AARON DAVIS – COLLECTOR/HISTORIAN OF AMIGO GARDEN TRACTORS
By Don Voelker
Published in LAGC Magazine, January & March 2010
Aaron Davis of Marshall, Michigan is an avid collector and historian of Amigo lawn and garden tractors. Being an enthusiast for these well-designed machines is a natural for him considering that his uncle, Max Hungerford invented and built them.
Aaron explained how he began collecting Amigos just a few years ago. While doing some research on the internet, he came across a posting that appeared on a tractor web site that said “Does anyone out there know anything about Amigo Garden tractors?” Aaron responded and posted “My Uncle designed, engineered, and manufactured the tractor in Dowagiac, Michigan.” The reply to Monica Cote resulted in an email from her sister Barbara Stafford stating that here husband Bill had two Amigos. Aaron got together with them and some questions came up that Aaron took to his Uncle Max for answers. At the end of the conversation, his Uncle Max asked him, “Aaron, don’t you have an Amigo?” Aaron replied, “No, don’t I wish.” His Uncle Max’s reply was, “Why don’t you buy one.” Aaron responded that they were scarce and one could not be found. His Uncle Max’s reply was, “Well, 4 years ago I put one out in my storage shed and if you would like it, it is yours.” Aaron’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. It was his first Amigo! A few days later, he and a friend, Bob Allison, went with a trailer to pick up the tractor.
As soon as Aaron got home with his new Amigo, he started checking it over. He discovered that the tractor was in good mechanical condition. The left front tire was soft, but it held air. The belt on the starter/generator needed to be tightened up. Aaron said “I didn’t attempt to start it. I just started taking it apart. I left the engine intact but took it out so I could clean everything separately. After hanging all of the separated parts on a mechanic’s wire out in the barn, I took pictures of them and traveled to my uncle’s home to help him clean his storage building.”
After proudly showing his uncle pictures of what he had done to the Amigo, Aaron went about the business of cleaning Max’s shed. About ten minutes later he was surprised when Max tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You know that other Amigo I have up at the house that I use if there is snow? (It was an Amigo model 1400) Well, if you would like that one it is yours too!” “Through the goodness of my Uncle I have two tractors that are very special to me because they were his personal tractors,” says Aaron. “One thing I will point out about the 1400, you will notice that it doesn’t have any die cast name plates on the hood. The only is in the front, which is original. Uncle Max told me that me that this tractor was used for research and development for making improvements.”
The factory, formed in Dowagiac, Michigan, was called DEMCO, for Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing Company and it consisted of three partners. Max Hungerford was the designer and engineer. Jerry Slocum headed the sales department and the third partner, Ben Schpok, took care of the business operations. The company operated from 1959 to 1968. Before garden tractors, DEMCO made a very high quality, top of the line, one-piece metal picture frame. The next product they manufactured was aftermarket starters primarily for David Bradley garden tractors. Sometime later, engine manufactures began installing their own starters. Consequently, DEMCO’s starter business evaporated. According to Max Hungerford, “We had to have something to make a living.”
Jerry Slocum told the other partners “You ought to build a garden tractor.” At that time Wheel Horse was just getting started and was one of a few out there making tractors. With nothing else to sell or build, Max sat down with a draftsman and told him what to draw. The Amigo garden tractor was born. Max said, “I had in my mind how the transmission was going to be. We had a little trouble designing the case because we had to assemble the parts outside and then put them in the case. There were no further adjustments. From inception to production took about six months.”
Aaron told a story about Jerry, the son of Ben Schpok. Every Saturday it was Jerry’s job to go into the factory and clean off the machines used to build the tractors. According to Jerry, “The machines were set up in groups of four and a man could slide in and run four machines at a time by rotating from one to another. They were so close together that a person would get dirty walking between them.” All the machines were purchased 2nd hand. It was typical to build 25 tractors per build. They bought 25 engines at a time and were always looking for a good buy or close out. All the gears for the Amigo, except one, were made in house to keep the cost down. The transmission case was made at the Bremen Foundry in Bremen, Indiana and was one of the few items manufactured outside the DEMCO plant.
