Zolfo

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A bird's-eye view of Pioneer Park

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ZOLFO SPRINGS, Fla. - The first 'Pioneer Park Days' in the early 1960s drew a dozen local guys in pick ups with a few old gas engines displayed on their tailgates, and a vintage OilPull tractor.

This year's official 34th annual show drew 100,000 people from across the United States and Canada, more than 400 tractor and engine exhibitors and another 500 vendors, swelling this tiny central Florida farming community of only 1,650 to nearly bursting.

Gas engine enthusiasts Earle Nickerson and Tony Ullrich, both of Wauchula, Fla., are credited with starting the gathering, helped along by Earle's son Norm.

'I never thought it would get this big,' Tony says of the event, 'and it's gotten as big as it can get at this location.' The long-time venue, 105-acre Pioneer Park, is dotted with 50-foot-tall palm and pine trees and nestled along the pretty Peace River that winds through town.

Tony is proud to have started the steam table at the park, used by model engine exhibitors to power their machines, and to have provided organizational help during the early years, working with his friend, Earle, who introduced him to Rumely tractors.

'Earle brought the first one I ever saw down here from New York state about 25 years ago, and I helped him with it,' Tony, a Wauchula native, says. 'As far as I'm concerned, Rumely is sort of the Cadillac of tractors.'

That first Rumely in the Wauchula-Zolfo Springs area was a 1924 15-30, and when Earle died 10 years ago, Norm and his mother decided Tony should have it, so the 15-30 joined Tony's other Rumely, a 1928 25-45. This year, health problems have slowed Tony down a bit, so he left the big Rumelys at home and brought a couple of smaller John Deeres, models AO and LA.

Norm, who contributed a pony hitch and buggy to the festivities 34 years ago, turned up this year with John Deeres, too, both shown with implements. His 420 Hi-Crop came equipped with fertilizer boxes. 'I found it right here in Wauchula,' he says of the spiffy, restored tractor, 'and it's all original. All we did was sandblast it.'

He speculated the previous owner used it only a few times, carefully cleaned out the fertilizer bins after each use and kept the tractor shedded. 'It was a neat find.'

Norm's other John Deere at the show was a 1950 A with its original No. 5 mower, with hydraulic lift, also introduced in 1950. Previously, mowers had either a foot pedal lift or were lifted manually. He bought the A and mower together in Minnesota, where, he says, the humidity is a lot lower than in Florida and such implements tend to last a lot longer.

Norm said Pioneer Park Days grew quickly by word of mouth and by the fifth year, a local bank began helping out as a sponsor. Tony managed the paper work until 20 years ago, when Hardee County took over; today, Norm says. 'They've done an excellent job.'

For nine years, Jane Long, Hardee County personnel supervisor, has coordinated the event. 'It's really a lot of fun,' she says, 'and friendly, and I want to keep it that way.' She shouts 'Hello' and 'How y'all doin'' right and left as she zips around the park in her motorized mule, sporting a contagious smile and specializing in big old bear hugs.

Nearly every exhibitor brought more than one favorite machine, but no one brand dominated (although there is a spot in the park called 'Case Corner'). And this year, engines and tractors seemed about evenly represented, although it was a subject of much debate. Those on display dated from the late 1800s to the 1950s.

Veteran participant Bernie Scott of Cocoa, Fla., brought one of the more eclectic exhibits this year: a John Deere MI, a 1965 Massey-Ferguson No. 7 gar den tractor and several Allis-Chalmers. 'I'm not real color blind,' he says, adding he's been a collector of equipment, paper and other memorabilia since the 1960s.

'This and the Florida Flywheelers' show are a special kind of show,' he says, 'because of the time of the year and the group of people - mostly senior citizens from all over the country -who attend. These snowbirds come here because they know they're going to see their friends. It's a reunion show.'

Bernie's yellow 1950 Deere MI came from a salvage yard in Virginia 'in pieces,' he says, and has been restored six or seven years. Made only from '50 to '52, this model was intended for such uses as roadside mowing and snowplowing. It has a hydraulic lift but no three-point hitch or power steering.

