The Prouse family of Levin are the proud owners of at least two Jelbart tractors, manufactured about 1918 in Australia by George and Frank Jelbart, and imported by Pattersons in Auckland.

The family scored a major victory at this year's AP and I Show when the best of the pair, after some major tinkering, suddenly burst into action for the first time in 39 years.

The tractor had been at the show for years and in the 1950s had even been part of the grand parade. But it had sat in a paddock for almost 40 years, rusting away and almost, but not quite, forgotten.

The tractor is a unique piece of history as it is the first tractor bridging the gap between steam and stationary tractor. It runs on light crude oil as well as a mixture of petrol and kerosene.

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The Prouse family bought land near Levin in the 1890s to farm and mill timber.

The tractor's current owner, Stephen Prouse, says his grandfather bought the tractor in 1912 and when it finally arrived in Levin by train in 1918 /19 it made life and work at the sawmill a lot easier. Until then all sawing was done by hand.

"The Jelbart was driving the firewood bench saw, has been used to clear land and for ploughing and discing," says Prouse.

The Prouses eventually owned six Jelbart tractors. Number 216 in the manufacturing line-up has been in repair for a few years, while number 215 sits under a tree on the farm and is used for spare parts. The Jelbart, an eight-horsepower machine, was used on the farm well into the 60s, Stephen believes, when more modern tractors displaced it.

A small article in the 1918 Wairarapa daily times has this to say:

"George and Frank Jelbart founded the Jelbart Bros. firm at Ballarat, Victoria in 1911 and were pioneers in Australian internal combustion engine design. Around 1914 they installed one of their "No. 8" oil engines in the first Jelbart tractor.

"By 1917 they were offering two models, an 8 hp and a 12 hp, which were unusual in their use of a segmented belt drive from the engine to the transmission. Many Jelbart tractors were custom-built for the buyer, and their rugged simplicity appealed to the Australian farmer.

"The Jelbart is a light and powerful tractor that will do all the work on the farm — trashing, harvesting, ploughing, chaff cutting road haulage, etc. It will work in wet and boggy ground where horses cannot work. The fuel used is crude oil; cost of fuel and lubrication, 15s a day. With every machine an expert is sent to run and operate the tractor for 28 days free of cost.

"It is imported into NZ by Messrs Patterson and Robertson, Commerce Street, Auckland." — Wairarapa Daily Times, 28 June 1918.

Driving this colossus is no mean feat as you have to stand behind the wheel and the canopy with steam outlet on top is so big and high it is hard to see where you are going while driving, Stephen says, even for very tall people. He believes there are three models of the Jelbart tractor still in NZ. Only one of them was still working and is fully restored, believed to be in Tauranga. It is now joined by this tractor.

"We have slowly over the years repaired the bits that had rusted away. There is still a bit more to be done," says Stephen. "We're chuffed it is finally running."