Garden Tractor Daze dubs father-son duo best in show while raising money for child with leukemia | Baraboo News Republic

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Breven Hodgkins, 11, of Wausau, highlights parts of the Pennsylvania Panzer he rebuilt with his father, Bryan Hodgkins, after winning Best in Show during the Garden Tractor Daze show Saturday at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in Portage.


Bridget Cooke



For nearly 10 years, garden tractor enthusiasts have gathered on the Columbia County Fairgrounds to show off their work.

The pastime of rebuilding machines from decades past has been somewhat of a family hobby for entrants, said organizer Bonnie Esse, most evident by the 2022 first-place winner, a father-son duo from Wausau.

“It’s amazing how many kids you see here redoing tractors with their dad or their grandpa,” Esse said. “It’s nice to see when people take the time to do something with their kids.”

Bryan Hodgkins and his 11-year-old son, Breven, won Best in Show out of 850 entrants with their light blue Pennsylvania Panzer. Both Hodgkins said they were surprised by the win. Breven said he had no intention of claiming first prize when they entered the Panzer in the show, but was excited to get the trophy.

“We just try to do the best job we can,” Bryan said.

Breven has joined his father in the hobby for almost his entire life. He now has five tractors.

Rebuilding the Panzer spanned “all winter,” Breven said. When he isn’t outside skiing, Bryan said Breven is in the shop beside his dad.

“I’ve been in this hobby for 20 years and ever since he was born, he’s been in my shop with me,” Bryan said. “Since he was little he just had to be there.”

Breven and Bryan worked together to strip it down, sandblast it and rebuild each element, like the engine. The entire process took roughly six months. Bryan let Breven sandblast and assemble parts. Then the 11-year-old specified to his father how he wanted to see the machine come together. It helps to have young eyes and small hands, Bryan said, for some of the work that has proven trickier as he gets older.

The appeal of the work for Breven is spending time with his father. For Bryan, it’s a hands on activity that keeps his son away from the computer screen. Breven has taken to repairing them well, even working on items Bryan thought would just be sold for parts. Like the Pennsylvania Panzer T758 that won them Best in Show, which Bryan said was not appealing when they procured it.

“I like Cub Cadets. Breven, he likes stuff that’s odd, unique,” Bryan said. “Panzers aren’t very common. And he had to have it, so we traded some stuff for it.”







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Bryan Hodgkins, of Wausau, shakes the hand of Garden Tractor Daze organizer Bret Esse, right, after Hodgkins’ son, Breven, left center, accepted the best in show award for the Pennsylvania Panzer the father and son rebuilt as Steve Halfpap, of Montello, observes.


Bridget Cooke



Though from out of town, the Hodgkins are somewhat close to the show compared to other travelers, some coming from Texas, Washington and even Alaska. Organizers expect out-of-state visitors, but they weren’t certain how many people would show up this year given the rise in the cost of gas.

“I’m surprised, I thought there would be a lot less people because of the price of fuel,” Bonnie Esse said.

There are a number of more uncommon garden tractors on display at the fairgrounds, spanning the greenery and filling barn buildings. Though the Panzer is unique, there are others that enthusiasts said are the last of that kind. Some are even from a century ago, when people walked behind the machinery, said organizer Bret Esse.







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The Rally of Red featured Wheel Horse tractor sits in a barn on display Saturday at the Columbia County Fairgrounds during the Garden Tractor Daze show.


Bridget Cooke



Bret began the show a decade ago with friends. As a garden tractor show enthusiast, he would travel to Iowa each year. But that show was only for John Deere entrants, which felt limited. So they formulated a plan to see how many people they could get. Another organizer told Bret that more than 100 entrants would be a good start — more than roughly 250, and he would “be onto something.” The first year they hosted twice as many and the number climbed by about 100 annually. He said that they have been near 1,000 more than once since beginning the show.

The tractors on display are a spectrum, from the popular Wheel Horse brand to red and orange John Deere tractors specifically manufactured when the brand wanted to appeal to women, Bret Esse said. Custom paint shows off tractors that are “far and away better” than they were when they first came off the manufacturing line, Bret said.

Not only do they gather to share in the hobby, but the collectors also come together when someone asks for help, like auctioneer Andrew Kitson. Kitson, who owns Kitson Auctioneering, of Belvidere, Illinois, oversees the consignment auction every year and donates the proceeds to Esse.







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Auctioneer Andrew Kitson, of Belvidere, Illinois, leads the consignment auction Saturday during Garden Tractor Daze. Kitson has given the proceeds to organizers of the event in the past, but this year, all of the funding was raised for a 5-year-old girl named Ellie from Belvidere with leukemia.


Bridget Cooke



Kitson approached Bret with a different idea this year. A 5-year-old named Ellie who lives near Kitson has leukemia and after hearing that a previous benefit for the child ended with someone stealing the donated funds, Kitson wanted to instead donate all of the money from the auction to help with healthcare costs.

“Andrew posted it, and from the minute I read it, I was all for it,” Bret said.

Bret was not the only one who supported the idea, as collectors offered whole tractors and other items to sell.

“It was crazy, all the stuff they donated,” Bonnie Esse said. “There had to be eight to 10 tractors. People just donated their whole tractor.”

While the show serves as a community building exercise, Bret said it also helps the city because people who visit spend money in Portage. They reserve hotel rooms, sometimes a year in advance, and remain respectful of the space.

“These people do a lot for the community,” Bret said.

Follow Bridget on Twitter @cookebridget or contact her at 608-745-3513.

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