Making the Old New Again
Tracy Kroon of Wilsall Turns Junk into Jewels
By Pat Hill
Tracy Kroon loves to take old cars and trucks and make them new again. He's been restoring rigs like old Yellowstone Park tour buses for nearly 40 years. Along the way, Kroon has gained a reputation as the man to call if you're looking for a vintage vehicle or want one restored.
Tracy Kroon, master of his trade, shows off a restored 1936 Yellowstone Park bus at his shop near Wilsall, Montana
“This is what we do,” Kroon said, gesturing across the huge machine shop that comprises Krown Restoration, located on the back side of the Bridgers between Bozeman and Wilsall. A glance through Kroon's shop is like a glimpse into the past. Several vehicles in various stages of repair lie sandwiched between and around lifts, presses, parts and boxes: three mid-20th-century pickup trucks, a Pierce-Arrow automobile being transformed into a stretch limo, and three old national park tour buses, including a 1938 Mount Rainier National Park bus, and two 1930s-era Yellowstone Park buses.
In 1969, while attending college, Kroon began hammering the dents out of old vehicles professionally at a restoration shop in Golden, Colo. Restoring old cars requires a lot more than fixing the dents, however, and Kroon realized that he enjoyed taking an old heap and restoring it to its former glory, from the wheels on up.
Like some ghost from yesteryear, this restored 1937 Cadillac haunts the landscape near Kroon's Wilsall area shop.
“I always liked taking something humble and making it new again,” Kroon told the Pioneer. But the world of antique car restoration is limited, and Kroon needed to make a living while he built his reputation. In 1970, he returned to Bozeman and began repairing trucks with a friend, and by 1981 he had his own shop on North Rouse Avenue. Over the next 25 years, Kroon found more and more people phoning him looking for old vehicles, and more and more old rigs coming his way for repair and restoration. In the summer of 2006, Kroon moved operations to the big new shop near Wilsall that he now occupies.
“People want something, they contact me, and I get the vehicle,” he said. And Kroon will venture thousands of miles to get the goods, as he did on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where he checked out an old pickup and a Stanley Steamer.
Among the vehicles Kroon restores are the old national park tour buses.
“I started doing buses in 1985 or '86,” he said. Many of those buses have been Yellowstone Park vehicles. Kroon said that all the early (pre-1940) Yellowstone Park buses were built by the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio.
The White Motor Company began as a branch of the White Sewing Machine Company in 1901, with the birth of the White Steam Car. By 1906, requests for the vehicles had become so great that a separate company, the White Motor Company, was founded. The company manufactured an assortment of vehicles including touring cars and buses, trucks, and even half-tracks for the U.S. Army during World War II.
In the early 1920s, the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company kept much of its fleet at the Mammoth Hot Springs storage facility, but a fire destroyed that facility and many buses in 1924. Kroon said that “most of the survivor Whites” were also produced that year. Many of those “survivor Whites” would undergo a radical transformation within a couple of decades.
“People bought the buses up during World War II,” said Kroon, “because you couldn't buy trucks.” He said that typically the new owners of the tour vehicles would remove the passenger section of the bus from the chassis and convert it to a flatbed truck. One of the first buses Kroon restored was a converted 1925 White from Yellowstone Park.
“It was fodder for the scrap heap…now it's one of the best restored 1925 buses out there,” said Kroon. “It was quite a transforma-tion from junk to jewel.” Kroon and a friend located the bus, or what was left of it, on the side of a mountain in Nevada in the 1980s.
“Two brothers built it to haul ore out of the mountains,” Kroon said. “We were mining for Whites. We found it where they rolled it in the 1950s. It was a wreck, but we found all the brackets…we found the great majority of the hardware.”
Working with what he found on the side of the mountain, searching scrap heaps, and following tips, Kroon and his friend completely restored the 1925 touring bus, and he has continued to maintain it over the years.
Many other buses would follow.
“I've dealt with 21 [national park touring] buses, all to private owners,” Kroon said. “In all the dealings I've had with buses over the years, there was only one, in Salinas, California, that I didn't know where it came from…probably Yosemite.”