13 questions with a 13
Jul 12, 2023
DAKOTA, Minn. — 13-year-old Eli Klessig specializes in restoring antique tractors and "basically anything with an engine on it," he said on a weekday morning surrounded by tractor parts.
Some of his most recent jobs include a Farmall M, a Farmall B, and earlier that morning, he and his friends were hauling hay in a Farmall C tractor that he completely rebuilt the engine on.
Chrissy Klessig, Eli's mom, said that her son has a natural mind for physics.
"He's never been given a physics course, but he understands most concepts from my college physics course, just from observing things, and then applying that concept to other things," Chrissy Klessig said.
When Eli was a few years younger and a person came to change a tractor tire on the farm, they ran into an issue and had to run back to their truck to retrieve the right tools.
"Just by watching that, he realized and told me later, 'I realized that air is compressible, but oil is not,'" she said.
Now when someone gives Eli a tractor model he can rattle off the spec sheet for it.
"Farmall B," said Max Benson, Eli's good friend and partner in the shop where the two work together and separately on projects.
"Farmall B has the same transmission as the A, it was like 750 bucks new in 1949," Eli Klessig listed off. "Single-speed PTO, 540 RPMs, narrow front."
Agweek asked Eli some questions to gain more understanding of his mechanical aptitude.
How do you get the tractors back to the shop?
My dad, but I usually go with him. He has a trailer and truck, so I usually just tag along. He charges me to haul these — he doesn't do it for free. But it's a good deal because he charges me and then he lets me work in his shop with his tools.
Where do you find the tractors you choose to restore?
I really like online, or even in-person auctions. Because it's very, very easy to get a good deal on an old tractor. Most people there don't want to buy an old, non-running tractor. I've also used Facebook Marketplace a fair amount. I will also often buy tractors that are just sitting out in the brush, or in a fence line or wherever they are. Then I'll cart them home.
Do you do the bidding at auctions yourself?
Yeah. My dad has a number that he'll give me, and then he'll stand by me. He'll tell me a price he doesn't want me to go over, and then I'll bid up to it. And then if it goes over that, I just won't take it because it's not worth it for an old tractor.
Do you find that people are happy to get their old tractors off their hands?
Yeah, usually. I often find that at auctions, not really because they're just there to sell them. But on Marketplace, a lot of people are really glad to just get them out of the yard or out of the fence line, so they don't have to look at the machines anymore. I'll put them to good use, and rebuild them, and then sell them.
How many tractors have you bought and sold?
Well, last year I had an Allis Chalmers D17 that I bought running OK, and I tuned it and then I sold that. I made a little bit on that one, but I didn't make much because I bought it running, and so it's a little bit harder to make more. Then I had a big Allis Chalmers 190 with a big cab that I bought running also. I bought that one when nobody wanted old tractors, and everything was down in price. And I waited until fall, when I could get a lot more for it.
When did you first realize you were good at this?
I started to figure out that I liked working on engines, because when we had moved somewhere, they had left an old running snowblower, some weed whackers and some other little stuff. So I would take them apart and find what was wrong and put them back together and fix them. That's how I kind of got started. Then when we first moved here, I got a little lawn tractor as kind of a Christmas present from my parents — they helped kind of start me out. We used it to plow snow and it had a little plow blade on the front. I sold that one and then I just started getting into stuff like this where I rebuild and restore tractor engines and transmissions.
How do you learn new things?
I've learned a lot of stuff from a lot of people that I know. I've watched some stuff on YouTube, but I don't use that a lot. I normally ask neighbors that are pretty good with old engines and transmissions on these old Farmalls. Sometimes they can be really nice to come and help me. I have to see things when they're complete, because then when I take them apart I can see how they go. If they're already taken apart, I won't be able to see it, and won't remember. So usually it's just kind of a combination of those three things, is how I figure out new things.
Have you ever felt after taking a tractor apart that you wouldn't be able to put it back together?
No. I don't really worry about that. I found actually, that engines aren't that hard for me, because I just find them very easy to take apart and put back together. I've ripped into — let me think — eight engines, and ripped down into them. So I've seen how they go and I've practiced a bunch. I've practiced retiming the engines, and that's kind of my biggest thing because it's easy to put him back together. For me, the hardest part is timing, so they'll run right.
Have you though about doing this for a career?
Maybe. I think that if I ever did want to do it, I obviously want to expand, and probably get a bigger heated shop and maybe get like some nicer tools. Right now my dad just lets me use his tools, which is really nice of him. Then I'd probably want to start getting into more heavy equipment. But maybe like some smaller bulldozers or pay loaders or something.
Did you know there's a national shortage of trained mechanics?
I'll be thinking about it. I kind of want to do part-time farming, because I do love farming. I could also have the big shed then, to put my machines to do stuff on the farm with, and I could still fix and sell them. That's what we do here. My dad uses my machines, and we use them to haul hay around feed the animals. In return, he kind of lets me just do whatever I want in the shed.
What's your favorite part about working on a tractor?
I honestly really like the engines because I've always liked engines, more than transmissions, because it's just so satisfying once you put them back together and you work super hard. And then you see them fire right up and run right. It's just pretty satisfying to see.
What's your favorite tractor?
The favorite one I've ever owned would probably be my Allis Chalmers 190. That one had some engine issues, and it didn't have the best power on the engine, like it was starting to go out a little bit. But even then, it was still a really good tractor. I know that we used it all winter, and we would have a three-point on the back. We had a bale spear for it, and back up into bales and pick them up, take them out to the cows and horses. I liked how it was balanced, too, I didn't feel like it was tippy and I didn't feel like it was really light. It would plow right through the snow.
This Farmall C is kind of my special tractor. It's the first one I ever completely rebuilt. And I'd like to kind of maybe keep that one. I have it listed, but I've not been able to really get anybody interested in it, because the back tires aren't the best, and the transmission leaks some oil. I've been thinking about maybe keeping that one and restoring it, or doing the transmission and sheet metal and paint.
You helped restore an old school bus not too long ago, is that right?
We bought an old school bus to convert to an RV. I didn't really need to do much engine work because it was already sort of running. I did change all the oil. And I figured out how hard it was to get under a bus. I've changed some other transmission related stuff on it, and I've had to refill a couple of things, and then I redid the interior. I do kind of like carpentry also. I built some beds, and put it in kitchens and electrical, some plumbing. A couple things like that.