Farm Collectibles ... the Old Way

Arkansas collector preserves the past and old way of life with intricate restorations of farm collectibles

Roy Nelson with his John Deere mower

Roy Nelson with his John Deere mower. Manufactured in 1936, the horse-drawn mower weighs about 1,500 pounds. Roy completely restored the implement after finding it covered with dirt and rust.

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Roy Nelson, Clinton, Ark., wants to preserve machines and implements that are the tangible history of farming in the south-central United States for the last 100 or more years. 

He expends the kind of energy and resources on his collection that one might expect from a business, but he doesn't do it for money, and he sees trade in such objects as counter to his purposes. A caring, practical historian of old farm equipment, Roy collects the treasures with no small difficulty wherever they've been left, and then treats them as if they are alive, but sick and dependent on him for recovery.

"I completely rebuild every one of these machines," he says, "so that they will do the job they were designed to do. All of my equipment, whatever it takes to fix it, that's what it gets."

At 76, Roy is definitely hitting on all cylinders. He laboriously and happily works on old machines, collects others, tends to the many plants in his greenhouse (which he built), works a huge garden with his old 1947 Ford "Super C" tractor, and even fixes the occasional golf cart.

"I feel like I'm 25," he says, as he pulls around a 50-pound horse-drawn "hillside plow" and demonstrates how it works.

Most of the machinery that Roy fixes date from 1850 to 1955. About 155 pieces – seed planters, plows, mowers, stump grinders, tractors and stationary engines – are completely restored and in perfect working order. Another 50 or more await restoration. Many of the pieces in his collection may be one-of-a-kind, especially some of the engines from the 1920s and '30s. Twice a year, he displays parts of his collection at shows put on by clubs in nearby Damascus and Bee Branch.

Born in 1923 in Morehead, Iowa, Roy learned blacksmithing and farming in the early 1930s, when horses and mules still provided much of the power. Later, he worked as a welder, welding bridges and locomotive parts for the Union Pacific Railroad. Later still, he worked as a truck and car mechanic. In the 1940s, he worked at the Boeing plant in Omaha, Neb., putting together B-26s and B-29s, including the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In 1979, Roy moved to a rural area near Clinton. There, he cleared 50 acres and farmed with an old tractor, even grinding his own flour and meal.

"I farmed the basic way just for meanness," he says with a smile. "I just like doing things the old way."

Clearly, the old ways are familiar.

"I never really had a profession," Roy says. "I just did a lot of different things. But I doubt very much that there's an engine made up until 1971, diesel or gas, that I haven't been into.

"In the blacksmith's shop, I learned enough about metal that, when I was in high school, I showed the instructor how to forge-weld. Back then, black-smiting involved a lot of horseshoeing, and sharpening and rebuilding horse-pulled plows."

The old ways are fading fast, he says.

"There isn't many people who know how to put a wooden wagon wheel together, but I've done it," he says. "We piled up a lot of wood, and made a big fire, and then we put the rims in the fire 'til they was cherry red, and then fitted them on to the wheels. It was tricky business. Of course, they couldn't be perfectly straight, or they wouldn't work. They had to have a curve in them."

Roy uses the '47 Ford Super C as his working tractor, and a 1961 Ford 500 truck (with two winches and booms and a huge bed) as his main salvaging machine.

"I thought the truck fit right in with my antique stuff," he says. "There are over 100 feet of steel cable on the big winch and boom. The big winch is strong enough to break the boom or turn the truck over before it would quit. The little winch on the back means I don't ever have to strain myself anymore."

A "buddy network" leads Roy to at least some of his treasures.

"People come by and tell me where this and that are," he says, "and then I find the owner, and tell him I'd sure like to have that piece of old iron back there in the timber to rebuild. In most cases, the owner's glad for me to get it, because he wants to see it built back like it was when it was new."

Most pieces require extensive renovation.

"When you find these things, they are simply nothing but a pile of rust. Any wooden parts – like handles – are gone," he says. "You usually can't really make out just exactly what something is until you've cleaned it up. Since I've used or known about most of these things, I can usually figure out what one is, and how it's supposed to work."

One of Roy's prizes, a now fully restored cast iron Ottawa stump grinder made in August 1927, and weighing about 500 pounds, was partially buried in a muddy ditch near Clinton.

"It had brush and junk growing into it," Roy remembers. "I had to take my tractor and get hold of it and pull it out. An awful lot of what I have salvaged has come out of ditches and piles of junk. I keep my eyes open."

