Antique Mechanics Club at UC-Davis

UC-Davis students add old iron to curriculum with the Antique Mechanics Club

Alums work hand-in-hand with students at the Antique Mechanics Club

Alums work hand-in-hand with students at the Antique Mechanics Club. Some of those involved (left to right): Sue Esdaile and Brian Barnett, alumni members; Christina Woosley, student member (and former club president); student member Victoria Smith, Victor Duraj, advisor; and Ron Allen, alumni member. Club membership typically ranges from 8 to 12 students.

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It's another late night at the University of California-Davis. Students determined to squeeze more than 24 hours into the day work furiously into the night, cramming to meet the deadline. Abandoned coffee cups and soda bottles clutter work surfaces; fluorescent lights hum overhead. Like students everywhere, these are engaged in a time-honored tradition: the all-nighter. Picnic Day, after all, fast approaches, and these members of the Antique Mechanics Club have miles to go before they sleep – miles to be traveled by the club's vintage farm equipment, restored and running. 

Every college has clubs. But it's a safe bet that the Antique Mechanics Club at UC-Davis is in a league by itself. Now in its 28th year, the club is a campus institution. The club's mission: to collect, restore, and exhibit machinery and tools used during the early mechanization of agriculture in California.

"It's an unfunded, all-volunteer operation. It's just a group of students and volunteers, working together on antique farm equipment," says Victor Duraj, who volunteers his time with the group. Victor, a design engineer in Biological and Ag Engineering at UC-Davis, is the group's advisor. "We think it's the only university program of its type."

The club operates out of four aircraft hangars. One of the aging hangars houses tools, equipment and active projects. The others contain overflow equipment and completed projects. Parts equipment and future projects more than fill a boneyard just outside, and a practice track provides a "test course" for restoration projects.

As much as club members enjoy working with old iron, they also enjoy showing it off. The club participates in area shows and events each year, operating and displaying vintage equipment. Although the club is based in property on the edge of campus, members miss no opportunity to increase their visibility. When the university built a new visitors center in 1989, club members – and their Holt 75, complete with a John Deere 8-bottom plow dating to 1910 – participated in the groundbreaking festivities.

Lack of funding has not cut into the club's raw material. Students, alumni and friends of the group have gathered literally tons of equipment from all over California.

"We have four buildings full, and a full boneyard," Victor says. "We'll find somebody who agrees to donate something to the program, and then they'll say 'If you want this, you've got to take it all.'"

The club's collection of more than 500 pieces of equipment spans the range from garden variety to collector's treasures. Among the prizes: a 1918 Holt 75 (with 30-inch pads instead of the standard 24") for soft fields, like rice; a replica of an 1831 McCormick Reaper; a 1915 Russell 30-60 gasoline tractor; and two tractors wearing serial number 1 on their plates: Caterpillar's first RD6 series tractor, and Caterpillar's first diesel tractor (a diesel 60 dating to 1931). The latter is about to undergo restoration.

There's also an old Case pea-and-bean thresher, a 1912 almond huller, a Case baler from the 1920s (in working condition); a Regan gasoline vapor upright engine built more than 100 years ago, an 1885 Standish gas engine, a Caterpillar 60 (possibly painted red at the factory), lots of Cat crawlers, and three different Yubas.

Riding herd over the inventory teaches lessons of its own. In recent years, Victor says, the club has put a tighter focus on its collection.

"We've been working on our inventory," he says, "trying to determine what's best to keep, what we want to restore, what's best to move on to collectors."

In June, the Antique Mechanics Club conducted its first public sale of surplus equipment. Fourteen trucks have already been sold, and two dozen tractors will go next. Proceeds will be used to establish an endowment fund. That fund will be used to meet the students' needs: funding for tools, racks, supplies, steel and fuel. A $40,000 donation from UC-Davis alum Ben Sharpsteen, matched by university funding, created housing for the program in 1976. But all acquisitions and supplies in the club's nearly three-decade history have been funded by donations from alumni and friends. The club's interest in preservation is a clear draw for new members. "Antique Mechanics is a good building block," says Victoria Smith, San Diego. "I didn't know anything about this stuff when I started. But I've learned a lot about agriculture and California history since then."

It's a good diversion from the demands of academia, she adds.

"I can spend the entire week doing homework and reading and taking tests," she says. "Then I come out here, and in two hours, I can actually see the results of what I'm doing."

In tune with the times, Antique Mechanics welcomes all potential members, regardless of gender or experience with a wrench. For Christina Woosley, Huntington Beach, the initial attraction was "a cute guy." But she quickly found a whole new world in an old aircraft hangar.

"I came because of the guy, but I stayed because I liked what they did here," she says. "I got to learn about machinery, which I wanted to do. I'd never touched a tractor until I got here. This is a really nice way to educate yourself about engines. And it's fun. I'm a genetics major, and this is a nice release after studying physiology.

"I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it," she says. "I've recruited a lot of other girls."

The club reflects the university's diversity: Members come from all different fields of study, from urban areas, from the country.

"Those guys from the farm," Victor says, "they like coming out here because they say 'it's like coming home.' It's a broad spectrum of people."

Once again, old iron works its magic.

"The minute they walk through that door – this sounds corny – it's like a family here," he says. "It's a wonderful social experience, mechanical experience, and agricultural experience."

That unique spirit, he says, led to the formation of the Antique Mechanics Society, an alumni group that works closely with the students.

"A lot of alums feel so strong about it that they want others to have that experience," he says.

For volunteers, their investment in the group is intensive. They volunteer time, often at least weekly; they provide expertise; and they donate funds.

Ron Allen, a charter member of both the student club and the alumni group, says the spirit of the undertaking makes it all worthwhile.

"I grew up around wrenches, but this was something different," he says. "The main thing I like to see here is helping students so they can have that experience." FC 

For more information: Victor Duraj, Bainer Hall Room 1330B, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616-5294; (530) 752-1890. Email: vduraj@ucdavis.edu.

Antique Mechanics Club, online: http://tractors.ucdavis.edu/; (530) 754-9888.