Ridin' High

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An Aermotor windmill on a four-legged metal tower

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Allis-Chalmers never designed its tractors to fly, but on a quiet gravel road near Manning, Iowa, a 1937 Model WC sits high above the crops. The tractor's owner, Merlyn Irlbeck, wanted something a little different to identify his farm. 'I had an old Allis WC and thought it would make a nice-looking weathervane,' Merlyn says. 'It would sure be unique and easy to see, anyway.'

Merlyn has been privately collecting for more than 40 years, but for at least the last 15 years he has worked diligently to publicly share his collection with interested folks. In the process, Merlyn has created a fascinating indoor/outdoor museum where he displays a large portion of his vast treasure trove of rural artifacts - much to the delight of thousands of visitors each year. Although collecting is a labor of love, Merlyn does credit his wife, Betty, sons Brian and Brett, and daughter, Brenda Sterk, for all kinds of support.

'We kind of do this as a family,' Merlyn says with a warm smile.

Telltale signs

Clues that point to the treasures at the Irlbeck farm are plentiful, yet largely subtle - with the exception of the flying Allis. A glance down the farm's lane reveals a large clock that stands comfortably in its current location next to Merlyn's shop - a transplant from the Carroll County, Iowa, courthouse. A brief scan of the yard shows some naturally placed pieces of equipment and several full-sized windmills on towers of varying heights. The windmills, with names like Dempster, Challenge and Aermoter, look right, except for the sheer number of them.

'I really like windmills, and I like to install them as they would have been [installed],' Merlyn explains about why his mills really don't look out of place. Both wooden and steel windmill towers have been naturally worked into the landscape where they effectively trellis vines, shelter shrubs and hold the long-forgotten mills to the wind.

A 1939 Allis-Chalmers WC peacefully rests in one corner of the yard with an apple tree growing through it, just another of Merlyn's creations borrowed from something he once found. 'When I travel around, I see things that I enjoy and I try to recreate them here,' Merlyn says with a smile, explaining the hovering Allis. It's a delightful and effective tribute to the many abandoned pieces of iron now residing in shelter belts and groves on farmsteads all over the country.

Some old pieces of equipment, such as a horse-drawn wagon, are worked more formally into flowerbeds and bordering plants. Others, such as a McCormick reaper and John Deere single-row picker, are parked in a more orderly fashion closer to the shop, just waiting to shine again. 'I hope to restore some of these [implements] one day and put them in the museum,' Merlyn says.

Forgotten Corner Museum

'I have been collecting things for over 44 years,' Merlyn explains as he points to his machine shed and barn. 'Those buildings are getting kind of full already, and the basement of the house is, too.'

Merlyn calls his barn the 'Forgotten Corner Museum.' A look inside reveals a collection of overwhelming proportions that's rapidly outgrowing its space. 'Right now, most of the things in the barn are ours,' Merlyn says. 'Some things are on loan from friends.' Displays in the barn include hundreds of license plates, hundreds of seed, feed and creamery signs, tools, country store artifacts, blacksmithing equipment and even a vintage De Laval cream separator. An ancient battery charger from a John Deere dealership sits in one corner, and in another a Red Top mineral feeder can be found. There are also crosscut saws, hay knives, vintage chainsaws, axes and hatchets.

In one row of the barn, a John Deere freight wagon from the 1920s sits with its original-guarantee decal still partially legible. Two John Deere bicycles - his and hers - are parked in front of the wagon. Under a table-full of tools and war ration coupons, an L.X.&R. Garden Raisers planter that was manufactured by the Alexander Mfg. Co., Ames, Iowa, adds to the seemingly endless number of curiosities. Coffee grinders and a candy machine rescued from a small-town country store, now since long forgotten, line another wall.

Merlyn didn't begin collecting with the museum in mind. Rather, the collection and his desire to share it with interested folks provided the motivation. 'The best part [of collecting] is sharing these things with people,' Merlyn explains. 'There's nothing like making people smile.'

Buried treasure

Merlyn keeps some of the smaller and more precious pieces in the basement of his house. Over 1,000 toys are neatly organized on floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the walls, including the very first farm toy Merlyn ever received. 'I got this McCormick-Deering threshing machine for Christmas in 1940,' Merlyn says. 'I was only 4 at the time.'

