma passed away this February, but we know that they are watching over us and smiling down.”

Katie Ryan-Anderson is a freelance writer from Marion.