Collecting Authentic Pieces: Antique Farm Equipment in Original Condition

Farm relics in such exceptional condition that cosmetic restoration would be a crime

Dwight Emstrom's original 1951 Ford 8N spent 40 years in storage.

Dwight Emstrom's original 1951 Ford 8N spent 40 years in storage. "When I got it eight years ago, I put gas in, and that's it," he says. "I just took the original plugs out this week. I've never messed with the distributor or points or anything."

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When it comes to old iron, the pristine original has limited appeal.

But don’t put it in the Rodney Dangerfield category: There’s still plenty of passion for the relic in condition so exceptional that cosmetic restoration would be a crime.

Historic Farm Days, an annual production of the I&I Tractor & Gas Engine Club, Penfield, Ill., offered ample evidence of that. The July 2009 event was packed with showstoppers – but some very nice originals were standouts in their own right. (Read more about the 2009 I&I show: “Super-Sized in 2009: I&I Antique Tractor & Gas Engine Club Show.”)

The appeal of a fine original is powerful. One way or another, the original piece has survived the passage of time with amazingly little wear. It doesn’t look brand new, to be sure – and that can put off enthusiasts accustomed to a steady diet of gleaming restorations. But given the age of the piece, the astonishingly good condition of a fine original sets it apart. It is authentic; there is no artifice or deception. It’s as close to what it was when it came off the assembly line as a piece can be. And, as the old saying goes, “it’s only original once.” Restore it, and what makes it special is irretrievably lost.

A working original is very big medicine indeed. A machine that needs no mechanical restoration to work as it was intended to decades earlier draws particular admiration from collectors and enthusiasts.

Hidden in a warehouse

Flanked by handsomely restored tractors at the Classic Farm Tractors Calendar Reunion display, Dwight Emstrom’s 1951 Ford 8N stood in a class by itself: The tractor is nearly totally original, and has just 125 original hours.

Dwight, who lives in Galesburg, Ill., added the 8N to his Ford collection eight years ago. When a friend told Dwight about the ad he’d seen for an original 8N with very low hours, Dwight wasted no time pursuing the rare original. “I called the seller and asked him if he’d hold the tractor for me until morning,” he recalls. “He agreed, so I drove half the night. When I got there at 6:30 the next morning, 10 people watched me pull in.”

Years earlier, the seller’s father bought the tractor new, equipped with loader and blade. But after a family squabble turned toxic, the original owner drained all the fluids and parked the Ford in a warehouse in Wisconsin, where it remained – for 40 years.

“The warehouse must have been damp,” Dwight speculates. “That saved the tires, but it blistered the paint. But it didn’t bother the sheet metal. Water probably dripped off that.” He’s since given it a clear coat to protect the finish.

Dwight’s Ford collection, which includes the oldest 9N known to exist, is well known in collector circles. The original 8N is a standout among special tractors. “I really like its tires, the fact that they’re not cracked,” he says. “But I also like the way it runs and drives. I didn’t know these things could run that easy. It really runs good.”

Tender loving care

In contrast, the Hammel family’s Allis-Chalmers 7050 has barely had a day off since Bernard Hammel bought it new in 1974. Tender loving care has kept it looking like new even though it’s used regularly for fieldwork and planting at the family’s Champaign, Ill., farm. “It’s kind of neat to be able to say you’ve been using the tractor for 35 years and it still has its original paint,” Bernard’s son, Steve, admits.

The ancient Allis tractors are interesting, Steve says, but tractors like the 7050 are the ones that trip his nostalgia trigger. “I started out plowing with this tractor when I was 10 or 11,” he recalls. “Dad started with a D-21, but by the time I got started that era was being phased out.”

The 7050 was not his dad’s first choice. “When he bought this, he had intended to buy a Deere,” Steve says. But when the dealer announced there’d be a two-year wait, plans changed. “Since then we’ve ended up with six Allis tractors,” Bernard says.