Retrieving a John Deere No. 4 mower, he says, was a most difficult task. The mower, now completely renovated, was made in 1936 in Moline, Ill., and weighs about 1,500 pounds.

"The machine even had trees grown up through it because it had sat so long," he says. "I had a terrible time getting it out. It looked like junk. Now look at it."

Roy also keeps close watch over the metal yards where, for example, he found an old John Deere seed planter that was buried under assorted scrap metal.

"I saw something down in a pile of junk and it caught my eye," he says. "So I asked the worker to help me uncover it, and he didn't want to, but I insisted. And gradually, you could see what it was."

A close look at Roy's collection reminds one that the use of farm machinery with internal combustion engines is a relatively new phenomena, with most farmers – especially those on small farms in the South – using horse-and mule-drawn plows and mowers into the 1950s and beyond.

"Some people around here still use them, for their gardens," Roy says.

Roy has a large collection of horse-and mule-drawn plows. According to the parlance of Arkansas farmers, Roy says, a plow with one share is called a "one stalk" and a plow with two shares is a "two stalk."

"Different parts of the country, even different parts of the state, have their own terms for each farm implement," he says. Several of Roy's plows have full shares. Called "middle busters," they were used to plow carefully between rows of growing plants. He also has many "turning" or "listing" plows, which were made to turn the soil, either to the left or the right. Perhaps his most ingenious plow, though, is a "hillside plow," which has a hinged, adjustable share so that a farmer could always be "throwing" dirt to the high side when he went back and forth on a hillside.

"Since everything tends to go downhill," Roy says, "if you use an ordinary plow, over a period of time, 40 or 50 years of planting, the first thing you know, all the good soil has been thrower downhill, and you've got no soil on the hillside."

Roy also has a number of seed planters. A simple cotton planter with a red hopper and blue wheels was made about 1880 by John Blue in Huntsville, Ala. A much more complicated John Deere seed planter, built in the 1920s, has a still-strong steel hopper into which can be put about 15 types of "plates" with different-size openings for all the different types of seeds a farmer might want to plant. Metal arms extend from each side of the front axle to the sides of the bottom of the hopper, turning the plate and thus opening and closing the seed holes. Some of the pieces in Roy's collection suggest that safety wasn't a priority in "the good ol' days." The Ottawa stump grinder, for example, is a mass of open gears, and a 36-inch saw blade attaches to its underside and protrudes out the front.

"OSHA would have a field day with that thing," Roy chuckles. "I don't even leave the blade on it, except to show it. Someone would get hurt just touching the blade."

Another dangerous but fascinating little machine is a small tiller made in the 1920s. The tiller was driven by a Maytag gas engine, the same type used in Maytag's washing machines of that time period. The tiller had no clutch, and thus was always in gear. One started it on its side so that its iron wheels could not grab the ground, then jerked it upright, and off it would go.

"I found a picture of it in an old catalog," Roy says. "But they didn't sell it for long. Too many people got hurt by it."

He becomes a bit defensive at the suggestion that these farm classics, living things to him, could decompose again.

"I won't ever let them rot," he says. "My plan is that I would hope that they could be left when I'm gone in such a way that a museum would take them. If I had my way and the money, I'd build a museum and I'd deed it to the historical society in this area. When these things are gone, that's all she wrote.

"The equipment they're making today won't be here 25 years from now," he says. "These were so strong that they're still here, in spite of how they've been treated, and work like new even today."

Heightened interest in farm collectibles has made Roy's a more challenging hobby, he says.

"It's difficult to keep a collection of these things, because today, if anybody can get a hold of something and see that they can make a dollar, it's gone," he says. "I've had people come here and say, 'Oh, I'd like to have that,' and I'd say, 'It's not for sale.' I had a 1953 John Deere corn planter that I'd restored just like brand new. It sat out in my front yard, and a fellow came by and wanted to buy it, and I said, 'It's not for sale.' He said, 'Well, put a price on it,' so I just put a price on it that was about four or five times more than anybody with any brains would ever pay for it, and unfortunately he gave me the money and loaded it up and took it home. It's the only one I ever sold, and believe me, it won't happen again." FC 

John Lammers is a freelance writer from Conway, Ark., who has a passion for machinery. 

This article originally appeared in the River Valley and Ozark edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It is reprinted here with permission.