by Eric Stearley
On May 22, one Pennsylvanian man’s dream brought him right through the heart of Wabash County in a most unusual fashion. Those who traveled U.S. 24 around lunchtime may have seen a strange looking John Deere tractor driving down the highway pulling a camper emblazoned with American flags and text reading “Across America for Wounded Heroes.” In the drivers seat was Ivan Stoltzfus. The retired farmer and auctioneer is on an ambitious journey across the United States to raise money for the Wounded Warriors Project.
Ivan’s dream was largely inspired by his late father. In the early 1940s, Ivan’s father worked his way across the country from farm to farm for a year. He would tell his son about his journey as a young man, crossing a wooden swinging bridge across the Mississippi River and driving dirt roads on his journey west. Ivan’s childhood is also filled with memories of his father farming his own land with a two-cylinder tractor.
“I used to just love the sound of two-cylinder tractors, and that’s where my dream began,” said Ivan. “I thought, ‘Someday I want to go across America for some benefit in a two-cylinder tractor.”
Before Ivan’s father passed away he gave him a bit of advice that stuck with Ivan.
“He said one day to me, ‘Ivan, if you have a dream, don’t wait until you’re too old or physically can’t do it. Just do it. I wish I would have done more,’” Ivan recalled.
Having never served in the military, Ivan also had a deep desire to give back to those who fought for his freedom.
“I guess the older I get, I realize how I took my freedom for granted,” said Ivan. “I just feel our veterans today, they’re struggling to try to fit back into society again, and in some small way, if I can help them and bring awareness, it would mean so much to me. I’m just trying to reach out to America to try to help me. I keep saying America is one big family, and families take care of each other.”
Over the last year, Ivan has been preparing for the journey, which he estimates will take just under four months. With the help of several companies near his hometown of Honey Brook, Penn., he was able to assemble the custom rig with which he is slowly crossing the country.
Powering the journey is a 1948 John Deere Model A. The fully restored tractor was fitted with a Peterbilt semi truck cab and appropriately named the “Johnabilt.” Ivan will spend most of his summer inside the little cab listening to the two-cylinder engine he loves so much. The machine, which once pulled plow and planter, now pulls a 22-foot camper. Attached to the back of the camper is a little yellow scooter named “Smiley,” which Ivan uses for short runs to the grocery and other places he doesn’t want to take the rig.
On April 26, Ivan ceremonially backed the camper into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in Manasquan, N.J. His final destination is Crescent City, Calif., where he hopes to do the same in the Pacific Ocean. His only notable breakdown happened just miles from his home when his rear axle broke.
“They completely went over it; they put new bearings and seals in, but no one thought about checking the 3 inch axle. They just never heard of an axle snapping,” said Ivan. “Fortunately, it was close to my place, and within two days, they had the cab off and the old axle out, and by the third day, they had everything back together.”
With the tractor fixed, the journey continued. Things got a little tense as Ivan crossed the mountains in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
“I went up the first mountain, and when I got up to the top there, it just felt like it went straight down. My hair stood up on my back,” said Ivan. “I feel like I’m ready for the Rockies. They’re higher, but [the roads] aren’t as steep and straight.”
From there, Ivan took the old Lincoln Highway through the farmlands of Ohio, during which the former farmer says he was “in his glory.”
“It’s humbling,” said Ivan. “When I was coming down old Lincoln Highway, people were out cheering when I was coming by, and when I went across the Allegheny River and the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, people were standing on either side of the bridge cheering.”
Though Ivan thinks his trip will take just less than four months, he has planned to take a year away from the auction business for the trip. He doesn’t have his itinerary set in stone and is keeping his schedule open for auctions and fundraisers as they come up. He travels between 30 and 100 miles a day, depending on his destinations. Remarkably, the route he chose for his cross-country trip brought him right through Wabash.
“Triple A Auction Service in New Haven called me a couple months ago and said, ‘We’d like to do an auction to help you with the benefit, and I was excited about that,” said Ivan, who is working with auctioneers across the country to raise money. “It was just a little bit out of the way, but it was worth it, [so] I just chose to take 24 across Indiana.”
After passing through Wabash, Ivan was headed for a campground just past Logansport to call home for the evening. Since then, he has made several fundraising stops in Illinois. In addition to auctions and fundraising events, Ivan is stopping at VA hospitals along the way to visit with veterans. As this article was written, he was just east of the Mississippi River in northern Illinois near Moline.
When he came through Wabash, he had just surpassed the $50,000 mark in his fundraising endeavors. After a few stops in Illinois, he is just shy of $60,000. He hopes to raise $1,000,000 for the veterans’ charity before he reaches the West Coast.
“We need some big sponsors and some big foundations to reach that million, but it doesn’t matter how small an amount they can give, we’re just so grateful,” said Ivan.
Any cross-country trip on the road is a long one, but Ivan’s chosen mode of transportation means his progress is exceptionally slow. Though his tractor can pull the camper as fast as 17 mph, he doesn’t like to run his RPMs that high. While it’s a slow pace for such a long journey, he’s gotten used to it.
“You kind of set yourself up to that,” Ivan said of the slow pace. “You know, now, if I’d be in a car, I’d be just frigid. I’m relaxed. Sometimes, I think I’m going too fast, so I’ll slow it back to 14 (mph), especially when I’m out here enjoying the country. I don’t want to go too fast. I don’t want to get there too quick, so I’ll slow up just a little bit and enjoy the countryside.”
Ivan’s progress can be tracked on a map in real time by visiting HelpAmericanHeroes.com. You can also see pictures of his travels, read his blog posts, and check to see Ivan’s progress toward his $1,000,000 goal. Finally, the site offers visitors a chance to donate to Ivan’s cause, the Wounded Warriors Project.
“Our veterans had so much love for us, and a lot of them paid the ultimate price so I could be free, and I feel like it’s my responsibility now to show that love back, make awareness, and try to make life easier for them,” said Ivan.