BETWEEN THE BOOKENDS

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Richard StoutWashington, Iowa, on his 1928 Fordson Trackson.

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Farmers' Romance with Tractors Spans a Century

Gone With The Wind? A passing fancy. If you're looking for a real love story, an enduring tale of passion, try 100 Years of Vintage Farm Tractors.

Now, this is not the kind of thing a Hollywood producer is going to jump on. But in the pages of this new release from Voyageur Press, you'll find a chorus of voices singing the praises of the farm tractor. Engineering, technology, machining: they all get their due in this book. But in the end, it's a nostalgic love story. Even Roger Welsch, the Dave Berry of old iron, is reduced to a starry-eyed suitor as he struggles to answer the eternal question:

'... we love old tractors because old tractors have souls,' he writes in the book's foreword.

Romance aside, the book takes a look at increasingly sophisticated equipment from a human perspective. Don't look for chapters devoted solely to makes and models or technical enhancements. This tale is related through personal recollections and anecdotes, through illustrations and photographs. If you're familiar with This Old Tractor and This Old Farm, earlier releases by Voyageur also edited by Michael Dregni, you'll be at home with Vintage Farm Tractors.

To make sure the reader appreciates the improvement of mechanized farming, the opening chapters revisit the era of farming with horses. The end of that era was a bittersweet time for many.

'I could think of a dozen reasons to purchase a tractor, but there were always an equal number of reasons why 'tractor farming' was a risky venture in our cashless economy, ' recalled Orlan Skare, Willmar, Minn. 'After all, horses consumed only home-grown oats and hay!' And yet...

'Each time another neighbor purchased a new tractor and sent their horses to the rendering works,' he noted, 'I found our horses more distasteful...'

Once a farmer was persuaded of the tractor's merits, certain realities lay ahead. Tight finances often prevented immediate purchase of one of the newfangled machines. But farmers are among the most resourceful of men, and that trait spurred the construction of countless homemade tractors (or 'doodlebugs'). A step up in that food chain was the kit that would convert a gas engine or a car or a farm truck into a 'tractor'.

Later, as tractors became increasingly affordable, industry giants dominated the field. Fond recollections of Caterpillar, Fords, Fordsons and Farmalls fill a section on 'Milestone Tractors.' Corporate histories of tractor manufacturers are often as complex and colorful as the sub-plots of a soap opera. Frank Lessiter's selection in Vintage Farm Tractors drops in on a few of those potboilers at the midpoint of the last century.

The farm tractor truly came into its own at harvest. First steam engines, then gas tractors provided muscle for threshing equipment. By the mid-1950s, though, combines had replaced the vast majority of threshing rigs.

'For most farmers, the day the combine arrived was considered a happy day,' wrote Jerry L. Twedt in an essay on 'The Harvest.' 'The farmer could harvest grain when he wished and did not have to wait his turn to thresh. The combine was more efficient, requiring two or three days to do the work that formerly took two or three weeks...'

Like every good love story, this one includes its share of fantasy. Time spent on a tractor, for instance, would be somewhat different from the realities most farmers experience.

'In a perfect world every man would have some land and a tractor,' writes Lauran Paine Jr. in 'Man Things'. 'There would be a pile of dirt at one end of the land. In the morning, the man would go out and use the tractor front loader and pick up the dirt one scoop at a time and move it to the other end of the property. The next day he would move it back. Or he could just plow. Plow one way one day and another way the next day. That would be livin'. That would be a man thing.'

It's a book packed with fine writing, solid observations. But the time will come when you find yourself looking through 100 Years of Vintage Farm Tractors, taking in nothing more than the photos and illustrations themselves. Those alone tell the story, and tell it eloquently, from carefully preserved 100-year-old black-and-white photos taken in the fields, to the fine color photography of today, to the work of painters who've captured the farmer at work. A unique bonus: tractor manufacturers' logos - from the obscure to the famous - appear at the beginning of each chapter. Reproductions of advertising from decades long past also tell of the evolution of the American tractor. It's history told with a fond backward look; a classic love story, and one with a happy ending.

100 Years of Vintage Farm Tractors: A Century of Tractor Tales and Heartwarming Family Memories, Michael Dregni, editor; Voyageur Press; ISBN 0-89658-462-3; hardcover, 160 pages, 100 color photographs, $29.95.

New paperback releases from Voyageur Press:

-Toy Farm Tractors, by Farm Collector contributor Bill Vossler. Originally published in hardcover in 1998, the book was a finalist in the 1999 Minnesota Book Awards. The complete resource for farm toy enthusiasts, Toy Farm Tractors delves into everything from toy tractors to farm equipment, old advertising to salesman's samples, restoration to custom-made pieces. Voyageur Press; ISBN 0-89658-511-5; paperback, 160 pages, 150 color photographs, $19.95.

-Vintage International Harvester Tractors, by Ralph W. Sanders. Originally published in hardcover. Voyageur Press, ISBN 0-89658-479-8; $19.95.

-Vintage Ford Tractors, by Robert N. Pripps. Originally published in hardcover. Voyageur Press, ISBN 0-89658-478-X; $19.95.