Restoring Old Farm Equipment for Maryland Museums

Volunteer restorer gives helping hand to Maryland museums by restoring old farm equipment

A New Idea spreader restored by Howard Waterworth

A New Idea spreader restored by Howard Waterworth.

Content Tools

Howard Waterworth, a retired plant pathologist living in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, D.C., does not own a single piece of old farm equipment, nor does he consider himself a collector. But over the last quarter of a century, he has restored more than 80 pieces of old farm equipment, vintage farm implements, tools and horse-drawn vehicles for three Maryland museums. 

“My interest in restoration began with old cars: namely three Studebakers and a DeSoto,” he explains. “And I still have one of each in my garage. I grew up on a family dairy farm near Randolph, Wis., so I’ve always been interested in old farm equipment. During the years I’ve lived here I became acquainted with people from three area museums and I thought it would be interesting to volunteer to help restore some of their old machines.”

Since 1985, Howard has repaired, restored and repainted dozens of items for Patuxent Rural Life Farm Museum, Upper Marlboro; Agricultural History Farm Park, Derwood; and Sandy Spring Farm Museum. His completed projects include horse-drawn planters and drills, cultivators, mowers, grain binders, potato diggers, manure spreaders and plows. He’s also restored antique buggies and sulkys, sleighs and wagons, and a large assortment of vintage tools and household items.

“In all cases, each item is delivered to me on a trailer by the museum, so there is no logic to the sequence of items I’m asked to restore,” he explains. “I do all the restoration work in my garage, which can accommodate machines no larger than 9 feet wide by 7 feet high. I personally used, or saw my father use, many of these old machines in the years I lived on the farm. Occasionally I run into something unfamiliar, like a machine designed specifically to apply lime. I’ve also restored interesting pieces like a hay tedder and a horse-drawn machine used to place small transplants like cabbage or tobacco into a slit in the ground. Two people sat on the machine and alternated placing a seedling in the slit at 18-inch intervals as it moved forward.”

Proceed with caution

Howard begins each project by photographing the implement from several angles as an aid to later reassembly. Then he makes sketches showing the strategic sequence of groups of connected pieces.

“When I disassemble the machine, I tag pieces that are similar but which may have a left versus right, or upper versus lower designation,” he explains. “This stage can be difficult if the nuts and bolts are severely rusted. I start by soaking them with WD-40. Often I have to rethread the old rusted bolts and nuts with a tap and die set or replace broken bolts.”

It’s not always a pretty picture. “When I complete the disassembly, I usually have a huge pile of pieces spread across my garage floor, and I wonder if I’ll ever get it all back together,” he says. “That’s particularly true of the old grain or corn binders, which have many adjustable parts that determine the size of bundles, tightness of the string bank, placement of the band, or which have an automatic knotter.”

Next, Howard cleans each disassembled piece to remove grease and dirt, and cuts, shapes and replaces missing or broken wooden pieces. After reassembly, he applies a rust converter chemical to reduce future rusting and gives each item two or three coats of paint. “I try to make each machine look just like it did when it was new,” he says, “but sometimes the machine may be so severely rusted there is no way to determine the original color, unless the color is revealed when I take apart tightly bolted pieces.”

While Howard estimates he spends as much as 300 to 400 hours on a large restoration project, his only compensation is the pleasure it gives him. “I have most all the tools I need for any project,” he says. “I only charge the museums for my out-of-pocket expenses for degreasers, WD-40, rust converter chemical, bolts and nuts and screws, boards, sandpaper, paint and paintbrushes, and so on. So my expenses may only run from $15 for a small item to $60 for a large project.”

An early career detour

After leaving the family farm in the 1950s, Howard earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Following graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and stationed in Berlin, Germany.

“Those were the Cold War days, and the Soviet Union had just finished building the Berlin Wall separating East from West Berlin,” he recalls. “I’d been trained as a military police officer and was assigned to manage day-to-day operations of Checkpoint Charlie, which turned out to be a very interesting assignment. I helped rescue injured East Germans trying to jump over the wall and helped maintain crowd control for famous visitors like John F. Kennedy when he visited in 1963. And since I studied Russian while I was in Berlin, I occasionally spoke to the Russian soldiers guarding their side of the wall.”

On his return home, Howard completed a doctorate in plant pathology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and accepted a position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service at Glenn Dale, Md. “Glenn Dale was the USDA’s major quarantine center for new plants arriving here from other countries,” he explains. “My job was to test them for viruses and other submicroscopic organisms that would damage U.S. farm crops.” He retired in 2000.

“Howard has been a tremendous asset to our organization,” says Mimi Stubbs, past president of the Friends of the Agricultural History Farm Park, a 455-acre farm that attracts hundreds of visitors and school children to annual planting, harvesting, and threshing demonstrations featuring 1920s-era farming methods and equipment. The organization also hosts an annual steam engine show, a blacksmith show, a bluegrass music event and an annual Christmas celebration in a restored 1920s farm home.

“We’re fortunate to have a large collection of vintage equipment donated by local farmers,” Mimi adds. “Howard has restored every item we’ve brought him right down to the last nut and bolt, all without charging a dime for his time. In recognition of his contributions, we were pleased to recently present him with a subscription to Farm Collector magazine.” FC 

For more infomation: Howard Waterworth, waterworth99@comcast.net.

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at gschleicher1@kc.rr.com.