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Tractor X: Farmer Saves Ford’s Only Surviving Prototype

Jul 18, 2023Jul 18, 2023

Henry Ford’s lost child lives.

The last tractor survivor hides between low hills and farmland outside Rosewood, Ohio. Inside a metal barn, gleaming in customary gray and red, sits Henry Ford’s fabled 9-X, the sole remaining prototype from the monumental 1916 drive to build the first mass-produced tractor.

The 9-X has good company. Gleaming in customary gray and red paint, it fronts a chain of over 22 Fordson tractors aligned by year of manufacture—representing one of America’s most historically significant agriculture equipment collections.

The unlikely 100-year survival of the immaculate 9-X despite thievery, rust, weeds, and skeletonization may be a tale of predestination for its owner Duane Helman—equal parts businessman, engineer, farmer, and antiquarian. His remarkable ag machinery collection is a labor of love, amassed over 60 years and punctuated by the 9-X.

“Are some objects meant to find someone? I was given the opportunity, wisdom, resources, and the time to take care of the 9-X,” says Helman. “Maybe it came home, but I’ll leave that for others to decide.”

Down the Rabbit Hole

Duane Helman, 81, was born to collect.

Helman grew up on farmland split between corn, soybeans, wheat, and pasture in west-central Ohio’s Shelby County, but beyond the rows, he spent his days roaming a junkyard, dragging home endless bits of carrion. “As a little boy, I built my first bicycle straight from the junkpile by parting it. To this day, I still remember sitting on the front porch of our house, waiting for the mailman to bring tires and tubes ordered out of Sears and Roebuck.”

“That’s the way God made my mind,” he describes. “I was always a mechanical-type guy—never an academic.”

Into adulthood, while farming on the side, Helman harnessed his skills to the tool-and-die industry, establishing a highly successful business: Rosewood Machine and Tool Company.

In 1965, Helman began restoring antique cars and trucks, but the hobby pulled hard on his pocketbook. “I went back to cars later, but at that point in my young life I needed to focus on something cheaper and something that kept me locked into my farming roots.”

Solution? Fordson tractors.

“They were old and nubby-looking, but incredible tractors,” Helman says. “I could afford to buy a few, so I decided to learn all I could and dove in.”

Sincerely. Helman, along with help from the Zilm family of Minnesota, emerged from the rabbit hole as the single most knowledgeable Fordson expert on record. His large collection of Fordson tractors is housed in barns and buildings behind his rural home.

How many Fordsons does Helman own? “I don’t care about numbers,” he says. “I quit counting.”

Early and Rare

In 1916, as Model T cars spilled off Ford Motor Co.’s assembly line, farm-raised Henry Ford, 53, was at the culmination of a tractor for the masses. The idiosyncratic Ford was intent on providing a tractor to U.S. farmers, as well as filling a deep market need for a Europe neck-deep in the carnage of World War l.

Sixteen prototypes were built in Dearborn, Mich., each test-tractor designated X followed by the numeral of its production, i.e., the 16 tractors were dubbed X-1 through X-16, with the letter-number combination stamped on the engine block. The success of the initial 16 Fordson (abbreviation of Ford & Son) prototypes birthed the first mass-produced tractor in history.

Starting in 1917, Ford Motor Co. churned out no-frill Fordson tractors—gray bodies and red wheels. “All of a sudden, a tractor was available to anyone—lightweight and low priced,” Helman explains. “When they came out, you could buy one for $400-$500, but they got down to $395 brand new. In about 1927, the production plant was moved to Ireland and England and they changed the color to blue bodies and orange wheels, but those early ones held all the magic.”

“In the 1960s, I started looking for those old Fordsons. It was easy to find them east of the Mississippi, rusting on a fencerow, but I wanted the nice ones. I started going to swap meets in Iowa and Minnesota, hauling home trailer loads of cheap parts.”

“I wanted to find the earliest and the rarest Fordsons,” he adds.

Enter the 9-X.

Dropping the Bomb

For decades, a peculiar tractor sat behind the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn, Mich.

Gathering weeds and rust, the tractor was the last of Ford’s X tractor series, with a “9-X” tattooed on its block. Instead of basking in honor, the 9-X was exposed to the elements and theft.

