First Things

Numbers Tell Stories

Leslie C. McManus

In this issue of Farm Collector, Delbert Trew reflects on the stories told by a ranch ledger book covering 1947-57. Through little more than numbers, the ledger quietly reports a life-changing event on the ranch – but no spoiler here! You can read about it here.

Other numbers in the ledger tell the story of good years and bad. But it takes a bit of reading between the lines: The reader is left to imagine how bad, how good, how hot, how dry.

Among my dearest family heirlooms are two ledger books maintained by my grandfather from 1913-1923. The ledgers account for what appears to be almost every purchase, with tallies for daily totals, for “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” and each of two children (the firstborn’s account opens with an entry for “hospital and doctor”; apparently the second was born at home). 

The ledgers contained monthly and annual summaries, summaries by category and – even though this family of four lived in town – summaries for poultry accounts, including egg production, chickens and eggs consumed, feed and straw accounts, egg sale revenues and equipment expenditures.

Numbers tell stories. The deadly Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19, which caused 15-30 million deaths worldwide, is traced to Ft. Riley, Kansas, situated near the town of Junction City – where my grandparents then lived. That first outbreak, in March 1918, was fairly short-lived and contained to the fort. But with World War I troop movements all over the globe, the virus returned to Kansas that fall with a vengeance and spread rapidly, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

As an educator, my grandfather spent his workdays surrounded by students, teachers and staff, and exposure to the rapidly spreading contagion was inevitable. I grew up hearing stories about how he nearly died from influenza. His ledgers tell the story. In October 1918, during the worst of the epidemic in Kansas, after a period of three weeks without a single entry in my grandfather’s column, comes this: “$10, doctor.”

At the time when a doctor’s visit cost $10, toothpaste sold for 30 cents. The telephone bill was $1.20. Some quantity of steak was bought for 40 cents; liver for 20 cents. During my grandfather’s illness, there were several purchases of broth. Following payment of the doctor’s bill, my grandfather splurged on a 55-cent haircut, his first in a month. Numbers tell stories – in this case, a story of survival. FC

Art is Long, Life is Short

Leslie C. McManus

Recently I paged through a book containing some 80 pages of original pencil drawings capturing an artist’s affectionate memories of growing up on a farm in Iowa. The work showcased both clear talent and lifelong practice, as the level of skill and technique were highly evolved.

The artist is Bob Smith, and you’ll learn a bit more about him and his work in the December issue of Farm Collector. In the meantime, I’ll tell you this: His book opens with a drawing of a Case tractor he completed at age 6. Decades later, after his mother passed, that drawing turned up in his mother’s effects.

I understand why Bob’s mother held on to that drawing. When I pass, my sons will find a box filled with young boys’ artwork. Childhood is a sweet and fleeting time; scraps of a child’s artwork are one of the very few tangible remnants that bring it back to life, however briefly.

As a little boy, Bob was encouraged by his mother to pursue his talent. “She encouraged me to draw at a very early age,” he recalls, “and supplied me with paper, pencils and crayons.”

That came to mind when I recently learned that we have nearly burnt through what seemed like a 1,000-year backlog of Sprouts submissions. For nearly two decades, we’ve published kids’ drawings of tractors, steam engines and farm scenes on the last page of every issue of Farm Collector. Today, however, that inventory of artwork is nearly completely exhausted.

Perhaps we are dealing with a new crop of kids; perhaps pencils and crayons have been replaced by other activities. I am hoping that is not the case. If it is, we’ll put that page to work in other ways. If, on the other hand, the young artist community is alive and well, send us evidence and we’ll publish the best of the bunch! 

Youngsters whose artwork is published receive a Farm Collector T-shirt. Send original submissions to Farm Collector, 1503 SW 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609-1265. Please include the artist’s name, age and hometown and a recent photograph. A release form will be sent to the parents of each artist whose work is selected for publication; the release must be signed and returned to Farm Collector before the artwork can be published. We look forward to hearing from you soon! FC

Making it Work in Meriden, Kansas

Leslie C. McManus

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. That old saw drifted into my consciousness after attending the Meriden (Kansas) Antique Engine and Threshers Assn. this summer. I’d been on the grounds for about seven minutes when a club member intercepted me. Within the next two minutes, he described the show as “one of the fastest growing summer family destinations in the Midwest.”

That statement caught my attention not only because it’s ambitious, but because it suggests an unusual awareness of what the show is and where it’s going. In the back of my mind, I was a tad bit skeptical. As the day unfolded, as I talked to person after person who spoke of the club’s growth, of the growing number of displays, of the growing attendance at monthly meetings, I came to understand that this was a collective vision – and that is precisely the kind of thing that separates the men from the boys.

