Harvesting a Hobby in Hendersonville
Restoring vintage tractors keeps couple busy in retirement
By Matt Rose
When Steve and Judi Levinson come to Hendersonville from Florida for the summer, the mountains promise more for them than cool breezes and sweeping vistas. “We both enjoy driving around North Carolina to find tractors,” explains Judi, adding, with a smile, “Steve suffers from ‘TAS’ — Tractor Acquisition Syndrome.”
The Levinsons found their first tractor in Asheville a few years ago. It was a Ford Model N from 1949, now joined by 17 others that the couple has collected and housed in the pavilion of what was once a public park, now part of their property.
Tractors built by Farmall, Massey Ferguson, John Deere and more obscure manufacturers such as B.F. Avery fill the space. “This year, we added pull-down plastic curtains to protect the machines from the elements,” says Steve, “and exhaust fans so the tractors can run without asphyxiating the occupants, plus a security system.” All the tractors are in working condition, thanks to Steve’s effort and much help from locals who are infected with the same enthusiasm that afflicts the Levinsons, now both in their mid-60s but still active in real-estate-development projects in the county.
It was Steve who first got the tractor bug, during his childhood in Israel, when his father moved the family from the city to a farm. It wasn’t long before Steve was driving the machines, mostly American-made Fords, International Harvesters and Allis-Chalmers, planting the seed that would sprout nearly 50 years later on a country road half a world away in Western North Carolina. He met Judi in Miami in 1980 and eventually discovered Hendersonville, where his tractor obsession was reinvigorated during the couple’s search for a summer home. When not fussing over their tractors, the Levinsons have been buying and renovating foreclosed homes in Henderson County to turn into rentals. “We both flunked retirement,” says Judi, the former vice president of student affairs at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale. Likewise, Steve left behind a successful career buying and rehabilitating South Beach hotels and apartment buildings for commercial use. Besides the tractors, he also collects watches and knives, while she searches out World War II memorabilia related to Miami Beach, much of which has been donated to museums for safekeeping.
Steve and Judi Levinson's 17 vintage tractors are all in working condition. Judi says her husband Steve is afflicted with “TAS”— Tractor Acquisition Syndrome.
The Levinsons find the tractors through classified ads, word of mouth, or just by driving around the mountains keeping a sharp eye out for possible acquisitions. This has sparked some back-road adventures, like the time an owner who met them in Hendersonville led them deep into the countryside to his machine. “We drove and drove, while I tried desperately to make notes so we could find our way back to civilization,” Judi remembers. “As he unlocked a chained gate deep in the woods, we had visions of Deliverance and vowed to bring a gun with us on future buying excursions.” But it was all worth it, as it turned out, with a tractor in mint condition that came with ten accessory attachments and a plow.
Every tractor in the collection has been restored using authentic vintage parts as much as possible, and replica replacements made by fellow enthusiasts where necessary. The Levinsons only consider a purchase if they can verify the tractor is all original, with a traceable serial number and no evident welding or cracks. Steve’s favorite is the 1950 John Deere Model A he and Judi found in nearly perfect original condition, while Judi favors a 1939 John Deere Model L, modified for parade use with a transmission reduction box and a side clutch. “It can be safely driven by a four-year-old,” she claims.
The tractor collection isn’t just for the couple’s own pleasure, though. They frequently invite groups like Hendersonville’s Carriage Park Ramblers or organizations dedicated to Henderson County’s agricultural heritage to visit and picnic at the site. All the tractors have informational signs about their provenance and manufacturing background. “We also encourage friends to bring their grandchildren to ride the tractors,” says Judi. “We’re amazed at how many people have fond memories of tractors from their youth, and get very excited to see them on display in beautiful restored condition.”