The Thieman tractor: The story of Harold and his hearse
Every now and then, our auction partners post stuff on Tractor Zoom that might be stretching it a bit. For instance, last month, an auctioneer listed an ancient tugboat. Last year, I remember seeing a few Corvettes, an RV or two, and a couple of restored Chevelles. Heck, I even wrote about a Ford Galaxy that Matt Maring sold way back when Interesting Iron was just an email!
But we’ve never had a hearse listed before. Yep, you read that right.
Made out of a tractor.
By a man called Harold.
Now, I haven’t done a ton of research on topics like this, but I think this could be the world’s only actual hearse constructed from a tractor.
Furthermore, Harold didn’t use just any old garden variety Farmall or John Deere. Nope, he built it from a fairly obscure tractor that’s actually pretty interesting in and of itself.
He used a Thieman.
This tractor began life as a big wooden crate full of parts shipped to a farmer to assemble in the 1930s. When Harold rescued it from a boneyard in Sioux City, it was a basket case that had to be loaded on the trailer with a forklift! Now it looks like this! Click the photo to see the Tractor Zoom listing for this one!
What’s a Thieman? (pronounced “Tee-min,” by the way)
Well, it’s the last name of five industrious brothers from Albert City, Iowa, who started the Thieman Harvester Co. in 1921. They built a variety of things — everything from silage harvesters to tractors, and even burial vaults. The main goal was to build quality products at affordable prices — a welcome relief, given the hardships that farmers faced in the 1930s.
The tractor was the brainchild of William B. Thieman, the company’s president, general manager, and inventor. From what I’m told, he was the kind of guy who could see a concept in his head, build it in the shop, and then manage a product rollout. In 1929, he began experimenting with a tractor built around the idea of cheap, economical horsepower. It was pretty rudimentary, but after three years of design and testing, they began selling it in 1932. Thieman sourced most of the important parts from salvaged Fords; it used a Model A engine, driveshaft, and rear end. I’m fairly sure the transmission was a three-speed from Ford, too.
Most Thieman tractors used Ford Model A engines. Harold decided to pay tribute to that with his hearse.
The Ikea Method... Before Ikea did it!
Thieman had an interesting model for selling these tractors, too; they were all sold as build-it-yourself kits (just like Ikea does today with just about everything they sell). For about $500, the kit came in a big wooden crate with everything needed to put the tractor together (including salvaged Model A parts).
However, if a farmer wanted to save money and source his own parts, Thieman also sold the kit for $185 without a motor, driveshaft, or rear end. The instructions told the farmer to use a motor from one of the Big Three. That said, I’m sure that somewhere, some farmer probably pulled a Farmall four-banger from an F-20 and made it fit, too.
Because of the way they were sold, and because the engines were all sourced from the scrapyard, each Thieman tractor was somewhat unique. If you find one at a tractor show today, who knows what you’ll find between the frame rails! I’ve heard of flathead V-8s being used, and as I’m writing this, I’m sure somebody’s wondering if they could shoehorn an old 5.9 Cummins under the hood...
Most of the $500 Thieman tractors are painted red like the one below. If you see one that’s painted another color, that was one of the $185 kits. As I understand it, those were not painted before leaving the factory.
Gary Alan Nelson is an unbelievably talented photographer from Minnesota. Here, he captures a 1936 Thieman tractor in the afternoon sun. Click the photo to see more of his work... it's utterly gorgeous!
By 1936, the Thieman tractor had gathered some steam. The factory in Albert City was running around the clock to put these kits together and get ’em out the door. When I say around the clock, I’m not kidding: Thieman never turned the lights off in the factory. They employed over 150 people at one point!
Thieman tractors were, for their time, fairly powerful. The Model A motor made about 40 horse, so that put them in a fairly good position — especially given the cost of the competition! Over time, Thieman added a few well-received upgrades; $123 would get you rubber wheels all the way around, $7 would get you an air cleaner, $9 would get you a combination drawbar, and $15 would get you a governor.
That last option — the governor — was money well spent, in my opinion. These are pretty lightweight tractors, and from what I’m told (I’ve never driven one), it was easy to flip the tractor over backwards if your foot slipped off the clutch!
The Thieman tractor also does deserve a spot in the history books for a mechanical innovation they put into production before anybody else. They fitted their tractors with a starter! No more spinning the flywheel to start the motor!
Sadly, Thieman Harvester Co. came to an abrupt end in the early ’40s. Several of the five Thieman brothers passed away at a relatively young age; in fact, none of the brothers lived to see their 60th birthday. Furthermore, the war effort brought on a steel shortage, making it all but impossible for the small tractor builder to source materials.
