A former Pennsylvania farmer will pass through Northeast Nebraska this month on his third trip across America in a hybrid two-cylinder tractor, dubbed “Johnabilt.”
Driving the 1948 John Deere B, equipped with a customized 1984 Peterbilt cab, and towing a 2014 Trail Lite camper, C. Ivan Stoltzfus draws attention.
With a motto, “Across America for wounded heroes, changing lives, one mile at a time,” Stoltzfus has joined forces with Operation Second Chance, a nonprofit dedicated to providing emergency assistance to the nation’s wounded, injured and ill veterans.
While the primary goal of the journey is to raise awareness for the mission, the most rewarding part for Stoltzfus is meeting veterans along the route and the opportunity to share their story on his daily blog and in a book he plans to write.
Stoltzfus, who is also a semiretired auctioneer and real estate broker, was never in the military. But, as he grew older he felt he should do something to thank veterans for the freedom he had taken for granted.
The seeds of Stoltzfus’ story were planted in him when he was a child, growing as he grew. As a youngster, he was captivated by his father’s stories of traveling across the country.
“When I was growing up, my father would tell stories that I was just intrigued about - the time he went across America, working from farm to farm, for a whole year, to California and back,” he said.
He loved hearing the stories about going across the Mississippi River on a swinging wooden bridge, driving all night and getting stuck on dirt roads when it rained.
His father had started farming with a two-cylinder tractor, and as a young man working on his father’s Pennsylvania farm, he thought, “wouldn’t it be neat to go across America in a two-cylinder tractor?”
But it wasn’t until he retired from farming himself that his father’s words came back to him.
“When my father was getting up in age, he said to me one day, ‘Ivan, if you have a dream, don’t wait until you are too old or physically can’t fulfill that dream. You need to do it.’”
Finally in 2013, he decided to take the leap. He set the date – April 2014 – and he started to make plans.
He said making the decision and setting that date felt like a huge burden was lifted from his shoulders. He wasn’t sure how it would work, but he had a goal.
As word began to spread, friends and local businesses started to hop on board.
First, he needed a tractor. Through a good friend, Steve Koser, a Honey Brook, Pa., mechanic, he was connected with the Waterloo Boys Two-Cylinder Club of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The club members not only found him a tractor to purchase, but they volunteered their time go through it, from “one end to the other,” a task that took most of a year, making sure it would be up for the journey.
Then his son-in-law, Earl Martin, who owned a trucking company, offered to build a cab for protection from the elements.
“I was assuming they were going to put a roof on, maybe a blue tarp around,” Stoltzfus said. “But one day he called me, ‘Ivan, we just ordered, on eBay, a 1984 Peterbilt cab.’”
The cab was retrofitted and customized, with two custom air seats donated by Peterbilt.
The next challenge was lodging.
“I was trying to think - the expenses were coming in - how am I going to afford some kind of camper? But, I was going to do it, if I had to borrow the money,” he said.
Then came another phone call, this one from his cousin, Earl Stoltzfus, owner of Stoltzfus RV’s & Marine, offering use of a new 22-foot camper to serve as both home and headquarters during the trip.
He bought a bright yellow scooter for quick jaunts when he stopped overnight, naming it Smiley, which he said delighted his four grandchildren.
Stoltzfus discovered Operation Second Chance through a mutual friend and fell in love with their mission.
Operation Second Chance is a nonprofit, founded in 2004 to provide emergency financial assistance to wounded, injured and ill service members and their families. For many veterans who return from the battlefield, the fight really begins at home when they return. Some are faced with financial hardships which can be a real struggle for these proud war fighters. OSC seeks to relieve some of the financial strains, allowing them to focus on their injuries, rehabilitation and reintegration to civilian life.
Stoltzfus started his latest journey May 10, leaving from the Operation Second Chance office in Germantown, Md., winding along back roads, down highways and over mountains on a trip that will take him across 17 states, including Nebraska. He hopes to reach Mount Rushmore by the Fourth of July, and an Operation Second Chance veterans’ retreat in Red Lodge, Mont., before heading south to Texas, then back east to his home in Sarasota, Fla.
His first trek, in 2014, covered about 4,000 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, raising funds for the Wounded Warrior Project.
In 2017, he completed an 8,400-mile trip, circling the country while raising funds and awareness for veterans and first responders suffering from PTSD.
“I don’t want it to draw attention to me, I am trying to draw attention to the camper - to the cause,” he said. “I can’t do it myself, I am just driving the vessel.”
Stoltzfus’ progress and journal updates, and more information about OSC, may be found at OperationSecondChance.org.