Aaron related that one time Jerry Slocum, the super salesman, went to a lawn and garden show somewhere in New York State and that both he, and a Wheel Horse salesman, had tractors there. Jerry egged the Wheel Horse man into putting on a mowing demonstration in the knee-high grass. The Wheel Horse salesman went first and his mower soon bogged down and quit, as he did not have a low gear for such tall grass. Jerry took the Amigo in low, low, and just mowed right through without a problem. Aaron says, “He could not get the order book out fast enough and came home with so many orders that the company had to return the money as they just did not have the capacity to build the Amigo tractors and mowers fast enough and didn’t have the money to expand.” The factory building was an old, small machine shop they had purchased. According to Max Hungerford, “The sales partner, Jerry Slocum, could sell anything to anybody.” Slocum is still selling furniture today.
DEMCO was sold to AMF (American Machine and Foundry) and that happened unexpectedly. Aaron told of a man that walked into the factory and identified himself as the president of AMF. He said he was curious about the Amigo and could he take a tour. The tour was finished about noon so the partners and the AMF President went to Wright’s Restaurant for lunch. During their lunch, the president asked, “Have you ever thought about selling the Amigo tractor Business?” He also wanted to know what it would take to buy them out. Ben Schpok wrote a number down on a piece of paper and passed it to Max, and Jerry Slocum. They all agreed on the price and passed the paper over to the president, who looked at and said, “I will buy it.” That was the transition of Amigo to AMF. The word of mouth agreement was that Aaron’s uncle, Max Hungerford would remain a consultant and employed by AMF until they got the tractor line into production.
Since AMF did not actually build many of the products it sold, the three partners of DEMCO decided to submit a bid to build the Amigo. This bid was accepted and for about six months, the tractors were built as AMF Amigo. Shortly after the Amigo sale, AMF leadership changed and production of the Amigo was halted. “There may be a few AMF Amigo tractors out there, but they are rare” stated Aaron Davis.
Aaron says, “A few days ago I got a call from a man in Kentucky. He had just purchased an Amigo tractor. That is the 46th Amigo garden tractor that I am aware of. After 40 years, I am surprised there are that many survivors.” Wayne Wallace rescued an Amigo in southern Indiana. He went to a scrap yard to buy some steel and he noticed an Amigo hanging by the steering wheel. One of the employees had just lit the torch to cut it in two. He said, “Stop, I will buy it,” Wayne didn’t know anything about it but did not want the tractor destroyed. “We met when driving toward each other at the Fulton County Historical Power Show in Rochester, Indiana,” says Aaron; “Neither of us could believe we were seeing another Amigo. Wayne’s Amigo is painted Coca Cola Red with a clear coat finish. Wallace is super with small engines. My Wisconsin had a rough idle and he helped fix the problem. After setting the points, the load needle and the idle needle have to be worked together for a smooth idle. The carburetor butterfly shouldn’t vibrate. It ought to be almost motionless.”
The closest colors for the Amigo are International Harvester Red and White according to Max Hungerford. There were three types of rear tire tread used. These treads were suburban tread, or what if often called a snow tire, agricultural lug and terra tread, which is a diagonal diamond pattern. Davis noted, “My uncle said the biggest selling equipment was the lawn mower and the snow blade. Everyone loved it for plowing snow because you could shift the transmission like today’s hydrostatics.”
Aaron also noted that when servicing the Amigo, “a lot of people used 90-weight transmission oil, which is the worst thing you could do.” To operate it smoothly, 10-weight oil was recommended. It was also the weight of oil poured into the transmission from the factory.
All Amigo garden tractors came with a rear PTO shaft even though there was no application for when the tractors were originally manufactured. Each machine also had individual rear turning brakes. External drums were placed on the shafts so the operator could make tight turns, just like a farm tractor. It is interesting to note when discussing the unique features of the Amigo, five patents were issued on this tractor.
