First Things

Everything Old is New Again

First Things

The more things change,” a wise friend once observed, “the more they stay the same.” To process that, a slightly twisted mind is required – the kind of mind that doesn’t balk at the old riddle, “what’s the difference between a duck?*”

This issue of Farm Collector is likely to make you reconsider the meaning and value of the descriptors old and new.

For me, it all started with Sam Moore’s column on the Duesenberg. I’ll leave the details to Sam, but here are three simple facts for you to digest. One, this manufacturer built cars for less than 20 years; two, the company has been out of business for decades; and three, surviving Duesenbergs are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. A niche product produced by a struggling firm at a price only the super-rich could afford: This could just as easily be a page out of the current season’s playbook.

Then Josephine Roberts chimed in with a thoughtful consideration of tractor restoration. She even went so far as to suggest that, sometimes, old things should be allowed to just be old. Rust and scrapes and fading paint can be viewed as a badge of honor. That’s almost heresy in a culture that prizes the new, shiny thing, and in a world where, even in third world countries, landfills are swelling – and yet, in some areas, it’s a growing trend.

The fine print in a 1903 ad for the Kansas City Lightning line was the final thing to catch my eye. The company chose the words “Old and reliable” to describe itself and its products. It was a deliberate choice: Old and reliable were about the best things you could say about a manufacturer and a product in that era.

Today, of course, it’s all about new. Unless you’re talking about fine wine or craftsmanship, the word “old” is most often seen in a negative context: Trade off your old car, bring in your old computer, upgrade your old kitchen. Basically, consumers want new whirligigs produced with old-fashioned quality. And yet, there is undeniable allure in the old treasure. It’s rather like real estate, that finite substance they’re not making more of. The more things change, truly, the more they don’t! FC

*The answer? One of its feet are both alike.

Leslie C. McManus

Making Connections Through Farm Collector

First ThingsSanta came early for me in 2016. In early December, I received a letter to the editor from Wendell Starkebaum who shared a short, sweet story. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say it is exactly the kind of thing I’ve long hoped for.

The folks who read Farm Collector are scattered all over the U.S. and beyond. You come from all walks of life and pursue work in countless professions. Some of you have ties to a farm; others can do no more than dream of that. And yet all of you form a community, no matter how far-flung or diverse.

Shows and clubs bring many of you together, and that is an invaluable association on many fronts. There is the social aspect, the fellowship, if you will; there is the service you provide just by putting on a show. There is the educational aspect, both among collectors and among visitors. Many of your efforts target school children, and that is another very fine connection.

But in my heart of hearts, I always hoped Farm Collector would spark something special. Perhaps a reader would discover an ancestor’s inventive side through a patent illustration. Perhaps in these pages someone would stumble onto something long lost, or solve the mystery of an old photo, or recognize an unusual piece and share knowledge of its background.

Years ago, Josephine Roberts, our faithful columnist in Wales, sent old photos taken in Canada 80 or 90 years ago and we published them. Intellectually I knew it was a long shot, but the cockeyed optimist in me was just sure that someone’s grandson’s neighbor’s wife’s sister would see the photos and tell us the story behind them. That hasn’t happened – yet.

But we do finally have a special bond brought about by Farm Collector. It’s the kind of thing that shows what a special connection exists between like-minded folks – and it’s just enough of a spark to put a warm glow on a cold winter day. Here’s hoping your new year is full of sweet moments like these! FC

Leslie C. McManus

The Rise of Farm Tractor Design

First Things

It is hard to imagine today, when designers impart form (and sometimes function) to just about everything, that there was a time when design was really not part of the equation.

The end of that time coincided with the first wave of farm tractors. In this issue of Farm Collector, Robert Pripps explores the rise of industrial design in tractor manufacture.

When practical, working tractors came on the scene, one imagines that the farmer was so relieved to have a machine doing the lion’s share of the work that he scarcely considered what the thing looked like.

In the 1920s and ’30s, innovation was unfolding so rapidly that new products were embraced in a rather primitive manner. Rooms were lit by one light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. Knob-and-tube wiring passed through holes cut in joists. Henry Ford’s Model T was available in any color, so long as it was black.

