End of an era at Farmers Supply

By Mary Marek
Posted 5/20/99

Kalona is no stranger to tourism. Out-of-state license plates are as common as horse-drawn buggies in downtown Kalona and busloads of tourists arrive several times a week during the summer months. …

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End of an era at Farmers Supply


Kalona is no stranger to tourism. Out-of-state license plates are as common as horse-drawn buggies in downtown Kalona and busloads of tourists arrive several times a week during the summer months. Several things draw the out-of-towners to our area; the Amish, of course, the antiques in the Historical Village and the quilts that Kalona has become famous for.

What many people in Kalona don’t know, is that there is another side to Kalona’s tourism industry, one that has nothing to do with horse-drawn vehicles, but focuses on horsepower of another type. Hundreds of Europeans a year, most of them from Austria and other German-speaking areas, chose Kalona as a stop on their American tours just so they can see the John Deere farm equipment at Farmers Supply Sales Inc.

Vernon Ropp, who recently retired after 41 years with the business started by his brother, Ernie in 1953, eagerly awaits the arrival of each group of tourists. Although he no longer works at the implement dealership, he still greets the tourists as they step off the bus. And, while he may not understand everything they say, his grasp of Pennsylvania Dutch, and a little help from an interpreter provided by the travel agency, makes communicating with the foreigners possible. Besides, everyone speaks “John Deere”.

Those who make up these tours are usually farmers and European John Deere dealers. While most of the people are familiar with the green machines, many models readily available in Kalona are unknown to them. It’s not unusual to see one of the tourists using a video recorder to take pictures of a riding lawn mower or a six-wheeled Gator while it is sitting perfectly still.

Seeing his place of business become a tourist attraction over the past four to five years is just one of many changes Ropp saw during his 41 years with Farmers Supply.

In the beginning

His brother, Ernie, started the business in 1953 as an Allis Chalmers dealership in what is now the B-4 Building in downtown Kalona. In 1958 he added the Massey Ferguson line and bought the John Deere contract from Lester Gates and his sons, Bob and Kimball. The Gates business was located in the present day Miller’s Medicine Cabinet and Kalona Furniture location.

When he expanded his equipment lines, Ropp asked his brother, Vernon to come to work as his bookkeeper. A short while later, the parts man became ill and Vernon took over those duties as well. He handled both positions for about a year, until Ernie hired a bookkeeper and a parts man and asked Vernon to assist him with sales.

Vernon remembers those early days well, when parts and machinery came to Kalona by rail and were unloaded at the old depot that now resides in the Kalona Historical Village.

Industry changes

In those days, there were several implement manufacturers in the United States: International Harvester, Case, Oliver, Massey Ferguson, Minneapolis-Moline, Ford, Allis Chalmers and John Deere, among others. Over the years, many companies have merged and some have disappeared altogether.

“Today, there’s only Case, Agco (formerly Allis Chalmers), John Deere and Ford, and Ford’s made by New Holland and isn’t even made in the United States,” Ropp said.

Equipment evolves

There have been many other changes in the farm equipment industry over the years.

“I remember when the 4-row corn planters came out. We thought they were really big,” Vernon said recently. “Now we sell 18- and 24-row planters. We sold a 31-row planter not long ago.”

August 10, 1972, the same time the new 30 series tractors with sound-guard body and air-conditioned cab were unveiled, Farmers Supply celebrated an Open House in their new quarters on Highway 22, on the east side of Kalona.

With the arrival of these new tractors, farmers were no longer vulnerable to all weather conditions, dirt and chemicals when they operated a tractor.

“Now a farmer could wear a suit and tie if he wanted to,” Ropp said, and stay clean while driving a tractor.

Ropp can also recite the evolution of the modern-day combine.

“Two-row mounted corn pickers were a big deal” when they came out, he said; a big step up from the old 2-row pull-type pickers. Nobody builds either model now and finding replacement parts can be a challenge.

Then came self-propelled combines with no cab, exposing the operator to all the dust and dirt of harvest.

Driving from Moline

Finally, in the early ‘60s, combines with cabs and 4-row heads were developed, making life a little more comfortable and safer for farmers, but creating a new problem for the dealership.

“We didn’t have a low-boy (trailer) and the cabs made them too tall for our straight truck,” Ropp explained, “so they had to be driven from Moline to Kalona,” a trip that often couldn’t be completed in a day.

When it got too dark to go on, the combine would be parked for the night, usually somewhere between Muscatine and Nichols, and the trip would be finished the next morning.

Driving a combine from Moline to Kalona was a pretty boring job, but Ropp had a few exciting moments. He remembers one time when boredom, and perhaps lack of sleep, caught up with him and he nodded off while driving along. He woke up when the combine went into a ditch, throwing him against the windshield.

He regained control of the machine and steered it through the ditch, into a field, along a fence, out the gate and back onto the highway and continued on his way.

An even more exciting moment occurred as he was crossing the Mississippi River on the old Highway 92 bridge.

The combine’s brakes locked and pulled the machine into the outside guard rail of the bridge. When Ropp was able to bring it to a stop, he could see nothing but water out the windshield.

“You haven’t driven a combine until you drive one over the Mississippi,” he said with a smile.


Farming and farm implements continue to change. There aren’t as many farmers today, as there were when Ernie and Vernon Ropp started in the business. Fewer farmers are farming bigger farms, calling for bigger equipment. Four-row combine heads are being replaced with 6-row, 8-row and even 12-row units.

Not only do cabs keep farmers cleaner; they are heated and air-conditioned. Tractors and combines may be equipped with computers that will tell the driver almost anything he wants to know about whatever task he’s performing, from applying chemicals to harvesting. He can know instantly how much chemical he’s using or how many bushels per acre his crops are making.

Today’s computer technology has added a new avenue to implement sales, too. Three semi-loads of equipment were sold recently to a dealer in Montana, with the entire transaction taking place over the phone and fax machine. Other contacts are made via the Internet, with equipment going as far away as Hawaii. One 2-row planter ended up in China, although that was not its original destination.


During his 41 years with the company, Ropp has gotten to know most of the farmers in Washington County and the southern half of Johnson County.

“I’m selling to the second and third generation of some families,” he said, “and hearing the same stories” about high costs and low farm prices that he heard from their fathers and grandfathers.

Vernon wants everyone to know he has appreciated their business and thanks all who attended the recent celebration of his retirement. “I want to thank everyone who came to the Open House or sent cards or flowers. I made a lot of friends here over the years.”

He said more than one person came up to him during the event and told him, “Everything I’ve got in my machine shed I got from you.” That loyalty was greatly appreciated by Vernon.


What is he going to do now that he’s retired? Ropp says he’s not worried about keeping busy. “I’ve already had calls to help with harvest,” he said. He also hopes to have more time to do volunteer work with Mennonite Disaster Services and MCC. He has previously traveled to Fargo, South Dakota and Del Rio and Saragosa, Texas, to help with flood and storm clean-ups. Considering the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma and Kansas, a trip out there isn’t out of the question.

In the meantime, he’s keeping busy and eagerly awaiting the next bus-load of tourists. And, for the first time since Ernie Ropp opened the implement company in 1953, no Ropp from his generation will be on hand to welcome customers when they come in. Ernie’s sons, Phil, Myron and Warren, will be on hand to serve future generations of Kalona farmers and Vernon’s sure they’re up to the challenge.