Zagray Farm Museum: A Living Link to the Past

Zagray Farm Museum preserves brothers’ old iron collection.

Cupola furnace

This cupola furnace was salvaged from a Collinsville, Conn., foundry. The Zagray brothers used it to make castings.

Photo by Leslie C. McManus

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Zagray Farm Museum sends a very bad message to packrats. Formerly owned by three bachelor brothers, the 200-acre complex in Colchester, Conn., fairly groans beneath the weight of lovingly preserved old iron, much of which is put through its paces during shows put on there by the Quinebaug Valley Engineers Assn. (QVEA).

Tractors, all manner of tools and machinery, a machine shop, sawmill and even an 1866 cupola furnace salvaged from a foundry are among the relics amassed by brothers Stanley, Harry and Willie Zagray — all of who apparently shared a disinclination to part with anything, ever. Now owned in a cooperative joint venture between the QVEA and the Colchester Historical Society, the farm is a living museum showcasing the rise of mechanization in agriculture, construction and industry. “We try to maintain the brothers’ interests,” says Mark Maikshilo, QVEA past president.

The museum produces three shows a year. Demonstrations showcase an 1800s sawmill, planer and cordwood saw, vintage construction equipment, plowing with oxen or tractors, stationary power and blacksmithing. The Zagray brothers’ machine shop gives a remarkable look at machine tools dating to the late 19th century.

The heart of the farmstead

The oldest part of the farm shop building was built before World War II. Stanley Zagray worked as a machinist at Pratt & Whitney through the war years. By about 1950, when he began working from his home shop, the brothers had expanded the shop. “They were very industrious guys,” Mark says. “They had a turbine they used to channel their own power for electricity from a brook nearby. It wasn’t enough to provide electricity for the whole house but what they got, they got for free.”

Wood stoves heated the shop. A lifetime’s accumulation of smoke coated the walls with a smudge so thick that the brothers used it as a sort of blackboard. Notations, calculations and words of wisdom they scratched into the smudge remain visible today.

Early on, club members thought the machine shop might offer a resource available to members who could work there to produce their own parts. But practicalities soon proved that impossible. “The electrical system is a disaster,” Mark notes. “There are light cords dangling over machines and 3-phase is supplied with extension cords.” Safety was a major concern, as were skill levels. Few if any members were truly well-versed in operation of century-old shop equipment.

Eventually the decision was made to operate the machine shop as a museum. Now stocked with a combination of original and donated machines, the shop features four machines (lathe, shaper, planer and milling machine) run off a line shaft.

An adjacent space houses an 1866 cupola furnace the brothers salvaged from a Collinsville, Conn., foundry. “They didn’t get the furnace until the late 1960s and I think it took them a couple of years just to set it all up,” says club member Dave McClary, Scotland, Conn., who’s taken an active interest in the shop, researching its contents and giving tours. “There was a lot to do. They had to hook up a 3-phase engine and build a rig to lift the pig iron. They probably only ran the furnace for five to 10 years.”

Sunday money

When members of the Quinebaug Valley Engineers Assn. rolled up their sleeves and went to work cleaning up the Zagray property about 10 years ago, they expected to find some diamonds in the rough. But they surely didn’t expect to find a stash of cash.

Under a piece of rotted canvas, an old sink covered an even older pail and surplus army ammunition box. The pail was packed with plastic bags full of $20 bills — more than $50,000 worth. “We think it was the Zagray brothers’ ‘Sunday money,’” says QVEA past president Mark Maikshilo, who made the discovery. “We think it was their fund to use in case they needed to pay for something on Sunday when the banks were closed.”

The find was turned over to the Zagray estate; a modest “finder’s fee” was given to the club, which put it to work in making museum improvements.

When giants worked the earth

When George Jarvis, Manchester, Conn., paid $5,000 for a 1953 Northwest Model 80D shovel at a 1978 auction, he knew what he had hold of. “I operated one like it while I worked on construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike years ago,” he says.

George restored the rusty relic and then, using two trailers, hauled the Northwest to a job in Hartford. “We started hooking up the cables and there were a bunch of young guys there, giving me a lot of trouble about ‘that old piece of junk,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘You just wait 15 minutes; there’s going to be a lot of changes around here.’ We got the cables hooked up and got hold of the concrete and broke a 3-foot wall right off. That’s an 18-ton shovel! Those kids’ mouths were hanging open.”

The track-mounted cable digger with two-part line is powered by a 6-cylinder Murphy diesel engine. “These are some of the most powerful machines ever built,” George says. “You can put a 40- or 50-ton pull on it. It weighs 78 tons. That’s a lot of weight: It stands to reason you’re going to do something with it.” The crane is entirely cable-operated; it has no hydraulics.

