Best of the West: California Antique Farm Equipment Show

Priceless classics in the spotlight at the California Antique Farm Equipment Show

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Home to seemingly infinite acres of vineyards, orchards and row crops, California holds a proud reputation as a leader in early agricultural technology. One of the best places to see relics of that era is the California Antique Farm Equipment Show, held annually in Tulare, Calif.

This year's show, held April 22-23 at the International Agri-Center, set a record on opening day with a total of 988 exhibitors, and more than 400 parade entries. Exhibits included tractors and track equipment, gas engines, garden tractors, dairy and hay collectibles, windmills, International Scouts, antique commercial trucks and more. A bustling swap meet and auction rounded out the schedule.

Different spin for a classic cycle

Shannon Lile's one-of-a-kind 1937 Unitrac brought show traffic to a standstill. The Unitrac is powered by a 1937 Indian Scout 45 cubic-inch motorcycle engine installed by the manufacturer, Universal Engine & Propeller Co., Alameda, Calif.

"It's the only one I know of," says Shannon, who lives at Portola Valley, Calif. Indian apparently produced a line of uniquely numbered engines for use in non-motorcycle applications. In addition to the Unitrac, Indian engines have turned up in generators and snowmobiles.

Using patent numbers from the Unitrac's original brass serial number tag, Shannon found a link to a well-known California manufacturer: The piece was patented by J.J. McCollough, a designer for the famed Bean Spray Pump Co., San Jose, Calif., producer of early orchard equipment and tractors.

Shannon's patent research also yielded drawings, a help when he set out to rebuild the piece. Found during a walk with his wife in an orchard near their home, the Unitrac had suffered from years of abandonment. "The engine, transmission, steering and track were all froze up," he recalls. "Otherwise, it was in good shape!"

The mid-sized Indian engine provides all the muscle the Unitrac needs. Although rated at 6.6 hp, it's probably closer to 18-20 hp. "It won't win any slow races," Shannon notes with a smile. It has one speed forward and one reverse.

A family heirloom

Bill Thomasson's 1912 Samson Sieve-Grip told of orchard work on a larger scale. The low-slung, one-cylinder, tricycle-type behemoth was ideal for orchard work, which it performed for nearly 30 years. Purchased new by Bill's father, George Thomasson, the 2-ton Samson was a star at Tulare's parade.

The Sieve-Grip's claim to fame was the unique tread on its rear wheels, which allowed the tractor to pull with less slippage. Manufactured by Samson Iron Works, Stockton, Calif. (the company was purchased by General Motors in 1918), the tractor was designed to run on distillate, a cheaper grade of gas, and was said to be able to replace four to five horses. George Thomasson put it to work on his farm near Chico, which consisted of 25 acres of prunes and 10 acres of almonds, as well as apples, apricots, peaches, grapes, quince and figs. It pulled a 12-inch, 2-bottom plow and a 6-foot tandem disc.

Pushed into a shed in 1940, the Samson was quiet for more than five decades. Then Bill (who now lives in Portland, Ore.) decided to revisit a long-lost era. The gas tank was riddled with holes, the radiator leaked, a mouse had made a home in the cylinder, the throttle lever was missing and the engine was stuck. After completing the most critical repairs, Bill and a friend tried starting the Samson.

"My friend, Gene, who was helping me, had never heard it run and had no idea of what to expect," Bill wrote in his memoirs of the project. "Priming and adjusting the carburetor needle valve got some life out of it. When it backfired with a big bang, Gene ran out of the garage very quickly, figuring it had blown up! We had it running shortly, and he got used to the noise: It sounds like a pile driver when running, and it looks like it will shake itself apart. I drove it out of the garage and into my backyard. The yard is small, and all I could do is run it around and around in circles, but the Samson was running again after more than 50 years!"

Is this Texas?

Another heavyweight at the Tulare show was Jim Jensen's 1929 Tuxham engine. The 40 hp, hot-bulb, 2-stroke diesel engine was made in Oakland, Calif., by F.A.B. Mfg. Co., presumably under license from a manufacturer in Denmark, where the Tuxham got its start more than a century ago.