Sheryl Benkert, Max Hungerford’s daughter, made a book for her father that highlights the Amigo story. She has also dedicated space on a wall in her home to hang many pictures of Max, showing the Amigo archives and Amigo Reunion photos. She says, “Last year at the reunion they had my dad sign all kinds of things, he was exhausted by the time he was done!” Sheryl continued, “He does everything, his mind is thinking all the time.” Sheryl’s granddaughter said, “I didn’t realize Great Grandpa was so famous.”
More Amigo’s at the 2009 Northeastern Indiana Steam and Gas Show in LaGrange, Indiana
Today was the “Gathering of the Amigos” at the Northeastern Indiana Steam and Gas Show in LaGrange, Indiana. People are drawn together in their quest to find out more about the Amigos and to also show off their rare finds. Some show up with hopes to find just one more Amigo. Aaron says “I received a call last winter from David Tubbs who told me he had an Amigo 1200. Jim Eberley, club president of the NISAGS, also had an Amigo 1170. He said I should come down and join them at this gathering. Recently Michael Grenwell phoned me and said he had just gotten his grandfathers Amigo and wanted to learn more about it and would bring it to this show.”
David Tubbs of Hudson, Indiana, says, “I have my father’s Amigo that had been sold to a friend who passed away, I just restored it this past winter. The mower had been junked so I did not get that but I got the snow plow.” Michael Grenwell Jr. of Schoolcraft, Michigan stated, “My grandfather came across this 10-15 years ago and it has been in the barn ever since. He put the tractor together and ran it a few times. He passed away a few weeks ago and I got the tractor. I fixed a couple of broken wires and it started right up. I want to get it painted up and looking original. It is painted Allis Chalmers orange right now.”
Tractor models and identification:
Model: Engine Type:
·Amigo 77 (First DEMCO tractor) Lauson
·Amigo 99 Kohler
·Amigo 990* 7 HP, K-161, Kohler
·Amigo 1170 8 HP, K181 Kohler
·Amigo 1200 7 HP, K-161 or 8 HP, K181 Kohler
·Amigo 1400 10 HP Wisconsin engine
* Amigo 990 used same hood and grill as 1200 and 1400, no numbers on the hood
·1st Style Mower Deck Not made by DEMCO, 2-spindle deck, spindles hooked
together using one bicycle chain, fiber glass cover
·2nd Style Mower Deck Has sheet metal covers, 2 chain drive, 2- spindle deck, made
·3rd Style Mower Deck 3-spindle deck, V-belt drive, made by DEMCO
·4th Style Mower Deck Single V-belt drive on spindles, 3-spindle deck made by
General Amigo Information:
·When possible first select the HI or LO range under the tractor seat and move the top shift lever (the one under the steering wheel) all the way forward and select your speed range for what you need. This provides for better lubrication and reduces wear of the gears because the planetary cage turns as a whole unit and the planet gears are not turning around the sun gear.
·An interesting thing is the transmission: it is a planetary transmission with a two-speed axle. Using the lever under the seat sets the speed range. Using the lever under the steering wheel sets the speed; all the way forward is high, back one position is low, the next step back is neutral, and all the way to the back is reverse.
·Per Aaron Davis there are two misconceptions about the Amigo company: 1st - the workers never went on strike and bought the company, 2nd - the Amigo was never made in Rochester, Indiana, that was a salesman’s story.
·The tractor received its name because Jerry Slocum said that anyone that had a yard needed a “little friend” Amigo meant “friend” in Spanish.
Author’s Notes: Disclaimer: Per Aaron Davis, “This the latest know information subject to change pending further knowledge.”
17205 Old 27 North
Marshall, Michigan 49068
It wasn’t too many years ago that many of us knew very little about the Amigo tractors. These machines now have an appeal among lawn and garden tractor enthusiasts similar to that of the Tucker automobile among car collectors. They are extremely rare and were designed by a man ahead of his time.
Edited by tractorchick, May 05, 2010 - 07:43 PM.