Tilling up talent: Perham man cultivates hidden skill for unconventional art
A few miles north of Perham, past Little Pine Lake, resides an everyday man with an extraordinary collection. Dozens of antique tractors are housed inside his modest home; there are Minneapolis-Molines, antique steam threshers, Farmalls and John Deeres from every era. While they're solid steel, they never harvested crops or plowed snow; they're models handmade by Rod Swanson.
When Swanson, 78, retired after working road construction 80 hours a week his whole life, he needed to find a hobby. After attending the Thresherman's Reunion in Rollag with his grandson every year, Swanson thought he'd try making his own tractors.
After years of practice, Swanson's skills— and his tractor collection — keep on growing.
Swanson starts each project with raw, scrap steel he purchases in rods and sheets from a galvanizer in Fargo.
"What they call scrap is gold to me," he said in his gruff voice. "If it wasn't for that, I couldn't afford to buy the stuff."
Working on four at a time, he references over 50 pictures to include tiny oil filters, hoses and plugs. Swanson then toils away in his shop for three to four months at a time before he emerges with each finished set. Swanson numbers each set with magic marker, writing its number, the date and his signature underneath.
Swanson's "whatever it takes to get it done," mentality means he added a whole new wing to his pole barn to fit all of the tools he's added over time. From milling machines to steel saws and two lathes, Swanson has everything he needs to get into each tractors finest detail.
To a visitor, the shop would appear a mess of tools and metal dust, but Swanson, knowing it like the back of his hand, navigates through it swiftly, pointing out what is what. A closer looks show that the shop is actually perfectly organized. Swanson stopped at a massive lathe with belts sticking out of the top. "This is older than me, and your dad, and you," he said laughing.
"Some people say, 'Oh what the hell' you know, and other people say 'Where do you get the kits,'" Swanson said.
After all that work, they just accumulate in his home; it's rare he gives them away, let alone sells any.
"I don't sell anything. I wouldn't know how to put a price on them," he said. With each one weighing over 30 pounds, shipping them is nearly impossible, and Swanson just doesn't see a market for them. "I have $250 to $300 in each one, people wouldn't pay. The right guy might, if someone had that specific one."
"He's got so many," Swanson's Daughter Jodi Sjolie said. "The house is going to cave in, why are you making more?" she asked her father.
Swanson's stinginess means those that are lucky enough to own one of his creations cherish them deeply. "He doesn't just hand them out," Sjolie said. "It's evolved into a pastime, not a money maker."
Sjolie remembers each Christmas there would be a drawing between all the kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to win one of the tractors. Now Swanson has given them to everyone in the family, including some painted hot pink for his granddaughters.
"I don't know what's going to happen to them when I decide to leave the world," Swanson said. "The kids got what they want now, and they think some of them are stupid that I keep."
Two shelves are filled with a model from each set with a region of his basement reserved for the rest. Looking at the whole collection at once, it's evident how his skills have refined over the years. The first tractors were crude with logos and model numbers handwritten with marker. Now he uses stickers for the logos and orders custom paint colors to get everything perfect.
"He did road construction his whole life; we never saw talent like that before," Sjolie said. "He really has to keep busy, it's kind of like a job to him. He thinks about it all the time and can't let it go until they're done."
"I don't know what my theory is why I want so many," Swanson said. "They're all over the place."
Swanson said his daughter thinks of them as dust collectors. "When my daughter comes home she cleans, and I just hide out in the shop and look the other way," Swanson said.
"We're really grateful, and think it's cool, but I have to dust them." Sjolie says laughing.