At the end of the day, nobody really knows how many Thieman tractor kits were sold; most estimates are in the 4,000 to 5000 neighborhood. The company changed hands twice before it shut the doors for good in 1944. At some point, those records must have been lost or (more likely) destroyed. Either way, it’s a shame.
Thieman never set out to set the farming world on fire, because that wasn’t really what America’s farmers needed during the ’30s. They simply needed to get by, and put food on their tables.
Thieman tractors weren’t super-stylish; they were cobbled together using secondhand parts pulled out of junkyards, fencerows, and junk piles. But they helped many farmers through some awfully lean years when providing for a family was a struggle.
Furthermore, the Thieman brothers employed hundreds of people around Albert City, and helped keep their town from being wiped off the map during the Great Depression! That’s a pretty noble cause in my book! (Even if the tractors did tip over once in a while!)
Harold and His Hearse
First, some video.
Harold Boquist is the guy behind this neat Thieman tractor hearse creation, and I chatted with him for a few minutes tonight after dinner. He’s a super-nice guy with a great sense of humor, as you'll find out later on...
The first question I asked him was simply, “Why?” He said, “Y’know, my wife and I have watched old Westerns for years, and you always see the horse-drawn hearse in the funeral scenes. Well, this isn’t much different... just updated a few years!”
Harold went on to tell me that he’d been a Thieman collector for years. At one point, he had 10 of ’em! He sold most of them a few years ago at an auction hosted by our friends at Nixon Auctioneers.
Over time, he’s whittled the collection down to just a couple projects that he and his wife have really enjoyed — this Thieman, and an Empire tractor (that hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to show you at some point in the future). Empire tractors are pretty interesting, and his is probably the most unique one left!
The Hearse Project
At any rate, Harold’s had a thing for Thieman tractors for a long time. The company’s ideology — helping farmers get by when times were really tough — is one he really believes in. This particular Thieman was rotting away in a boneyard in Sioux City until he and his wife rescued it back in 2012. “It wasn’t much when we got it,” he said, “They put it on my trailer with a big forklift!”
The Nuts & Bolts of the Build
Over the next year, Harold transformed it from a basket case to what you see here. “It really wasn’t all that hard,” he told me. “Thiemans are easy to modify, and the driveline is a pretty simple thing to mess with, too.”
He lengthened the chassis by about 14 or 15 feet so he could install a second transmission back-to-back with the first one. “I needed a lower set of gears so I could creep it up onto a trailer,” he said, “They’re not much for road gears, so if we were going to put it on display, we had to trailer it there. The extra gears really helped with that.”
He further explained that he swapped out the original tricycle front end to a wide-front axle to make it more stable (I believe that also came from a Model A). Once he’d built the frame, he turned to the cosmetic side, and the wooden/glass chamber. All of that is hand-built, and he even built a coffin and put it in the chamber!
Harold did all the work himself, from welding to fabrication, even the paint and cosmetics. He did a pretty darn nice job, too, from where I sit! This is a very well-engineered project! When I asked him what his favorite part of the project was, he said, “I think we enjoyed showing it more than anything. We really got around with this thing!”
When Harold said that they got around in this thing, he wasn't kidding. This is one of a handful of "Best In Show" honors the hearse took home from gatherings! Click the photo to see more of this award-winning tractor/hearse!
In all actuality, though, Harold built this Thieman tractor hearse for his own funeral. Both he and his wife had planned on taking one last ride in it. However, as time went on, they felt that perhaps somebody else should enjoy it. Reading between the lines a little bit, I felt like maybe they didn’t want the next owner to feel weird knowing that it had actually served its intended purpose.
I get that. As a buyer, that might make me feel a little weird, too.
If you told me a year ago that I’d write a column about a tractor turned hearse, I’d have probably laughed at you. Yet... here we are. That said, I’ve learned to never say never. This must be one of the most unique tractors I’ve ever seen, and I’m really glad that I talked to Harold about it.
What’s it Worth?
I couldn’t even begin to guess. Hopefully it’s worth a small fortune, and that whomever ends up buying it will appreciate it — and the story of it — as much as I have! Bidding doesn’t open up for another few days, and the auction doesn’t close until July 21, 2021, so there’s plenty of time for it to travel around the internet a little. It will be fun to watch it sell, and I know Harold will be excited to see who takes it home!
(I do have somebody in mind for this tractor. I’m not sure if he’ll bite on it or not, but if there’s one guy on this planet who really NEEDS this tractor...it’s a certain Super Farm puller who lives near Rossville, Illinois.)
For those of you who follow the NTPA Grand National Super Farms, here’s your clue.
Auctioneer: Sweeney Auction & Realty - Greeley, Nebraska