Few people sustain a dream for 40 years. Jerry Mez, Avoca, Iowa, is the exception.
The result of his dream is the 26,500-square-foot Farmall-Land museum, dedicated to the machines and history of International Harvester.
“I’ve had this dream of making a museum for over 40 years,” Jerry says. “I started saving tractors with an F-20 35 years ago, because my father told me I should keep one of those old F-20s to show people what he did when he first came to Avoca in 1943. It all evolved from that. I started collecting tractors slowly at first, and it picked up speed from there. My wife, Joyce, says it’s a disease, but I think it’s one of the better ones I could have.”
Building a business
Jerry’s father, Max, taught school for several years until he started working for an IH dealer in Falls City, Neb., during summers and weekends. The work convinced him he should become an IH dealer. “Avoca, Iowa, was an open territory,” Jerry says, “which meant there weren’t any dealers for a range of six to 12 miles around.”
After a stint in the armed services and college, Jerry came back to Avoca to work at the family business, Avoca Implement Co., and eventually take it over from his father. That was when he began to start collecting for the museum, which opened in 2006.
Getting tractors for the collection was never a problem. “People always ask, ‘How did you find all this stuff?’” Jerry explains. “When people know you’re a collector, you don’t have to make many calls. They come to you. The hardest part is saying no. Sometimes the tractors are right next to home.”
On one occasion, a man who lived only 25 miles from Avoca came in and asked for parts for an IH 664 utility tractor. Jerry’s parts man told him there was no such tractor. “The guy just stood there, smiling,” Jerry says, “and said, ‘OK, I’ll be in tomorrow with my parts book for it.’ And sure enough, IH had made a few of those. But we didn’t sell many in this area. It was one of those short-lived things that isn’t even listed as a tractor model in books written about IH.”
While he dreamed about the museum, Jerry stored tractors at area farms‚ fairgrounds and sheds, even parked outside Avoca Implement Co. buildings. Today they’ve found a home. “They’re all in the museum now, fully restored,” he says, 175 red tractors and Cadets, all different variations.
Restoration was an ongoing process as Jerry built the collection. “For many years when there was time in our implement dealerships in the winter and summer,” he says, “I had my people help with the restoring.” Jerry also did some of the restoration work himself.
High crop models that came out of the South were the most difficult projects. “They were pretty well used up and had nothing left when they were parked in a fence row,” he says. “The biggest project we had was a 340 that had been burned up in a fire. The 4300 took an awful lot of work, too. It came out in 1961 and 1962 and was really too big for the normal farms at the time, so 4300s ended up in a lot of construction jobs and big ranches.”
One item red lovers won’t see in too many places is the 1962 IH 4300 4-wheel drive tractor painted construction yellow. “Only 36 were made,” Jerry says (some references put that number at 40). Regardless, it’s a difficult item to find. “At the time you had to order it from IH, and then they built it for you,” he says. “It’s a straight-start diesel, with an 817-cubic-inch engine and a road speed of 11 or 12 mph.”
Jerry’s particularly partial to the IH 1206: “It’s my favorite tractor of all time, the best tractor ever made by anybody, red or green or anybody in between, in my opinion.”
Manufactured in an era before tractors needed a lot of bells and whistles, the 1206 is a stout tractor with a really nice white paint scheme and a lot of horsepower, he says, and not much could go wrong with it.
Jerry has four: Wheatland, front-wheel-assist, narrow-front and wide-front models. “It’s kind of the only thing that is duplicated in the museum,” he says, “but people still stand there and admire all of them anyway.”
Laying the groundwork
Twenty years ago, with the museum in mind, Jerry bought acreage north of Avoca near the crossroads of I-80 and U.S. 59 in western Iowa. Signs identify the museum, but Jerry would like to get some on the interstate. “It will have an H tractor out front,” he says, “raised up high in the air so travelers can see it from a distance.”
Over the years Jerry has collected IH construction equipment, much of which came from the Iowa State Highway Commission, where it was used for mowing and dirt work. He has a beet picker in front of the museum, along with several implements. “We’ll probably add more implements in the future,” he says. “It’s still a work in progress.” Farmall-Land has been open for three years, and each year Jerry has added more display space.
Jerry says he’s been collecting farm toys forever. “My employees had instructions that every time a new toy came in, they were to bring me one,” he says. “I guess I never grew up. I still enjoy looking at them, and having fun with them. They jog my memory about a lot of good old times.” The toy area, he says, is one of his favorite parts of the museum.
Two of his Model 60 pedal tractors are unusual: He has a pink Model H and a pink M. “When Ertl made them, the parts manager asked if I wanted one for my collection,” he recalls. “I told him to get only one for the shop, because I didn’t think it would sell very well. Turns out it was the best-selling pedal tractor we ever had, because grandfathers and fathers could finally buy something for their daughters and granddaughters, too. They came with a little pink wagon, too.”
Other exhibits include IH gas engines, displays of literature and old wrenches. “We have several boards of the old knuckle-busters‚ as they were called,” he says. “One of my future projects is to write down where each one of those came from. For some of them I really have no idea what kind of IH machine they were used on, but all of them have the logo.”
The museum also contains a room with IH refrigeration items, a source of nostalgia for Jerry. “Dad always waited for the end of the school day to deliver refrigeration items,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I’ve always said that’s the reason that I didn’t grow up tall, because I had to carry that heavy stuff up and down stairs.”
The Tractor Widow’s Lounge offers a bit of something different. “Joyce has a portion of her doll collection in there,” Jerry says. “We wanted a place where the wives can go and sit while the husbands finish touring. It’s added to the museum quite a bit.”
Jerry’s tried to include something for everyone. The broad display also boasts 125 artist prints and proofs depicting IH activities and machines, a couple of full-size IH threshers, 30 Cub Cadets, fire trucks, Scouts and Travelalls, a 1927 truck, belt buckles, hats, and more.
One little-known item manufactured by IH is the M-1 rifle from 1953-55. “They made 337,000 of them for the Army. The metal part has IH stamped right on it,” Jerry says. “When I served in the armed forces my rifle didn’t say IH, though, because if it had, I would have noticed it.”
Each year more items will be added. Portions of the collection will rotate, including more specialized tractors, allowing a new experience for repeat visitors.
The hunt continues
There are still a few items Jerry doesn’t have in the museum, including the 2 + 2 tractor, the long-nosed “anteater” or “aardvark” tractor, the 3588 and 3788 tractors, the gold demonstrator, and a 50 series tractor. Those will come sometime in the future.
In the meantime, Jerry concentrates on the pleasure of running his museum, meeting people, and visiting and reminiscing with them. “It’s fun to see the looks on their faces when they come in and see all of this stuff,” he says. “The best advertising I have is when someone is finished and says they’re going to come back with their father or son or neighbors or family.”
Visitors come from all over the U.S., as well as Canada, England, New Zealand, Australia and Germany. “We have tour buses coming in year ’round,” Jerry says. “We’re closed from October through April, but we still have bus tours. We’re fully heated and air-conditioned so people can come any time of the year.”
Jerry’s proud of the tradition represented by the collection. “I want people to see how much of a part International Harvester had to do with agriculture, and bringing it to where it is today,” he says. “With all the tractors and equipment and other IH items in here, they can see the heritage that I come from.”
Read about what’s planned for the Farmall-Land museum this year: “Farmall-Land Museum Announces 2009 Features.”