The Northwest was parked in South Windsor, Conn., for more than 20 years. When George put it back in service in 2004, he did little more than put in two new batteries. “It turned over six times and took right off,” he says. “It’s run ever since.” The rig is a star attraction at QVEA shows where it is used to strip gravel from a cliff face.

One-of-a-kind Wheel Horse

Jon Cicarelli, Norwich, Conn., showed the 1961 701 Wheel Horse he and his dad restored. The prototype for Wheel Horse’s entry into a mid-engine tractor, it is the first Wheel Horse to position the engine on the front side of the frame.

As a prototype, the tractor is not as complete as a production model. “It doesn’t have a parking brake and it only has one belt,” Jon says. “It has a double pulley; I guess they thought you’d need it because of the bigger engine.” The 701 had a 7 hp Kohler; previously, the biggest engine Wheel Horse used was a 5 hp Tecumseh.

When Jon found the 701, it was only recently retired. “The guy I bought it from, his dad had been using it to mow,” he says. “They had the deck in the shed.” It was rough but complete. “It didn’t have a cultivator but it had the plastic dash and backrest.” It also had the original tires. “It’s tough to find those without dry rot,” he notes.

Jon has another 70. It’s in good shape and he’s decided to keep it original. “The 701 is my favorite model tractor,” he says.

Collecting chainsaws

Tom Maikshilo’s collection is a cut above the rest — a chainsaw cut, that is. Collecting chainsaws since 1996, Tom has gathered up so many that they’ve taken over his property. “I have a six-bay garage with shelves,” he says. “But it’s full of saws. All our good stuff — like the camper — sits outside.”

His collection of “at least” 500 saws includes varied makes and models, some going as far back as the 1930s. Lancaster chainsaws, made by Lancaster (Pa.) Saws, are among his favorites. “My dad bought a Lancaster saw at a State of Connecticut surplus auction in the 1950s and I inherited it,” Tom says. “It vibrated, it’s heavy and noisy and it wants to jump out of your hands. I used it for a long time. I had no idea how nice the new saws were.”

By then, it was too late. Next thing he knew, Tom had six Lancaster saws, buying some for parts to keep others running. He still likes Lancasters but has branched out. “My main thing is to find something different that no one else has,” he says. “That’s the hard part. You have to race to the show or somebody else will get the good stuff.”

Reflecting the regional importance of cutting wood for timber and heat, the show drew other chainsaw enthusiasts as well. Mike Brigham, Sterling, Conn., showed a pneumatic Wright reciprocating saw that could be used underwater (think pier and dock pilings). The Wright is one of a collection of more than 1,000 chainsaws Mike and his dad, Danny, have built a museum around. “I started with garden tractors when I was 25,” Mike says. “Then I got interested in old chainsaws, and they started multiplying like rabbits.”

Chainsaws have long been a familiar sight on the New England farmstead, where farmers used them to create an off-season revenue stream. “Farmers would cut pulp wood for the mills,” Mike says. “Most of the mills up north didn’t own land back then; they’d pay cash for pulp wood.”

Ford fan

Bob Hanna, Middle Haddam, Conn., showed a fine trio of Ford tractors, including an 8N with overhead valve 6-cylinder Funk conversion, a 1951 8N with Howard 2-speed rear end and Arps half-track, and another Funk conversion, a flathead V-8. The V-8 conversions are hard to find, so Bob built his own. “It was a fun project,” he says, “but it was a project.”

Partial to Fords from the 1950-’52 range, Bob has a collection of 20 tractors (15 of which are restored). “The earlier tractors have a front-mount distributor,” he says, “and I don’t like that.” Born and raised in a Ford family, he started driving tractors by age 10. “Things were different then,” he says. “There were no computers, no TV.”

After starting out with Farmall Cubs, Bob made the shift to Ford tractors about 20 years ago. He does all of his own restoration work. “Right now I’m working on a 741,” he says. “It’s a small row-crop tractor, kind of rare.” He’s attended the national Ford show and is no stranger to road trips. “The farthest I’ve gone for a tractor was Fargo, N.D.,” he says. “I got a 971 Diesel row-crop. It wasn’t a great deal but after pulling a trailer all that way I bought it anyway.” FC

For more information:

— Quinebaug Valley Engineers Assn., 544 Amston Rd. (Rt. 85), Colchester, CT 06415. 2014 shows: May 3-4, July 19-20 and Oct. 4-5; Zagray Farm Museum.

— Mike Brigham, mikessawz@yahoo.com.

Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector.