Destination Restoration: A Chevy Farm Truck’s Journey with the Johnsons

Written By: Stephanie Laska

When I drove into the town of Bradley, SD, population 72, I noticed the leaves of the trees turning from their vibrant greens into burgundy, gold, and vermillion tones. The October sunset gleamed in my review mirror as I pulled onto Main Street and parked in front of The Body Shop, an automotive restoration shop that expands over half of the downtown block. The doors to the garage were open, and vintage cars sat in a couple of the stalls.

I peeked around until I located Dennis Johnson, the owner of a restored 1951 Chevy farm/grain truck, and Eric Caulfield, the owner of the garage. The two were talking next to an old farm truck that had a scratched and rusted body. At this point, I became confused. I was told to interview Dennis about a restored farm truck, and here, the two men stood next to a clearly un-restored truck that had seen better days.

Not quite sure how to proceed, I asked, “Is this the farm truck that I’ve heard so much about?”

“Oh, no,” Dennis chuckled, and he and Eric led me down the street.

Outside the garage, parked off the curb, a beautifully restored 1951 Chevy truck glowed in the evening sun’s rays, and Dennis Johnson stood next to this piece of his family’s history.

“This was my dad’s truck,” he explained, as he opened the forest green door to show me the newly finished interior. We strolled around the truck as I admired the fresh red paint on the box. Intricate white designs lined the twelve-foot box.

Dennis and his wife, Marie Rexius, told me how this truck became a part of the family, and shared some of the memories associated with the truck.

In 1963, Dennis’ father, the late Carl M. Johnson, bought the ‘51 Chevy from a woman in Ortley, SD; her husband had died, and she no longer needed the truck. It was in good shape, so Carl M. bought the truck, his first farm truck, for $1,400.

The truck was in use on the Johnson’s farm near Webster, and more specifically, just south of Holmquist, SD, from 1963 to the late 1980s. During the truck’s working life, it hauled grain, water and lumber on and around the farm.

When Dennis was about 14, he hauled water to his father when he was spraying the fields. In between hauls, he would wax the new-to-his-family truck. Dennis described the relationship he had with the truck when he was a boy. “I would wax a fender here, and a door there, but never all at once. At 14, I had to get in my nap!” he joked. Those wax jobs likely helped keep the body of the truck in good condition over its working years.

There is no radio in the truck, but Dennis remembers listening to a transistor radio while driving it around the farm. For our younger readers, transistor radios were some of the first radios that could be transported for easy listening.

In the late 1980s the Chevy was put into storage for about 15 years, until Dennis decided to restore the vehicle to its former glory.

Dennis said, “I had always planned to redo the truck. It has sentimental value because it was my dad’s first farm truck. It put the first load of grain into the grain bin we built on our farm.”

Eric’s body shop in Bradley makes up the small, but well-preserved downtown block. Eric told me about the restoration needs of the truck when Dennis brought it to his shop. “There was no rust or scratches on the body; some of the paint was worn to the metal, but for the most part, it was in good shape. We were able to keep the original motor, a 6 cylinder,” explained Eric.

This truck’s motor has 39,797 original miles. The truck received a frame up restoration, including a shiny new forest green paint job on the cab, leather interior seats, a new steering wheel and levers. It took approximately eight months to restore.

They saved the grain box by putting multiple coats of linseed oil on the wood; the restoration of the box required so many coats of linseed oil, the belt of the sander broke at the local cabinetry store, Keller Cabinet.

Dennis walked me around the refinished box and had me glance in the back door. “Do you see that piece of red tin at the front of the box?” he asked. He pointed out the rectangular tin piece. “The story behind that piece of tin, which we kept and used on the restored box, is a funny one. My mother, Julaine Johnson, was hauling lumber. She accidentally backed into the neighbor’s truck. The lumber hit the back of the box and poked a hole in the box. When we fixed it, we used a piece of tin to cover the hole. We decided to keep the original piece of tin on the truck to remember the story.”

For a truck that has such a vibrant past, I wondered about Dennis’ future plans for the truck.   The truck’s next appearance will likely be in the Andover Threshing Show; Dennis plans to continue showing the Chevy in the Andover event each year. This beautifully restored ’51 Chevy, with all its stories, will stay in the Johnson family for years to come and will create many more memories along the way. 

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