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On the Road Again: Old Iron in the Southwest

Once again, my boss — who operates with a certain maddening consistency — has denied my proposal for a trip to explore the fascinating history and heritage of old iron in the Hawaiian Islands. But he offered an acceptable compromise, so my 2015 show season began in Apache Junction, Arizona, at the Arizona Early Day Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in March.

Several years had passed since my last old iron foray into the Southwest and it was a thrill to pick up where I left off. We all have favorite shows and it is a sweet homecoming to return to those every year. But when you stretch your legs and get to a different part of the country, that’s when you begin to see the big picture of America’s agricultural heritage.

Unique conditions demand unique equipment. Track-style tractors were developed to navigate bog land in California’s Sacramento River delta. Self-leveling combines work their way across steep grades in Washington. Hi-crop tractors glide over fields in Florida. Orchard tractors are of little use in Oklahoma, but indispensible in Oregon. Garden tractors are especially big in the Northeast, Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest.

Regional differences extend to lines of machinery as well. In the 1920s, heavy equipment only rarely travelled cross-country. Rumelys were uncommon in the West; Holt and Best tractors were unknown in the East. Take in a show in the Southwest or on the West Coast today and prepare to be dazzled by the variety of early crawlers showcasing a fascinating heritage of industrial design.

Implements vary according to topography and crop. Stationary engines tackle different jobs in different parts of the country, providing power for everything from mining to grinding corn to pumping water. Memorabilia often reflects local manufacturers and industry. Prevailing weather conditions also play a role. Original pieces from the Southwest and the High Plains are likely to have a sun-baked patina; those from the Southeast can be gnarly with rust.

Plans can change, but I expect to take in the Half Century of Progress show in Rantoul, Illinois, this August, and the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, in September. And if you have a minute, drop a line to my boss. Let him know of your deep interest in old iron in Hawaii. Let’s get something rolling for next winter! FC

Leslie C. McManus is the editor of Farm Collector magazine. Contact her at or find her on Google+.