‘Every tractor has a story’Published 4:04pm Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Waltham shop grinds, wrenches new life into old machines
—This feature originally appeared in Progress 2013. Get a copy at the Austin Daily Herald office, 310 Second St. NE.
Outside of the big, old building, the scene looks like any old machinery repair shop. Tractors, lawnmowers and parts that have seen more weather than work lie waiting for someone to fix them, to do anything with them. Perhaps they are junk.
Even inside, the workers are covered in dirt, their hands caked in grease. But those laborers are bringing back to life pieces that tell stories from decades past. They’re the grimiest artists of any sort, wrenching, grinding, sanding and pounding for hours at Lee Sackett’s tractor restoration shop in Waltham. They may be mechanics, but they’re artists — keepers of time.
“Every tractor has its own story, and each customer has an emotional attachment to their own tractor,” Sackett said. “And I think that emotional attachment rubs off on us.”
By a stroke of luck, Sackett, 38, has a knack for awakening old rust buckets from the dead. Now he does it for a living, along with 17 others: his employees at Lee J. Sackett Inc. The run-down pieces keep arriving, waiting to be revived by Sackett and his fleet of artists.
Were there a slight shift in circumstances, the whole scene inside the building wouldn’t even be happening. With Sackett’s background, it shouldn’t be.
“I continued to look for jobs for a few years,” Sackett said, who now lives in Ellendale. “Eventually I stopped looking for jobs and started hiring people.”
Sackett, an an engineer and production manager, lost his job in 2002. As a way to fund his job search, he restored a tractor with the intent of selling it at a tractor show. But the first customer didn’t buy Sackett’s work. Instead, he asked Sackett to restore another tractor.
“So that’s when I felt I’d be able to restore another one,” Sackett said. From that point, 11 years ago, Lee hasn’t had time to finish his own projects.
“It’s the old saying: ‘The cobbler’s kid is the last to get shoes,’” he said.
Sackett hired his first employee in his second year of work. And the hoards of customers kept coming. He quickly started a website and now displays much of his work on Facebook.
Last year, Sackett and his employees completed 27 restorations. Since he started, his business has cycled through more than 175 projects. He even took on car restorations and now runs a shop in Ellendale. The work keeps coming, from farther away, too.
“We have customers from all over the U.S.,” Sackett said. “Last year, we hauled two tractors to Florida.”
In January, Sackett crunched numbers and attempted to land a customer in Switzerland. Somehow, he’ll make it happen. Even executives at Toro like Sackett’s work, so they hired him to restore several pieces for their 100th anniversary. At any given time, Sackett has 20 to 30 projects underway, with 20 to 30 more on deck.
“That’s why I keep hiring people because the work just keeps coming,” he said.
Yet some of Sackett’s best customers are right in his backyard, so to speak. By chance, again, Sheldon Sayles of rural Rose Creek bumped into Sackett at a tractor show in Owatonna in 2008.
Sayles has brought several projects to Sackett and is happy with the results. Sackett restored a tractor that belonged to Sayles’ father. Then Sackett helped Sayles find the same model of tractor Sayles’ grandfather used and restored it. Like everybody else, Sayles was tied up in the emotions of it. He wanted the stories back. He needed the illustrations.
“Each one of these projects, there’s a story behind it,” Sayles said. “It’s not something that’s economically feasible. It’s not something you do to resell because you could never resell it for what it cost you to do the project.”
As he does with every customer, Sackett took special care of Sayles’ projects. He didn’t keep any secrets or cut corners. Restoring machinery isn’t cut and dry. There are hiccups along the way. Sayles understands that, and he keeps going back to Sackett’s shop.
“We tease him that he’s our best customer,” Sackett said about Sayles.
About once a week, Sackett eats lunch with the guys at work. Besides restorations, Sackett offers more. The storefront, which he took over in 2007, orders and sells parts, another feature Sayles likes.
When little Waltham is quiet, Sacket’s shop is a bustling place. People are calling, wondering if their tractors — their stories — are progressing. Sackett is the editor. He’s busy, critiquing, tweaking and making sure all of them are done right.
Sackett started a tractor restoration business years ago, and it keeps growing and gathering more clients around the world.
Hobbies: Enjoys music, plays percussion and guitar, also plays hockey and likes to ski