Mechanics Respond to Family Tragedy

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

ADAMSTOWN, Pa. — When Nelson Zimmerman died tragically last Dec. 10, he left behind a family and friends who will grieve his loss for as long as they live. It was a Saturday morning and he was working in the shop at Deer Country in Adamstown, Pa., when the equipment he was repairing slipped and fell on him.

Zimmerman had been a mechanic at the Adamstown location of the John Deere farm and lawn equipment dealership for more than 20 years, according to Chris Martin, and he was well-known in the southeastern Pennsylvania farming community.

“Nelson was born on a farm near Ephrata (Pa.), and drove feed truck before he started working for Deer Country,” Martin said. “He made service calls to many of the farms in this part of the state, and New Jersey, too.”

In the hours after Zimmerman’s death, Martin, who’d worked with Zimmerman for many years, hatched an idea that would become a tribute to his friend, a comfort to the Zimmerman family, and a quiet source of satisfaction to the Deer Country organization.

Nelson Zimmerman, some years before, had bought a used 1971 John Deere Model 4020 tractor. His goal was to work on it, restore it and sell it. But Zimmerman was a busy man. He and his wife, Lynette, have two sons, two daughters and grandchildren. And Zimmerman was a hardworking repair tech whose knowledge and skills were always in high demand at work. He was dedicated to keeping his Deer Country customers running, but never got very far on his own 4020.

The Monday morning after the accident, Chris Martin proposed to his co-workers that they finish restoring Zimmerman’s tractor, and offer it back to the family, either for the family’s own use or to be auctioned off.

His suggestion was quickly embraced by the shop’s techs. They came in to work after hours and weekends, on their own time, to restore the tractor. Deer Country owner, Ken Dietz, told them he would donate the parts for the project if they did the work.

“(Nelson) was a well-liked and respected mentor and role model for all of us who worked with him,” Martin said.

Some time after the funeral, Dietz discussed the project with Zimmerman’s widow, Lynette, to see what the family thought about the idea, and whether or not they wanted to hold onto the tractor or have it auctioned off.

The family was touched by the goodwill of his colleagues, and opted for an auction which would take place in September of this year.

“We started on it in January and finished in August,” Martin said. “There was a lot of cosmetic stuff — shift handles, gauges, knobs, the seat. It had been sitting outside for five or six years, and it had weathered a lot, but the tractor was mechanically sound. We didn’t have to overhaul the motor.”

The volunteer crew did completely rebuild the tractor’s hydraulics — the pump, the valves, the steering — until it was as good as new. The gauges had to be replaced because water had seeped into them, they froze and the lenses cracked. Martin estimated that he spent a good 20 hours just working on the gauges and the rest of the dashboard, and reckoned that the whole team effort may have taken 200 hours or more.

Much of the work got done in January, and bits and pieces were accomplished in the following months. But with a Sept. 5 deadline looming for the online auction, the techs pushed the project in August.

The tractor and its story attracted a lot of attention — and bidders — from around the country. The day of the sale, the Deer Country staff set up computer stations for local bidders who didn’t have Internet access. Bidding was stiff and spirited, with calls from all over Pennsylvania, as well as from Alaska, New York, Iowa and Virginia. The winning bidder took the tractor home to Berks County, Pa., paying $30,200 for the privilege. Proceeds from the auction went to the Lynette Zimmerman Benefit Fund.

The volunteer techs who worked on the project were all Deer Country employees, and included, in addition to Martin, Charles Baldwin, Josh Dragon, Luke Garman, Darrell Gockley, Mike Hetrick, Chris Klingensmith, Todd Myers and David Smith.

Deer Country donated some $10,000 worth of parts to the project. Martin’s Auto Sales donated the paint job, and John Martin donated the sandblasting.

A Coincidence

Early on in the project, Ken Dietz realized, to his great surprise, that this was not just any old tractor. It turned out that he had another personal connection. It was the same John Deere 4020 he’d driven as a teenager growing up on a farm in Lehigh County, Pa.

“From the time I was 14 until I was about 20, I worked for my neighbor, Bob Gehman, and this was the tractor I used,” Dietz said.

There was one other special thing about this particular 4020, Dietz recalled. He was dating his future wife, Kim, who is now part of the Deer Country organization, at the time he was working Gehman’s acres. She would often ride along with him on his hot dusty rounds on the tractor.

Gehman is still active in the farm business, at Marwell Dairy Farm in Coopersburg, Pa. He drove to Adamstown to have a look at the machine before it was sold.

“This was the first John Deere that Gehman ever bought,” Dietz said. And, it turns out that the dealer in Allentown where he bought it from later became one of Deer Country’s four locations.

Dietz said they exhibited the tractor at a Deer Country open house and at Penn State’s Ag Progress Days to help draw attention to the September auction.

Dick Wanner can be reached at, or by phone at 717-419-4703.

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