Old Farm Equipment Working on Borrowed Time

Sale of land may break up Dan DeVaul's collection of old farm equipment

Dan DeVaul with a 1951 three-quarter ton Chevrolet truck

Dan DeVaul with a 1951 three-quarter ton Chevrolet truck, one of his restoration projects. At back is the barn he restored, including living quarters at the top left.

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Dan DeVaul was born in a small farmhouse outside of San Luis Obispo, Calif. He grew up on a 200-acre ranch run by his father and grandfather. Since the DeVauls had no wells, they were mostly dry land farmers, working the same land they'd leased since the 1920s. 

Today, decades later, much has changed. Housing developments nose in on 40 acres of the original ranch. Much of the prized old farm equipment amassed by two generations has long since been sold. And Dan DeVaul has returned to the ranch where he grew up, and where he's farming – with well water.

"When you're used to picking crumbs with the chickens, you make it work," Dan says.

When Dan took over operation of the ranch, he knew he needed a well. Others might have paid a well driller to come in. Dan, though, took a different tack. He bought an old, dilapidated drilling well rig, complete with a wooden clutch. He replaced the clutch, rebuilt the well rig, and began drilling. After a few days, he hit water, producing 35 to 40 gallons a minute. Soon he was growing 35 acres of sugar peas.

One thing led to another. Dan drilled more wells with the well rig; one produced a flow of 80 gallons per minute. Soon he was planting tomatoes, squash and artichokes. He leased land to a nursery, and at the holidays, sold Christmas trees – all made possible by restoration of a piece of old farm equipment.

"I had never seen a water rig before," Dan says. "It was the biggest challenge I ever had in my life. And I still got all my fingers. For people who have been around well rigs, that is an accomplishment."

The restored well rig is typical of Dan's approach. Rather than build a new barn at his ranch, he carefully restored a decades-old relic that was near collapse. The barn had no electricity, no concrete, no lights or sewer. As repairs were made, he moved in machinery and equipment. He even created living quarters in second-story space.

Then there was the sixties-era farm equipment left to him by his father. Another man might have junked it all. Dan, though, prizes the old pieces not only for their heritage, but also for their practicality. A Steiger tractor, for instance, had a multi-fuel engine that wouldn't run. A new, factory-built engine was out of the question. Instead, Dan tracked down a government surplus engine – bought for a song – and got the tractor going again. He also replaced the tractor's worn drive train with a smaller one from an 18-wheeler.

Work such as that is made possible by a fully stocked shop. His includes electric cable, rope, shovels, lathes, saws, drills, presses, milling machines and much, much more. Some of the equipment Dan inherited; other pieces were picked up as junk and then refurbished. He sees value in it all.

"Old equipment often doesn't serve any purpose," he says. "But I like having it around. It's not going to make me rich, but I hate the day I gotta get rid of it."

That day creeps ever closer. With 40 acres of the original 200-acre spread already occupied by a residential development, Dan knows the days of running the ranch on leased land are numbered. Plans are afoot to sell the tract of land long operated as a ranch by the DeVaul family.

"It's like sitting in the middle of a freeway," he says. "Sooner or later, you know you are gonna get creamed."

When push comes to shove, he'll sell the old iron at auction. Some may be scrapped. Without the land, he says, there's nothing he can do with the relics from another era.

"As long as I have this ranch, I could save it. I could move a few pieces to people who would like to buy them and enjoy them. The least qualified pieces go to the wrecking yard."

And a bit of it, for sentimental reasons, he'll keep.

"There are a couple of hand-drawn cultivators that I will take with me," he says, "no matter where I go." FC 

For more information: Dan DeVaul, 10660 Los Osos Valley Road, San Luis Obispo, CA 93405; (805) 543-4918. 

Henry Horwege is a retired professor of English, speech and drama living in California.