Vintage garden tractors barely registered on the farm collectible screen a decade ago. But today the hobby — and a collectors' club — is booming.
"There was not a lot of interest in garden tractors when my son and I began collecting them 11 years ago," says Jim Cunzenheim, McFarland, Wis. "It was unusual to see more than a half dozen at any of the steam and gas engine shows."
If collections were few and far between, documentation was almost non-existent. "The only information available was in books by Alan King and David Bass," Jim says. "They were invaluable in identifying different kinds of tractors, but gave virtually no other information about them."
Jim's assortment of vintage garden tractors sat untouched for years. But late in 1994, he learned of the formation of VGTCOA: the Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America. "The club got off to a shaky start," he says. The first newsletter went out to 68 paid members. The first spring meeting, to be held in Speedway, Ind., was canceled because only six people could attend.
In June 1995, a few members of the club attended the Southern Indiana Antique Machinery Club show in Evansville, showing 20 garden tractors. They tried again at the Tri-County Thresherman's Club, Plainfield, Wis., later that month. Ten members attended that show, exhibiting 35 tractors. During the summer, a smattering of club members attended shows in Beaver Dam, Wis., and Winamac, Ind.
"By now, my son and I were having second thoughts," Jim says. "We debated about staying in the club, and whether we should continue to collect garden tractors. But we had never exhibited at any of the shows, and decided that before giving up, we should put a little effort into both the club and the hobby."
The next area show was the Badger Steam & Gas Show in Baraboo, Wis. Jim and his son hauled over everything they had.
"We even borrowed a couple from a friend," he says. "Our exhibit included an old lawn mower, a rototiller and 10 garden tractors. Only two were in running condition, and none had been restored. Some were in bad shape: one didn't even have a motor. Another was a solid mass of rust. The rest were in a state of very poor repair."
But the crowd was sold.
"I was amazed at the number of people who stopped at our display," Jim says. "My son, Jim Jr., spent the better part of two days talking to people about these tractors."
The success of the club's showing at Baraboo persuaded the members to attend the Rock River Thresheree held over Labor Day weekend. Nearly 120 vintage garden tractors were shown at Rock River.
"It was quite an amazing sight," Jim says. "We met some of the other members, and had a great time."
After a winter when garden tractors were bought, sold and restored, the club was ready to hit the road in the spring of '96.
"Because of the impressive showing at Rock River, offers were coming in from other clubs that wanted to feature us at their shows," Jim says. The first show where VGTCOA was featured was at Eaton, Ohio. More than 100 tractors were exhibited.
VGTCOA was not featured at the '96 Rock River show, but club founder Joe Smith felt another good showing there would do wonders for the club.
"We drew 135 tractors at the '96 show, and he was right," Jim says. "Offers began coming from clubs all over Wisconsin and Illinois, all wanting to feature the VGTCOA at their shows. We had to turn many of them down, because we wanted to get to other parts of the country as well."
Club members were clearly ready to hit the road.
"The Plainfield, Wis., show was the first featured show of the '97 show season," Jim says. Members came from Oregon, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Canada. Fully 180 garden tractors were registered. The VGTCOA simply overtook the showgrounds.
"The amount of interest these tractors were generating was remarkable," Jim adds. "A plowing contest was scheduled for Saturday. Although it was raining fairly hard, we decided to go on with it. We had about 50 spectators standing in the rain, watching. It was just incredible."
Two years later, he says, people are still talking about the garden tractors at Plainfield. "Over Labor Day weekend in 1997, we attended the show in Escanaba, Mich.," he says. "We didn't draw as many tractors, but our club exhibit was voted best of show."
Success on the road was matched by the organization itself.
"1998 was the year things really started to come together," Jim says. "The newsletters have become as good as any put out by similar organizations. The club is being sought after by many different organizations to participate in their shows. We have gotten favorable comments from every show we have attended as a club. Most show organizers are amazed by the support the club and members' tractors get from spectators."
In 1998, the VGTCOA participated in its first international show. Held in Ilderton, Ontario, Canada, the event drew 135 garden tractors. The club also was featured at Albany, Minn., last year, with 255 garden tractors on display.
The club will close out the century with feature appearances at three shows: Tulare, Calif., in April; Danville, Ind., in May; and Pontiac, Ill., over Labor Day weekend.
Club members also will congregate on May 1-2, at Red Granite, Wis., at the club's third annual stewfest/plowtest. The weekend starts off with breakfast prepared by club member and chef Garlon Peterson.
"The secret to this is to just not ask what it is," Jim says.
Events during the weekend include plowing contests, a "slow" race, and a contest to see whose tractor can run at the lowest rpm.
"We will also have a competition for the ugliest, running tractor," Jim says. "But the main purpose of the event is go get the local members together. It gives us all a chance to swap lies, renew friendships, and see what the other guys have been doing all winter."
Vintage Garden Tractor Club of America offers an invaluable resource to members, Jim says. But for the novice collector, it's also an entry point to the world of farm collectibles.
"Our club is unique in that garden tractors are still affordable," he says. "That brings us a lot of young members who don't have the means to acquire larger tractors, or gas engines." FC