For nearly 50 years, Jim's engine was used to pump water for steam engines at the White Horse Mountain Lumber Co. in northern California. After years of abandonment on White Horse Mountain, the engine, pump and flatbed pulley were claimed by Jim, who lives in Paskenta, Calif. "It took three days to get it all out," he recalls.

Restoration followed. "When I got the engine, the piston was stuck, and I had to make an injector pump," he says. "We got the oiler off a Holt 75." The Tuxham remains one of Jim's favorites, in large part because it's unique. "The thing about a 2-cycle engine is that there's no valves and a lot less parts," he says. "There's only one flywheel, and the roller bearings are on the main; that's very unusual."

In fact, the engine itself is unusual: Jim's only heard of three Tuxhams, and two of those are his. In addition to the 40 hp model, he also owns a 25 hp Tuxham once used to pump water at Likely, Calif.

Starting young

Wiping dust from his tractor, scouting the swap meet for tires and visiting with show-goers, Daniel Morgan was in his element at the Tulare show. At age 10, he was among Tulare's youngest exhibitors but easily held his own among collectors and enthusiasts with decades of experience.

The son of Mike and Mary Ann Morgan, Onyx, Calif., Daniel is earnest, articulate and well-versed in the intricacies of engines. Simply put, he knows his stuff, and is ready and willing to discuss it with all comers. It is all he's ever known. "My dad's into restoration," he explains. "When I got old enough, he started letting me help. I've been doing this from before I remember."

At Tulare, Daniel displayed his first real "on my own" engine restoration: a 1950 Pacific H6 10 hp garden tractor he brought back from the brink. Built by Pacific Iron & Machine, San Diego, the engine was abandoned to a creek bed before finding its way to Daniel's shop ("He's pretty much taken over our 24-by-24-foot garage," Mary Ann says.).

On display at the show, the tractor gleamed with a fresh coat of bright red paint. But Daniel's memory is long. "When I got it, the tires were shot, and the engine was almost stuck," he says. "The carb was rusted, the top of the air cleaner was off and the gas tank was dented. And the threads were stripped when we took the plugs out." It took three months to get the piece running again, but the payoff was sweet. "The best part was hearing it fire when we got it running," he says. "That was the most fun part."

His next project may just be another garden tractor. A friend he's made at past Tulare shows - Dorene Yearian, Niangua, Mo. - has given Daniel a 1947 California-made Lincoln in desperate need of rehab. Encouragement like that means a lot. "People have been really, really neat to all of us," Mary Ann says. "You make the most amazing friendships in this hobby."

Cat Ten draws a crowd

If Jeff Hosford, Simi Valley, Calif., looked "dazed and confused" at the Tulare show, it was perfectly understandable: He'd literally just completed a two-year restoration project in time for the show, and the fruit of his labor was on display and drawing crowds.

For a novice restorer (the Cat was Jeff's second project), restoration of the 1929 Caterpillar Ten was a formidable undertaking. "It turned out to be a much bigger project than I'd anticipated," he says. "I'm sure it hadn't run in 20 or 30 years."

Starting with a skeleton, Jeff found many parts missing, and those that remained were either broken or worn out. "The engine wasn't stuck, but I did have to sleeve the block," he says. "And the cylinders were all gouged because the wrist pins were worn out." The biggest challenge, he says, was getting things apart. "Everything was seized up," he says. "I used lots of oxygen and acetylene and a big hammer."

Dating to 1929, the Cat originally sported Bishop fenders and gray paint. Later, in the mid-1940s, it was apparently rebuilt, painted yellow and decked out with modern decals. Jeff decided to restore the unit as it would have looked then, using standard factory fenders.

His earlier projects include an International T6, and five windmills. What's next? "Something smaller," he says, shaking his head. "Maybe thimbles."

For more information: The 2007 annual California Antique Farm Equipment Show will be held April 21-22; visit online: www.antiquefarmshow.com