A unique piece of memorabilia adds to the family’s working collection. An original Allis-Chalmers baseball uniform illustrates the company’s varied heritage. “I’d guess it dates to the 1930s,” Steve says. Much has changed on the farm since then, Bernard notes. “When I started out, we went from two rows to four, check-planting. Now we’re up to 16 rows,” he marvels, “and we don’t cultivate corn. We pulled out the fences, sold the cows and quit hauling manure.”

Protected from the elements

A 1903 Pennsylvania barn thresher owned by brothers Kent and Karl Jansen, Sigel, Ill., could stand on its own in a museum display. But with a strong interest in preservation of early farm equipment, the brothers have opted to share the centenarian with show goers. “We like old and unusual stuff,” Kent says. “And if you can find a really good original, well, that’s every collector’s dream. To find something made of wood in 1903 that’s still in great shape, that’s almost unheard of.”

The stationary piece (it’s on wheels now, to ease transport) was intended for barn threshing of wheat or other small grain. Convertible apertures accommodate placement in the barn. “You’d use it to feed livestock or make flour,” Kent says. “It was probably designed for use on a very small farm.” Originally designed for use with a horse power, the thresher could also be run by a stationary gas engine. “That would have been a great improvement over the horse power,” he admits.

The barn thresher works on the same basic principle as a threshing machine. “It has a cylinder, beater, shaker and grinding mechanism, just the same as a new combine,” Kent says. “And it does a really good job of cleaning grain; I was surprised how good a job it does. At the shows, I watch farmers go through the straw pile looking for wheat, and they don’t find any.”

Early wood pieces in very good original condition are exceptionally hard to come by. “Wood is so vulnerable to the elements,” Kent says, “as well as to damage from bugs and moisture. But as far as we know, every piece of wood on this is original. I’d say it saw very little use (although the table does show wear) and it was very well cared for.”

The thresher was powered by Tom Jansen’s 8 hp Olds stationary engine. Tom’s collection includes several engines in their work clothes. “If at least 70 percent of the paint is still there, I don’t paint it,” he says. “I would rather have original. It just gives you a good feeling. You’ll generally pay a premium for it, but it’s worth it.”

Part of an original collection

Wes Armstrong’s No. 8 Massey-Harris spreader may be starting its eighth decade but it still looks new – and that’s just the way Wes likes it. “Pretty much everything we have is original,” he says. “I’ve been collecting all my life, and now my son is interested in collecting, and we leave everything original, unless it needs work to get it going.”

That wasn’t the case with the unusually nice original spreader. One of a pair Wes bought in Tennessee three years ago, the spreader appears never to have been used and as a result is in very, very good original condition. The companion piece he bought had seen active duty over the years but was well maintained. Although it has no original paint, that piece is in good shape.

Wes, who lives in El Paso, Ill., collects Massey-Harris tractors and implements and has owner’s manuals for just about everything in his collection. His original spreader is becoming a regular on the show circuit. “We’ve taken it to quite a few shows,” he says. “It’s a lot lighter to haul, and a lot of people are interested in it. They like it just the way it is, in its work clothes.”

Show workhorse

A vintage threshing machine manufactured by the Minneapolis Threshing Machine Co. performed like a workhorse during the Penfield show. Conditions were far from perfect – torrential rains resulted in wet bundles, and high weed content didn’t help any. But like a trooper, the original old machine kept plugging away.

“It has a rotary cutter to cut bundles and in its day, there would have been a rack on both sides of the machine,” explained Glenn Miller, Seymour, Ill. “But we try to go as slow as we can for these demonstrations. We had an OilPull on it yesterday, and that worked real well. We’ve also used steam engines, and a Rumely 6-cylinder. You need a pretty good tractor on it for threshing, and the Rumely was considered a good threshing tractor in its day.”

Glenn was a boy during the final days of the threshing machine era. “We quit threshing when I was about 12,” he recalls. “But if you’ve been around a combine all your life, you see the similarities to the old threshers.” FC