Getting to the Bottom of Cast Iron Seat Collecting
Terry L. Welch
If there is a lesson to be taken from the collecting of vintage farm equipment, it would probably be that nothing should be taken for granted. The lowly implement seat serves as excellent example. Unless we are particularly uncomfortable, do we often consider the seats beneath our seats? But, for 19th century manufacturers of corn planters, hay rakes, harrows, plows, mowing machines and other implements, the attention shown to the hind quarters of America's fanners was considerable.
Once companies began to realize that farmers might appreciate not having to walk behind the implements, but, rather, to ride along, the technological war of tushy cushioning escalated sharply. Companies began with plain boards in the early 1850s, put cast iron backs on them in the mid-to-late '50s and then began making them wholly from cast iron in the early 1860s. Those first molded cast iron seats, however, had their problems. Almost all of those first seats were solid, with no holes for drainage or ventilation, forcing farmers to sit on a seat that was either hot, wet or cold.
It wasn't long, then, before farm implement companies began putting in holes for the comfort of farmers. It worked, although the overall seat designs still needed some work. Anyone who's ever slipped off of a boy's bicycle seat should be able to see why the Buckeye seat in the Image Gallery might not have been all that comfortable in a bumpy field and can guess at the several colorful nicknames farmers gave it.
But, as they started opening up seats for ventilation, they also realized that the seat was another area where they could place the company's name, so many began making seats with company names 'cut out' of the seat face. The practice began with simple stencil-cut type as on the Buckeye, and most collectors agree reached its artistic peak with the Peerless Reaper or Peerless Russell.
The variety and beauty of these seats drew Ohioan Olan Bentley to the hobby. In 1980, Olan met a man at an auction of an Amish farm in southern Ohio. 'He had a book on cast iron seats, but wouldn't let me see it until after the auction,' Olan remembers. Once he had glimpsed the diverse types of seats, however, Olan was hooked. He says he traveled far and wide, hunting seats at auctions and antique stores. Most importantly, perhaps, he joined the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association.
The CISCA was founded in 1971 by four men, including Don Sites, a collector from Kansas who wrote the first books on the hobby, one of them being the very book to which Olan had been denied a peek before the auction. Getting to know other collectors, Olan says, helped him understand the collecting of cast iron seats better, a necessity for anyone interested in the hobby. 'You've just got to be educated to know what you're looking for,' Olan says. 'Almost everybody pays too much for their first few seats.'
In order to educate its members, the association maintains a database of prices paid for the different seats over the past ten years. Those prices can be quite surprising to someone new to the market. To understand the prices, they first have to be separated into three categories, though: plain (or 'no-name') seats, seats with names and round seats.
Plain seats usually sell for between $30-50, according to Olan, but can sell for as much as $200. Common named seats — Champion and Deering seats, for example — sell for about $35. Rarer named seats can sell for as much as $3,000 or more. 'I paid $2,850 for an O.K. planter seat,' said Olan (see the Image Gallery). 'It's one of only two known.'
Round seats, which were made for the few implements which required seats from which the sitter could perform tasks on either side of his body, like corn planters, are much harder to come by and sell at prices ranging from $400-$2,000.
Olan warns that all these prices can be forgotten at auctions, though. 'Anything goes at auctions,' he says.
Bud Porter, editor of the CISCA newsletter, agrees. He says that the turning point in the hobby actually came at one specific auction, the estate sale of John Friedly in 1997. Friedly was the author of the book, Cast Iron Implement Seats, which has replaced the books of Don Sites as the seat collector's 'bible.' When he died, everyone it seemed, either knew that the estate would contain what they were looking for — or, perhaps, wanted something that had been owned by the writer — so the sales were attended by large crowds of collectors. 'Things were selling there for about twice what they were selling anywhere else,' Bud remembers. 'We all thought that the prices would go back down, but they've stayed about the same since then.
'One seat — a 'sunrise' seat from an Evans planter — was bought by a guy for $7,000,' Bud says.
Careless newcomers to the market also run the risk of buying reproductions. Online auction sites, Bud warns, are thick with them. Some of the more common copies seen are Buckeye Akron, the Jones Rake and the Rock Island seats. 'Usually you can tell,' he says, 'when they start selling at prices that are way too low. Most are listed at $19.95.'
Some of the fakes aren't even copies at all. One seat that has shown up on the web has a running deer, with the initials J.D. and the legend 1847 stamped upon it. To the trained eye, this is an obvious fake. The deer, for example, runs from left to right, opposite the John Deere logo. The date, would roughly coincide with Deere's separation from L. Andrus Plough Manufactory, but predates the earliest known cast iron seats by about 13 years. 'The first one of these that showed up at an online auction sold for $561,' Bud says 'but Deere never made anything like it.'
Its dubious pedigree didn't keep Bud from buying one. He says that he bought it to show at this year's summer 'seat meet,' but admits that it's 'a very interesting seat.' Even hoaxes, it seems, can draw the collector's eye.
Rarity, though, is still the biggest draw. When asked to name his favorite seats in his collection, Olan Bentley just laughs. 'That's a hard one,' he says. 'It's hard to even say what it is that draws you to collecting these things, but my dad worked with them, so I guess its in my genes.' Pressed, he names the Buckeye 1861 (featured, again, on the cover) among his favorites, because it's one of two known; also the rare and ornate Peerless Russell; and a one of a kind Ohio.
'These seats really are a form of agrarian art,' Olan says. 'You have to remember that someone carved the original wood form and then they made the cast to build the actual seats.'
Some collectors do their best to make the seats a more personal art form. At their annual meet in Hastings, Minn., in July 2001, the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association will hold its annual 'Paint the Seat Contest.' In the contest, hobbyists can compete in four categories. In the 'Traditional Class,' the paint must be mirror how the seat would have appeared on the seat when new. The 'Limited Class' features one particular brand and type of seat - this year the South Bend Chill Plow seat - which can be painted in a number of ways. In the 'Open Class,' collectors can stretch their artistic legs and paint the seats however they see fit. Often, scenes of rural life are depicted on the seat faces. And in the 'Special Class,' the seats can be painted by any person (in the other three, the work has to have been done by the member/entrant personally), but entered by a member.
As in nearly every type of collecting, however, seat collectors don't agree on how seats should be restored and treated. Many believe that the seats should be left in what Olan calls 'their natural state.' And they're serious about it. 'One person in Missouri had a rare St. Paul Plow Company seat and sold it to another collector with the stipulation that he never paint it,' Olan says. 'And when the buyer died, the original owner bought the seat back. I guess he didn't think anyone else would take care of it right.'
The manufacture of cast iron implement seats — they're often called 'tractor seats,' but were rarely actually made for tractors — peaked between the 1880s and '90s and, by the end of the 20th century's second decade, had been phased out almost completely. Stamped steel seats and, later, padded seats took their place. However, people are often surprised by the early date which cast iron seats were discontinued, remembering more recent implements — and even tractors — carrying the seats in their youth.
The confusion can be explained by farmers' attachment to certain seats. Often, they would find a cast iron seat that seemed to fit them just right and would remove it from the implement and attach it to ones they bought later. Farm technology, they knew, needed to advance, but being comfortable comes from the bottom up.
For more information on the Cast Iron Seat Collectors Association, contact Bud Porter of Woodstock, Ill ; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. FC