“At some point in the 1970s, the Ford Museum had an antique tractor and gas engine show, and the event was held about 300’ right from where the 9-X was sitting,” Helman recalls. “People that go to those shows are 97% good, but there’s about 3% rats too. During the show, the rats went out and stole the manifold off the 9-X. The longer it sat, the more parts could be stolen.”

In roughly 1983, according to Helman, the Ford Museum auctioned off a portion of its surplus. The 9-X went on the block. “The Ford people pulled it out of the weeds and sold it to Cecil Church of southern Illinois for $600. I read about it in a magazine article, but I didn’t think I’d ever lay eyes on it.”

Fast forward to the late 1980s or early 1990s. Helman was on the floor of a tractor show in Waukee, Iowa, and spotted a Fordson radiator. Helman bought the radiator and as he paid, the seller asked the traditional icebreaker, “What do you collect?”

Helman grinned and shot back a three-word answer, “Fordsons, of course.”

Unbeknownst to Helman, the seller was Cecil Church—and Church dropped a bomb: “Have you ever heard of a 9-X tractor?”

Reborn In Red and Gray

Momentarily stunned by the mention of a 9-X, Helman responded, barely concealing his excitement: “You bet I’ve heard of it.”

“I own it,” Church declared. “It’s for sale”

“Done,” shot back Helman. “You just sold it.”

Days later, out of Iowa and into southern Illinois, Helman picked up his purchase. “The whole thing fell in my lap. I wasn’t on the hunt or even hoping. I was at the swap meet and stumbled into the right guy. I remember how much I paid, but I’m not telling,” Helman laughs. “I found the nugget of my collecting life.”

Despite its “ugly blue” paint job, and the lack of a carburetor and manifold, Helman was thrilled with the condition of the 9-X. “This was no pile of junk; almost all the parts were there,” he notes. “I got it running, sandblasted, painted to original red and gray, and it was ready for the shows.”

And the first show? Helman took it straight to Dearborn and the Ford Museum. “We parked it about 200’ from where it’d languished in the weeds for all those years. Cleaned, restored, and repainted. The 9-X was reborn.”

The Blessed Man

Helman’s buildings and barns are a time capsule filled with historic farming equipment: Fordson tractors, Gleaner combines, corn pickers, sickle bar mowers, cultivators, road rollers, cars, trucks, bicycles, toys, and more—much, much more.

The Fordson collection stands at attention in rows, parked in sequence from 1917 to 1938—with the 9-X first in line as lead dog. Beyond the 9-X, the assembly contains other rare specimens, such as a new, pristine 1925 Fordson never used a single time.

“I’m a collector and I can’t offer much explanation beyond that,” Helman says. “I’ve saved Ford stuff my whole life. I love the 9-X, but my favorite piece was the next thing I found and I was always grateful for the opportunity. Restoring the old things made me appreciate my many blessings even more.”

Helman is a simple and satisfied man. At 81, his body is winding down, ravaged by a rare leukemia.

“The tractors are only a collection of things—and they won’t go with me,” he says. “My family is welcome to do with them as they please. My wife, Carolyn, and my kids are what matter to me. Cancer has pretty much worn my body out, but cancer can’t change the wonderful, blessed life I’ve had. Jesus is my Savior and God has been so good to me.”

“I’m just a man appreciative of so much in life, including my collection of tractors. I’ve spent many an hour just sitting with those tractors, deeply thankful.”

After 60-plus years on the collecting hunt, did a particular tractor escape Helman’s grasp?

“It turns out there was never a tractor I wanted that I didn’t find,” he adds. “I found them all, including the special 9-X, and what a pleasure it’s been.”

Postscript: In June 2023, Duane Helman was laid to rest. Per his obituary: What Duane did not speak of was his generosity. He took the fruits of his success in one hand and gave it away with the other, to an extent to which no one will ever know. Duane spent the duration of his illness spreading the love of Christ and pointing everyone he met to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Rest in peace to a first-class gentleman and farmer forever.

For more from Chris Bennett ([email protected] 662-592-1106) see:

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