When the tractor first rolled into the Colcord FFA shop building, FFA Advisor Josh Gilstrap wondered if the project would get the best of his students.

The 1974 Massey-Ferguson 135 had seen better days. In fact Benton Denny, Colcord FFA president, a middle schooler at the time, remembers it as "pile of scrap metal" without a motor or even tires and wheels.

"It was basically a blank canvas," Denny said. 

But the students persisted. Working together, under the direction of Gilstrap, they worked to rebuild the tractor.

It would eventually become the first of two Massey-Ferguson tractors to be restored by students.

The second, a 1974 Massey-Ferguson 175 owned by Gene Battiest, was recently featured on the cover of the May/June 2018 Antique Power magazine.

Since the magazine's publication, word has gotten out about the chapter's emphasis on tractor restoration. 

Gilstrap jokes he's fielded numerous calls from people asking if students would be interested in turning junk tractors into something new.

He said at least two other tractors may be coming to the department, a Ford from Stilwell and a 1934 Farmall from a farm in Jay.

"We have plenty of work ahead of us," Gilstrap said with a smile.

How it all began

Before becoming the FFA Advisor at Colcord, Gilstrap owned a shop where he would often rebuild tractors. 

"It was in my wheel house," Gilstrop said, adding he used his past experiences to design an ag program with hands-on experiences for his students.

To rebuild the tractor, students developed goals and a budget of $5,000 to start the process. It took a bit for the project to gain momentum. But eventually students set a date to have it completed - at the 2018 spring banquet.

"We owned the tractor for five years," Denny said. "It's only been in the last two to three years we've been slowly putting stuff together."

To help with the restoration of the 135, students purchased a second tractor to serve as parts for the project.

"We would rob parts off of the other tractor to get the motor running," Denny said, explaining that other parts were taken off the tractor and sandblasted clean, or rebuilt.

The students only purchased parts as needed.

It took more than 1,000 hours of work, during the school year, and weekends to complete the first tractor by the start of the 2017-18 school year.

The second restoration project, the 175 Massey-Ferguson project began in the Fall of 2017.

Gilstrap said that tractor's restoration was not as extensive as the first, only needing new paint, replacement parts and other cosmetic touches.

The first tractor, once owned by the Jenks family, would go on to be a fundraising component for the restoration project - with tickets being sold for $100 each.

Students sold 125 tickets. After restoration costs were taken into account, they brought in at least $4,000 to help finance the next projects. 

A member of the Jenks' family, living in Alaska purchased the winning ticket.

"People may think that it was rigged, but it wasn't," Gilstrap said, adding the family purchased multiple tickets after seeing the students' work.

"It was nostalgic for the family, as they watched the process," Gilstrap said, adding many remembered riding on the tractor during their childhood. "A lot of family members were contributors [to the ticket sales]. Most just bought one."

Members of the Colcord FFA Alumni Chapter have partnered with the current students, managing the restoration project's finances - so the monies are kept separate from other school funds. 

This system, Gilstrap said, not only keeps FFA steak holders involved, but it also creates a check and balance system for the restoration projects.

Behind the projects

Gilstrap said the idea behind the project is simple - give his students an experience not found through lectures.

"If they can see it, take it apart, they will learn about it," Gilstrap said. "It's easier for me to show them things then to teach them out of a book.

"These are things they will remember. We're giving them experiences to learn from."

Gilstrap hopes this helps his students discover alternative paths to higher education, including trade schools and other technical colleges.

"There's a lot who like to turn wrenches," Gilstrap said. "We're teaching them to either make money or save money. 

"They are either going to either make a living doing this, or learn how to do enough to not pay someone else for it."

Ultimately, Gilstrap sees the project as more than metal work.

"There's life lessons they can learn from [this]," Gilstrap said. "Almost more important than the actual mechanical part is teaching them to become financially sound.

"You don't want to get into a project and get upside down on something - which is easy to do with farm machinery."

Gilstrap said the multiple layers to the project encouraged students to look at it through a variety of lenses, including how to be good stewards of the tools provided to the department through community support.

Several students, including Potter and Tyler Duncan, said they learned patience - and to ask for help, rather than just doing something. 

Others, like Denny learned not to judge a "book by its cover."

"The first tractor was pretty rough," Denny said. "We just had to trust Gilstrap's words, and that he would lead us in the right direction. We also learned when he tells us something, to learn how to do it the right way."

What's next

 This summer, the students began their next project rebuilding a John Deere 1520 previously owned by Myron Lucas. 

The tractor, which is currently inoperable, is a complete restoration project. Students will not only need to replace missing parts, but also repair parts damaged when the tractor was covered by a flooded creek. Extensive cosmetic work is also needed.

"It rolled into the shop on a fork lift," Gilstrap said. 

As other tractors are donated to the program, Gilstrap has worked out an arrangement with the local museum to house the vehicles in trade for students' labor around the facility.

He said he would like his classes to complete a tractor each year - but says the learning will depend upon the interest of his students.