Another thing stood out to me at this show. Not only does this group have a clear road map for the future, they have a keen appreciation for how they’ve gotten to where they are – and that is at least partially through a genuinely friendly alliance with a nearby club. If I got a dime for every time somebody said, “McLouth helps us, and we help them,” I could get one of those fancy cups of coffee from Starbucks.

I loved hearing that. In lo, these many years at Farm Collector, I’ve never encountered anything quite like it – and here it was in my own backyard. Quite the contrary, I’ve encountered clubs that actually seem to compete with each other, and club members who cast a decidedly negative spin on their neighbors’ efforts. Life is too short: That’s all I have to say about that.

We hear a lot these days about shows that are petering out, about an inability to find young folks to get involved, about the struggle to compete with the multitude of entertainment options available today. It’s an uphill battle, no doubt about it. But the folks in a small town in Kansas aren’t ready to turn off the lights just yet. In Meriden, if there’s a will, there’s a way. FC

What a Difference a Century Makes!

Leslie C. McManus

Imagine a boy, born in 1984. He’s one of 11 children born to a farm couple, but farming holds no attraction – in fact, he claims the work is too hard for him. He’s an avid reader, but equally engaged by emerging technology. At school he’s in constant trouble with teachers; at 14, he drops out. He leaves home and heads for the city, presumably sponging for a time off an older brother who lives there, all the while drilling deeper and deeper into new and not yet totally proven technologies.

By now you’re ready to write this boy off as another .com dreamer consumed by video games and cellphones. But what a difference a century makes! History does not record whether James and Mary Ferguson were the objects of their neighbors’ pity. All we know is that, in about 1898, their barely teenaged son Henry George “Harry” Ferguson – with exactly the résumé cited above – said adios to the farm and set out for Belfast.

A couple decades earlier, another farm boy did roughly the same thing. Young Henry Ford, equally unenthusiastic about farming, was quick to form an opinion that drudgery made up too big a part of agriculture and set out to make his way in the city. Like Ferguson, Ford had a brilliant mind and, once engaged, was a formidable student. Success didn’t come overnight, but eventually it did come – and, for the most part, it stayed.

For Harry Ferguson, the 3-point hitch delivered not only the means to advance other projects and interests, but also immortality as a noteworthy inventor. For Ford, creation of an affordable motor vehicle, establishment of a fair wage and adoption of progressive industrial practices like the assembly line propelled him into the forefront of American industrialists.

In parallel articles in this issue by Sam Moore and Robert N. Pripps, we consider the trajectories of these lives and the points at which they intersect. While it is hard to imagine a handshake agreement ever taking place again on such a large scale, it requires almost no trouble at all to imagine the rise of brilliance and its potential impact on the world around us. All it takes is one kid willing to find a better way. FC

Location Perfect for 2017 North Missouri Steam & Gas Engine Assn. Show

Leslie C. McManus

As planning for the 2017 North Missouri Steam & Gas Engine Assn. in Hamilton began gearing up last fall, the stars fell into perfect alignment. Located at a singular position in space and time (is that the Star Trek theme I’m hearing?), the North Missouri show is square in the path of a total eclipse of the sun expected to occur just hours after the show was scheduled to end on Aug. 20.

A total solar eclipse — when the moon’s apparent diameter is larger than the sun, thereby blocking all direct sunlight, turning day into darkness  — will occur on Aug. 21. The eclipse will be visible from a 70-mile-wide corridor stretching about 2,500 miles diagonally from west to east.

Spanning coast to coast, the August eclipse begins in Oregon and crosses through portions of Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina before ending in South Carolina.

The folks at the North Missouri show know a good thing when they see it. “Mother Nature kind of dumped this in our lap,” says club member Kendall Morgan. “Our show is Aug. 18-20, and the eclipse is the next day, so we decided to run the show an extra day.”

To commemorate the event, a special display will feature a Frick Eclipse steam engine and an Eclipse gas engine built by Fairbanks-Morse. Nearly a dozen steam engines will be used in sawing, threshing and baling demonstrations, and camping is available at the grounds (advance registration recommended).

