A man calls from Florida saying he needs a brake for a 1935 John Deere tractor. “No problem, we’ll ship it right out.”
Another guy e-mails from Australia and wants four mufflers for his John Deere B tractors. “We’ll get them to you right away.”
Sharp’s Antique Tractor Works in the Fair Grove area is known throughout the world as a company that can manufacture or rebuild just about anything for antique John Deere tractors.
Now, if you want some parts for a 1985 tractor, that’s a different story. “We don’t manufacture parts for any tractor newer than 1960,” said Donnie Sharp, who, along with is wife Melanie, owns and operates the company.
For one thing, the latest equipment they have was made in 1964; their oldest equipment was manufactured in 1904. Offhand, one might think there wouldn’t be enough business available from owners of these old tractors.
On the contrary, there are millions of John Deere tractors all over the world, and owners will pay well for the parts they need to keep the tractors running.
Donnie said the longest running single tractor model was the Model D, from 1923 to 1954. When some customers call in they want to talk with Donnie because they believe women don’t know much about tractors.
Guess again — Melanie knows about as much as Donnie, if not more.
“My father was in the construction business,” she said. “I grew up around equipment.”
Melanie’s favorite tractor is a 1956 John Deere 820 that Donnie gave her for Mother’s Day 20 years ago. It has two motors; the Pony motor, which has four cylinders, is a gas motor that is used to start the big diesel motor.
“This was the 200th of this model that John Deere made,” she said, adding that the tractor, which weighs 8,500 pounds, is used to run the sawmill, to round-bale hay and for tractor pulls. “It will run all day on five gallons of diesel,” Melanie said.
Donnie has been fixing and repairing equipment since he was a kid, and got his first tractor, a 1941 Model D, when he was 15. Donnie used to restore a lot of old tractors, but rarely does that anymore — they’re too busy manufacturing and shipping parts.
Approximately 90 percent of their business is over the Internet, and they advertise only in Green magazine, which is a monthly publication for John Deere enthusiasts. Melanie knows all of the tractors parts forward and backward, so she takes care of the website.
Their daughter, Megan, a senior at Missouri State University, helps with the advertising. Two other people are employed at the company. Many years ago when he was restoring an antique tractor the thought hit him, “If I need that particular part, I’ll bet somebody else does, too.”
And that’s how he got started. He finds some parts from tractors in junk piles, and he also sometimes buys an old tractor just so he can get parts from which to make patterns. It’s not unusual for him to buy a tractor just for one part. Then, too, he buys some parts from a specialty manufacturer in the area.
“We get calls for an oddball part for a tractor that they made only 12 of,” Donnie said.
One problem is finding a pattern for a certain part; once he has that, he can replicate and manufacture more of them.
“I usually don’t make parts until I restore a tractor that has that part,” he said. “I want to make sure it fits and the tractor runs well.”
Indeed, all of the company’s products are tested on their tractors (they have approximately 1,000 salvage tractors). Monarch Machine, of Springfield, used to do most of the boring for Sharp’s, and when it went out of business Donnie purchased its boring machine. He also bought a hydraulic press from Monarch Machine.
Twenty-five years ago Donnie bought a 1906 lathe for machining round parts, and he rebuilt and restored it. The equipment is working like a charm today. They also bought a 1950s-era press brake that cost $3,000 to get it moved three miles.
“A new one would cost $1 million,” he said. Every once in a while the Sharps get a request for an after-market product. For instance, there is one model that never had a dipstick, so Donnie found an old dipstick and re-cast it into one that would fit that model.
They make a lot of mufflers for the John Deere B and sell them for $59. “John Deere charges $75,” he said.
One would think Donnie and Melanie Sharp would suffer “burnout” — they work from 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, then take care of their farm on Saturday.
They have about 50 registered Texas Longhorns and grow their own hay. Then there are those occasional tractor pulls on Saturday nights. They do rest on Sunday, but they could never make it through the other six days unless they love what they do.
Indeed, Donnie and Melanie were high school sweethearts at Fair Grove and have been working together for a long time. They are on the same wave length — tractors and tractor parts.