Between the Bookends: Four Farm Equipment Book Reviews for 2008

Four books for old iron collectors: C.H. Wendel, farm tractors, John Deere history and historic farmhouses of the Midwest.

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1. Prepare to drift through the wonder of a lost era when you take up C.H. Wendel's newest book, American Industrial Machinery Since 1870. Echoing the heft and format of his previous tomes on farm tractors and gas engines, the new book presents a stunning collection of art and information all but impossible to find elsewhere.

Industrial Machinery is divided into sections addressing construction machinery, machine tools, printing machinery, sawmill machinery and steam engines. A fraction of the author's vast collection of engravings and illustrations give life to machines once considered not only the cutting edge of technology but likely the best that would ever be. The optimism of the turn-of-the-century mood shines brightly and Wendel's careful research lends clarity and context.

The book's focused yet diverse subject matter offers the collector of old iron an exceptional resource. If you've ever tinkered with a century-old sawmill, marveled over a stationary steam exhibit at a show, considered bidding on a piece of old shop equipment or become intrigued by antique construction machinery, you know how hard it is to find information on such relics. Whether you're in that camp or simply fascinated by a golden era, you'll find Wendel's new book a rare treat.

American Industrial Machinery Since 1870 by C.H. Wendel, published 2008 by The Prairie Press, 4415 F St., Amana, IA 52203; 416 pages, hardcover, black and white illustrations.

2. A new book by tractor historian Larry Gay may seem to have a focus a bit modern for these pages. But Farm Tractors 1995-2005 is in fact the capstone of a series tracing the history and evolution of the farm tractor. The new release completes the set published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers: The Agricultural Tractor 1855-1950, Farm Tractors 1950-1975 and Farm Tractors 1975-1995 (also authored by Gay).

Gay's book opens with a concise overview of trendsetting tractors in the last 100 years and then shifts gears to the current era. New models introduced each year from 1995 to 2005 are described, including Nebraska Tractor Test results, industry retail sales figures and information on company mergers and buyouts (and photos of each series). Rich in data, Farm Tractors 1995-2005 also delivers detailed charts on manufacturers and brand names as well as model charts for each brand.

Whether you're a browser or the type of reader who finishes in one sitting, Farm Tractors 1995-2005 offers everything from the juicy little morsel of information to a full meal deal. Charts, timelines, illustrations, tables and solid text tell a complex tale in a manageable, well-paced way, offering a fine complement to your collection of books on antique tractors.

Farm Tractors 1995-2005 by Larry Gay, published 2008 by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers, 2950 Niles Rd., St. Joseph, Mich.; (800) 695-2723; 174 pages, paperback, black and white illustrations.

3. Andrew Morland's new book, Legendary John Deere Tractors: A Photographic History, is – as you'd expect from an accomplished photographer – pretty as a picture. More a photo album than a long read, the book offers up page after glorious page of world-class photography of the green and yellow line.

Morland begins at the beginning, literally, with the Froehlich engine Deere traces its tractor roots to, the homegrown Dain All-Wheel Drive and the Waterloo Boy, which ultimately launched the company into tractor production. From there he moves deliberately through the 2-cylinder era, the styled letter series, numbered series, and 20 and 30 series.

In a departure from many books studying the Deere line, Legendary John Deere Tractors takes a look at the big picture. Morland delves into Deere's overseas lines as well, giving solid background (and more fine photos) on Lanz tractors built in Germany and Chamberlain tractors built in Australia.

Many Deere books focus exclusively on the company's 2-cylinder line; a few stretch into the New Generation launch. Morland, however, keeps moving up through 2007 models, giving a very good look at state-of-the-art equipment.

Don't expect garden variety in Legendary John Deere Tractors. Morland is relentless in his quest for rare, handsomely restored tractors. From the Overtime tractor (a World War I relic assembled by the Overtime Farm Tractor Co. in London from American-made Waterloo Boy components) to a rarified 2020 orchard tractor (one of just 21 built), the tractors featured are the best of the best. And with Morland at the helm, the photography is first rate, from carefully considered backgrounds that show off the equipment to best advantage, to close-ups so detailed you'd swear you could wipe grease off the chain drive. Concise, informative captions complete the package, one no John Deere enthusiast will want to be without.

Legendary John Deere Tractors: A Photographic History by Andrew Morland, published 2008 by Voyageur Press, 400 First Ave. North, Suite 300, Minneapolis, MN 55401, www.voyageurpress.com; hardcover, 208 pages, color photos.

4. If you live in or travel through the upper Midwest, you've seen hundreds of balloon frame houses – you just may not have known that's what they were called. Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest (first published in hardcover in 1992, the 2008 version is in paperback) studies the architecture of the ubiquitous farmhouse in its historical context.

Considered revolutionary when it was born in the 1840s, the balloon frame structural system created homes described by the author Fred W. Peterson as "economical and efficient to build, convenient and flexible in use, and in time … strong and durable against the wear and tear of large families and the elements."

The balloon frame, he explains, results in a tightly integrated system of parts that are proportioned to and increase the strength of one another. "The structure has been likened to a basket," he notes, "in which all the parts are tightly woven together in a unified enclosure." In a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts, the balloon frame house is composed of relatively lightweight components that combine to create an extremely strong framework – when those components are joined at the proper place in the proper sequence.

Archival quality photos of balloon frame farmhouses and the families that first inhabited them, historic engravings and detailed floor plans complement the narrative. The text considers every aspect of the style, including technical aspects of construction as well as social, economic and aesthetic values.

Peterson's exhaustive research into the topic gives interesting perspective. He notes, for instance, the impacts of the evolution of manufactured building materials and industrial development as well as attitudinal shifts in agriculture and agronomy in the same era. Undeniably academic in tone, the book nonetheless delivers a fascinating new look at the lives and times of the farm family in a long-lost era.

Homes in the Heartland: Balloon Frame Farmhouses of the Upper Midwest by Fred W. Peterson, published 2008 by the University of Minnesota Press, 111 Third Ave. South, Suite 290, Minneapolis, MN 55401; $24.95, paperback, 312 pages, black and white photos and illustrations.