Among Bernie's 'Orange' was a first-year little Allis Rider, model B-1, made in 1963 for Allis-Chalmers by Simplicity: 'It's really a Simplicity 725,' he says, 'but the sheet metal, color and decals are different.'

Among returning engine exhibitors this year was George Archer of Hawkeye Antique Acres in Des Moines, who relaxed in a lawn chair near his 1892 Pierce, which was hooked to a 1900 Cataract washing machine with a copper tub. He's been coming to Zolfo for 17 years and says he keeps coming back because he's met 'so many nice people.' Among those he counts as friends today is Bob Spurgeon of Okeechobee, Fla., who now helps out every year at the Waukee Swap Meet in Iowa, which George helped found 30 years ago.

The Pierce, made in Racine, Wis., was probably intended for indoor use because its piston is open. At Zolfo, it sat on a wheel-less oak skid made by the man from whom George bought the engine 10 years ago.

'I like gas engines,' George says. 'People want to know what they do, so I decided to restore this washer to show what the Pierce did.' He'd had the washer about eight years, he says, having bought it from a neighbor, who was using it as a yard decoration. 'The wood is all original but it was stuck,' he says, 'so it was 'heat a little, pound a little'' to get it running again.

In recent years, George has been downsizing his engine collection. An April 2000 sale cut the count by 115, and on Saturday afternoon in Zolfo, the count went down again: George sold the Pierce, and the Cataract washer, to Kenneth and Wendy Wolf of Peru, Ind., themselves 20-year veterans of the Zolfo show. Wendy said she and her husband planned to keep the engine and the washer together and on exhibit.

'Next door' to George sat Bob Spurgeon's flat-bed trailer. A retired law enforcement officer, Bob selected half a dozen engines to display, from an Aeromotor with a fluted hopper to four International Harvester standards.

The IHs, Bob says, 'were made from 1939 until 1948 and used for everything - they couldn't have gotten along with out them. They were the source of electricity back then. You only needed a belt.' He has both LAs and LBs, which have an oiler on the rocker arm while the LAs do not. All four that he brought to Zolfo had a 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hp range with 300 to 500 rpm.

Cruising the wide aisles to better take in all the displays turns out to be as popular a pastime with the Zolfo crowd as sittin' and visitin'. Exhibitors and visitors alike rode around on everything from full-sized tractors to garden tractors and motorized and pedal-powered bicycles. Sometimes they were trying to avoid walking; other times, they were showing off a machine, or giving the dog a 'Sunday ride.' One such cruiser with a story to tell was Bob Jessup of Clarion, Fla., perched astride a Wheel Horse C-101 and claiming he wouldn't sell it for '100 times' what he paid. Seems he was on his way to town one morning when he saw the gar den tractor parked in a neighbor's yard. It had a sign on it that read: 'Take me. I'm dead!'

'I winched it onto the back of my truck immediately,' he recalls, chuckling because even then he suspect ed the tractor wasn't really 'dead.' Bob knew Wheel Horses came equipped with a low oil switch, which prevents the operator from turning the tractor on if the oil is low. 'I drained it and put in new oil,' he says, 'and it took right off. It hasn't stopped yet.'

Many of the 500 vendors qualified for booth space in the special 'AA' section reserved for those selling only antique show-related items. 'People come here and buy stuff they've hunted for for years,' Jane says. Booth space is sold out a year in advance.

Proceeds from the event pay for maintenance and improvements at the park, including a paved road, a new refuge for park animals, which include native panthers, black bears, tiny deer, turkey and alligators, and upcoming sewer improvements. The 2003 show is scheduled for Feb. 26 to March 2.

- For more information about Pioneer Park Days, contact Jane Long at 412 W. Orange St., Room A102, Wauchula, FA 33873, (863) 773-2161; e-mail jane.long@hardeecounty.net.