Construction equipment and truck toys share the shelves with model tractors and implements of all varieties. Pedal tractors, advertising thermometers, a complete set of auction sale bills from a local auctioneer and even an original leather Iowa license plate with metal numbers riveted to it are on display in the room. The license plate - one of Merlyn's favourite pieces - dates to the early 1900s when the state issued a license number, but the plate had to be obtained elsewhere.

The centrepiece of Merlyn's basement exhibit is a beautifully crafted, working model of a horse-powered corn dump. This model, built by Frank Knueven of Manning, uses an electric motor to demonstrate how teams of horses were once used to provide winch power for dumping grain wagons. Once the wagon dumps its load of miniature corn, the grain is elevated into a beautifully detailed granary model, just as the real thing did nearly a century ago.

Dark season delights

In the wintertime, museum traffic is pretty well frozen, but the Irlbecks still brighten up the snow-covered Iowa countryside with a light display proportionally every bit as grand as their museum collection. Using more 25,000 lights,

Merlyn and family create a merry-go-round, church with choir, lighted spinning windmill rotors, nine-car train and many other images with lights. They even make an American flag using strings of red, white and blue lights, and light up part of their collection of vintage Allis-Chalmers tractors. The frosty exhibit attracts about 300 cars each evening from Dec. 1 to Jan. 1, and undoubtedly brings joy to the hearts of thousands.

The Irlbecks have collected lights for their display from every town in Carroll County. Their light collection doesn't stop there and includes many other states such as Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Florida - and several international locations such as Scotland and the Philippines for their winter display.

'Believe it or not, every string of lights we use has some history to it,' Merlyn says.

Merlyn's Forgotten Corner Museum is open to visitors during daylight hours whenever he is home. Folks traveling any distance are encouraged to call ahead. If you are passing near Manning, look for the flying Allis-Chalmers WC on the southeast edge of town - it points to a real treasure. Contact antique farm equipment enthusiast Merlyn Irlbeck at 1305 East St., Manning, IA 51455_1707; (712) 653-3029. FC

- Oscar 'Hank' Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H. Write him at 243 W. Broadway, Gettysburg, PA 17325; (717) 337-6068; e-mail: willo@gettysburg.edu

Let it fly

When Merlyn Irlbeck decided to make a weathervane from a full-sized Allis-Chalmers WC tractor, he had some serious figuring to do. He had to lighten the tractor, find its balance point and mount it on a turntable-topped tower so it would swing with the gentlest of Iowa breezes.

'I had the old WC, so I stripped most of the insides out of it to lighten it up and gave it a good paint job,' Merlyn says, explaining how the project got off the ground. 'That gave me some time to think about the rest of it.'

Borrowing from light pole-mounting technology, Merlyn used a large concrete mass to anchor the tower for his weathervane. 'I sunk a 5_foot-by-6-foot piece of concrete culvert into the ground and filled it half full of concrete,' Merlyn says, pointing out the weight of the concrete is several times the weight of the tractor. Before the concrete was set, he arranged several lengths of threaded rod in the centre of the footer to mount the tower.

Merlyn then fabricated the vane's tower from a 10-foot piece of heavy-walled square steel tubing. He fabricated a steel plate for the base and bored it for the pattern of threaded rods in the footer, then welded it securely to one end of the steel tube. By this time, Merlyn had decided to use a final drive from an old John Deere combine as the swivel for his weathervane. Merlyn bored holes in two additional steel plates to match the holes in the flanges on the combine's final drive. One plate was welded to the top of the tower, and the other was eventually attached to the tractor.

'The most tedious part of the project was finding the balance point of the stripped tractor,' Merlyn explains while describing the trial-and-error process. 'I used a jack and some pieces of iron to lift the tractor at various points until it just balanced.'

Once the balance point was located, Merlyn attached the mounting plate to the bottom of the WC. In late 2000 with the help of some friends and a small crane, they lifted the old Allis to the top of the tower and bolted it into position. 'I wasn't sure how well it would work,' Merlyn says.

Merlyn has no reason to worry now, as the tractor-sized weathervane spins on the lightest of breezes, and has pointed the way to his farm and museum for more than four years now.