But there is something almost impossibly quaint about the utilitarian items of our past. It’s kind of like the old days of network TV, when it was a safe bet that if “Gunsmoke” was on, everybody you knew was watching. Or the days of party line phones, which were an admitted nuisance, but if you lived in the country, they were everybody’s nuisance.

But then somebody took a bite of the apple and the utilitarian seemed suddenly just the least little bit shabby. On tractors, design splashed onto every surface: Grilles became elegant. Louvers added a bit of automotive flair. Seats, fenders and hood ornaments fairly bloomed with design elements.

Today of course we are awash in design. Scarcely anything is utilitarian anymore. Even things that should be are given bells and whistles to justify a higher price. But good design is a beautiful thing, and when form follows function, better yet.

As we close the books on 2016, I am remembering far-flung friends, old and new. Last summer, a new friend in Wales taught me the phrase Lechyd da! He maintains that it is the Welsh version of “cheers!” There is also the very real possibility that it means, “Your goat is handsome.” No matter how you say it, all of us at Farm Collector send our very best wishes to you this holiday season. Cheers! FC

Leslie C. McManus -

Rain on Your Parade? Dealing with Rain at Tractor Shows

First Things

If there was any common denominator during my experience at shows this season, it was rain. Although it did not rain at every show I attended (well done, Mt. Pleasant!), rain made an appearance at most others I took in.

There are many (including me) who check weather forecasts roughly 29 times a day for 10 days before attending an outdoor event. Others (also me) scoff at such behavior. A friend of mine is calm in the face of a damp forecast. “If it rains,” he says, “we’ll get wet.”

Still, an ounce of caution is worth a pound of cure. Things I’ve learned about rain at tractor shows:

Headed to the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland, Indiana? People may warn you that it will rain there. Believe them.

The day you wear rain boots to a show is probably not the day it will rain. That said, wearing rain boots should not be considered a form of insurance.

Disposable rain ponchos are apparently a novelty at tractor rallies in western Scotland, where they generate great amusement for the locals who are, without exception, clad in sensible, substantial raingear.

On return to a hotel room after a day spent slogging about in the mud (and I mean the kind of mud that consumes shoes and socks or coats the bottom 4 inches of your jeans) there is a certain satisfaction in pitching mud-coated items in the trash – certainly more satisfaction than is achieved by spending the next hour cleaning said items for use the next day.

When bending over to retrieve and re-install a shoe sucked off your foot by mud, remember to replace the lens cap on the camera swinging from your shoulder first. Remember the law of gravity: What goes up, must come down. And not always where you want it to.

And finally, when options for shelter are limited, given a choice between standing in a downpour and seeking refuge in a crafts building, the average man develops a sudden enthusiasm for crafts. Don’t take it so hard; it’s not for the rest of your life. And who knows? Maybe there’ll be an ice cream vendor in there too! FC

Leslie C. McManus -

Remembering Darius Harms

First Things

When Darius Harms died in July, this community lost one of its giants. A passionate collector of old iron, Darius was one of the founders of the stunningly successful Half Century of Progress show in Rantoul, Illinois, and a key leader in the I&I Antique Tractor & Gas Engine Club’s Historic Farm Days, Penfield, Illinois.

In a hobby as diverse as this, leaders demonstrate their strengths in many ways. Darius was the consummate organizer, the kind of man who knows how to make things happen. Detail-oriented, visionary and resourceful, Darius saw opportunity where others saw obstacles. “Many times he would not take ‘no’ for an answer,” says John Fredrickson, vice chairman at the Half Century show. “If a job needed to get done, he proceeded to get it done.”

“The old order changeth,” the poet writes, “yielding place to new.” The shows, clubs and tractor pulls Darius left his mark on will move forward. “It will probably take two or three of us to handle what he did,” allows Chuck Stelter, president of the I & I club. But no one will fold up tents and retreat. They were taught better than that.