Although eclipses today are widely noted, they leave relatively little mark on contemporary culture. Hundreds of years ago, it was a different story. In the late 1800s, the Eclipse moniker was applied to countless agricultural products, including windmills, corn shellers, hay presses, cane mills, corn planters, cultivators, disc harrows, fanning mills, feed grinders, fertilizer spreaders, seeders, hammer mills, hay rakes and stackers, horse powers, incubators, manure spreaders, plows, potato machinery, sawmills, sprayers, stump pullers and wagons.

The August eclipse will be the first with a path of totality crossing America’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts since 1918. Also, its path of totality makes landfall exclusively within the U.S., making it the first such eclipse since the country’s independence in 1776. Catch it if you can! FC

Leslie C. McManus

P.S. Headed to the Tri-State Gas Engine & Tractor Assn. show in Portland next month? Be sure to stop by the Farm Collector/Gas Engine Magazine tent and say hello to our representatives there, Bob and Linda Crowell!

Growing Like a Weed

Leslie C. McManus

Crops may fail, ponds dry up, locusts arrive – but weeds endure. As much a certainty to the farmer and gardener as death and taxes, weeds remain a link between today’s sophisticated agricultural operation – complete with herbicides and advanced technology – and the traditional farm practices of a century ago.

Two articles in this issue, uh, dig into the topic. Bill Vossler reports on Steve Ringen’s restored check-row planter, an implement that enabled cross-cultivation; Clell G. Ballard takes a close look at a Little Farmer hand-push cultivator designed for use in the farmer’s garden.

While gardeners and plant lovers are quick to note that a weed is merely “a plant in the wrong place,” from this corner that seems a position overly sympathetic to something that is both an aggressive opportunist and an unwelcome arrival.

As I pull purslane from my vegetable garden, carefully placing every remnant of foliage and root (no matter how microscopic) in a bucket destined for disposal in a nearby hazmat depository where the purslane will probably thrive, I consider the fact that I never encounter, say, a cherry seedling pushing up out of the soil, or an unexpected heirloom pepper plant emerging to join its hybrid cousins.

Au contraire, Pierre. Most of what springs up unbidden is nothing more than a nuisance and nothing less than a direct threat to that which we have planted and protected from wind, downpour, cutworms and rabbits.

In that context, I like to imagine the thrill that must have washed over the farmer a century ago when he caught wind of a newfangled invention: the check-row planter – an implement that offered the promise of both beautifully straight rows and comparatively simple cross-cultivation.

Despite our appreciation for antique farm equipment, the sheer toil exacted in the process of farming more than a century ago is beyond our comprehension. Man and beast faced relentless toil in clearing fields, planting, cultivating, harvesting, processing and storing. Mankind has always found the time and energy to engage in mischief but it is no surprise that there is a good deal more of it today, when such labor is a dim memory for most.

And weeds? Despite our best efforts and most advanced processes, they continue to burst forth with vigor. The technology has changed dramatically, but the bane of the farmer’s existence is the same today as it’s ever been. The more things change, the more they don’t! FC

Leslie C. McManus

J.I. Case Leaves a Giant’s Legacy

Leslie C. McManus

In this issue of Farm Collector, historian and columnist Sam Moore takes a close look at J.I. Case, the founder of the J.I. Case Threshing Machine Co. This year marks the 175th anniversary of its founding: What better time to revisit the life of a legendary American industrialist?

A self-made man, Case was a compelling figure in American history. His business success alone is a fascinating story of uncommon enterprise. When, for instance, hard cold cash was unavailable, Case accepted customer payments in the forms of animals, supplies and land. Both a patriot and an astute marketer, he adopted the eagle as the symbol of his company in 1865. He was a man of larger than life passions, engaged in breeding racehorses, early auto racing and Great Lakes shipping ventures.

In his column, Sam shares a couple of anecdotes that go a long way toward illustrating what kind of man Case was. I’ll not repeat them here – you’ll enjoy reading Sam’s column – but they show a man of great integrity. He had immense confidence in the quality of his company’s product and did not hesitate to back that up with a level of personal involvement exceptional in any era.

Still, more than a century after his death, it is impossible to truly know the man and his motivations. Was Case a man of exemplary ideals, or one who had such complete confidence in his products that he refused to accept the possibility of failure until presented with evidence to the contrary?

 Whether his focus was on satisfying the customer or simply proving that he was right, the end result was an uncommon emphasis on quality. Either way, the farmer won, and it is that legacy that Case enthusiasts throughout the world celebrate this year.

More than a century after his death in 1891, Case remains a giant among manufacturers of American farm equipment. His mark on the evolution of mechanized farm equipment is a lasting one, and a cherished chapter of Americana. We shall not see his like again. FC

Leslie C. McManus,