When I visited with Darius at the 2015 Half Century show, we talked about the show’s robust safety program. This massive show in a massive setting draws tens of thousands of visitors, hundreds of golf carts and other small vehicles and non-stop demonstrations – all with an amazingly small number of incidents. And yet, the official approach to safety is respectful rather than heavy-handed. “We try to treat people the way we’d like to be treated,” Darius said.

In the old days, we called that the golden rule. One senses that it was a rule Darius held close to his heart. And that is why, in the end, Darius Harms is the rare individual who will be widely remembered as both an exceptional leader, and a kind and decent man. Well done, good and faithful servant!

Leslie C. McManus -

Use Memory to Bring New Life to Old Iron

Memory is a chameleon, taking many forms. We remember sights from the past as clearly as those seen yesterday. But memories are also wrapped in scent and sound and feel.

Marvin Overton’s 8 hp Model 44 Cushman engine (read about it and other Cushman engines) triggered an unusual memory, one as unimaginable to kids today as having their gas pumped and windshields washed. Marvin remembers attending grade school a block away from the repair shop where the Cushman was used more than 60 years ago. If the engine was started and run during the school day, he remembers hearing it.

I like to picture a boy of 8 or 9, daydreaming in a classroom with blackboards behind the teacher’s desk. Portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hang on the wall. On a spring day, or one in early fall, the windows are open. I imagine the engine starting a block away and the boy’s attention being suddenly diverted from a daydream.

But the thing I like the best about that scene is knowing how quiet the town had to be in order for that sound to tease its way down a block and into a schoolroom’s open window. There were no vehicles racing down a nearby highway at 70 miles an hour. Trash pickup was not accompanied by the cacophony today’s garbage trucks produce. Aircraft were few and far between and produced little sound, compared to today’s jets.

Nostalgia fueled by memory drives the old iron hobby. As we consider a restored relic, memories give us context. They tell us how the piece was used, its importance in a family’s life or farm or small business, its essentiality during harvest. If the sound of an 8 hp engine starting was imprinted on a boy’s consciousness, you can be sure that was a very big engine in his little town.

Fewer and fewer folks in this hobby have firsthand memories of steam engines or hay tools or gas engines. It’s a safe bet that those who do would be happy to share them with an appreciative audience. When you see them at a show this summer, ask questions. Try to form a picture in your mind; imagine the sounds and scents and sights the old timers describe. Use memory to bring new life to old treasures!                          

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Leslie C. McManus     

Share Your Best Idea with Us!

At more than 1,200 events held all over the U.S. every year, people like you set up demonstrations and displays that give a glimpse into traditional farm practices. Everything from harvesting to threshing, shelling to plowing, grinding to sawing, individuals and small groups crank it up and get ‘er done. But there is always more than one way to skin a cat. Why not share your best ideas?

Larry Whitesell’s story will resonate with any of you who’ve produced or helped produce a demonstration at a show. For several years, he put on a blacksmith demonstration at a show near his home in Tipton, Indiana. 

“After loading, hauling, unloading, setting up, demonstrating, loading, hauling, unloading and putting the display away each year, I began to consider the merits of a portable blacksmith shop,” Larry says. “It increasingly seemed that the demonstration itself had become the lesser part of the operation.”

Next thing you know, he had a shop on wheels that could easily be hauled to and from the showgrounds. Obviously the shop didn’t build itself. But it’s easy to imagine the near glee he must have experienced during design and construction, knowing that the drudgery of packing, loading and set up were things of the past. Plus, it’s a safe bet that he had fun figuring out ways to salvage “found” materials that added utility or eye appeal and reduced the cost.

Some folks’ minds naturally flow toward innovation. For the rest of us, ruts can be as comfortable and familiar as a favorite easy chair. A different way of doing things, an easier or more interesting way may never occur to us. But all you have to do is drop in on a few shows, and light bulbs start glowing. And the guy with the clever idea? He’d like nothing better than to tell you about it!

Got a cool way of doing something at your show? Let Farm Collector be the town crier! Drop us a line, shoot us an email. We’d love to share your best ideas with everyone in the hobby. And if you’re near Tipton this summer, drop by Larry’s demonstration for a look at the most relaxed blacksmith in the continental 48! FC

Leslie signature      

Leslie C. McManus