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First Things


Mona Lisa on the Farm

Leslie C. McManus

One of my favorite ways to lose 15 minutes is to examine an old black-and-white photo with a magnifying glass. Something of interest nearly always turns up. But when I took a look at the cover photo of this issue, I didn’t need a magnifying glass to get my attention.

It is admittedly an unusual photo. It’s not every day you see a pre-1920 photo showing two women doing fieldwork with a tractor and plow. Taken during the years of World War I, when men were in scarce supply on Britain’s home front, this photo shows the Women’s Land Army in action.

There were no surprises for me as I studied the woman at the controls of the tractor. Her posture tells a simple story. Even seen from the back, there is something businesslike about her. The plow is where it should be and she is focused on her work. I think of her as Martha or Maude or Melba.

The woman operating the Ransomes plow, however, has something up her sleeve. Wearing boots and a dress, sporting a beret and a numbered armband, she holds a delicate balance atop a thin strip of iron. Hers is no smooth ride, but her posture on a tiny perch suggests confidence.

And then there’s her face. We can’t quite see her face but I am convinced she is smiling. Something about her profile suggests a toothy grin – at the very least, a broad smile. I think of her as Mona Lisa.

What in the world is making her grin so big? Is she amused by imagining the horror that would register on the faces of farmhands-turned-soldiers if they could see women running the farm? Is she a tomboy at heart, blissfully happy to finally have an opportunity to engage in the kind of meaningful work previously off-limits to her? Or is it just the sheer adventure of it all?

Mona Lisa guards her secrets. All we know for sure is that a photographer captured a singular moment in time a century ago. In this issue of Farm Collector, through photos like this and others, columnist Josephine Roberts gives us a look at life in Wales 100 years ago. Take a break and enjoy this little bit of time travel! FC

Opening a Window onto the Past

Leslie C. McManus

The next shiny thing: True collectors are always on the prowl for the next addition to their collections. But a good story could be your real coup.

Things tell us something of the past. In the evolution of mechanization, we see the incredible impact tractors have had on small farm operations. We know what the windmill has made possible. Hand corn-husking devices – something as simple as a glove-like thing with a metal hook – tell us much about the monumental labor demanded by a farm a century ago.

But you cannot beat a story from an old-timer: When it comes to understanding the past, that story is the gold standard. Whether he’s recalling a firsthand experience, or whether she’s sharing a story told to her in girlhood, our elders provide us our best window onto the past.

The fast-approaching show season presents a unique opportunity. Many of you hustle like crazy to get displays ready for shows, but often have little to do (other than trolling the swap meet and standing in line for ice cream!) once you get there. This year, why not make it a point to collect some stories?

Bring an extra lawn chair. Stash some bottled water in a cooler. When an elder pauses at your display, invite him or her to sit a spell. Almost everybody appreciates the chance to tell their story. If someone says your display reminds them of a childhood experience or something their dad told them, take that ball and run with it!

You may hear nothing of importance. It’s equally likely that you may be given a gift of a singular moment in time. If you’re able to share the story with another, so much the better. Perhaps you retell it at the next meeting of your antique tractor club. Maybe you even write it down and send it to us at Farm Collector. The important thing is to keep the flame burning.

The history of an early manufacturer is enlightening. Production records tell us a lot. But when we learn how people worked with early machinery, when we learn how that technology was incorporated into daily routines, and how it changed those routines, that is when we truly understand the importance of the old iron we all love! FC

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Leslie C. McManus

Who’s the one person of all time you’d most like to have dinner with?

That used to be a stock question for the journalist interviewing a subject for an in-depth profile. A variation of it drifted through my mind while I was working with responses to the What Is It mystery tools in this issue.

In the What Is It section, we have several “regulars” who respond month in, month out, often with notes that shed light on arcane details. Given the nationwide scope of Farm Collector, it seems unlikely that these folks are personally acquainted, but as I read a note from one the other day, the thought came to me that it’d be such fun if they were.

And then my mind set off on a sojourn. First off, it’s my daydream, so I’ll run it my way, thanks very much. I’d change the venue to a shady spot at a tractor show with a big circle of lawn chairs. One person? Ha! I’d invite all my favorite gents from the hobby.

Some, with the minds of mechanical engineers, brilliantly cipher the process of building flawless scale model tractors and engines. Others are passionate about their town, their county, their state, and are devoted students of the history of the agriculture practices and machinery used there.

Still others have stunning powers of recall, able to identify items that have been lost to the rest of us for a century or more. Then there are the fellows who patiently track a machine or a part for years, never giving up until they find the elusive prize.

I like imagining the scene that unfolds under shade trees, as brilliant minds interact over the course of the afternoon. But I’m not finished. Why not throw in a wild card or two? I’d also invite James Watt. David Bradley. James Oliver. J.I. Case. John Deere. Cyrus McCormick. F.E. Myers. Thomas Jefferson. Meinrad Rumely. Benjamin Holt and C.L. Best. Raymond Loewy. Henry Dreyfuss. C.H. Wendel. Just for fun, I’d seat Henry Ford and Harry Ferguson right next to each other.

And about the middle of the afternoon, there’d be homemade ice cream. Lots of it, in lots of flavors … and that’s a pretty sweet ending to a late winter daydream. Cheers! FC

Thinking Big and American Innovation

Leslie C. McManus

Edison’s observation came to mind as I considered the drawing of C.W. Saladee’s self-propelling rotary steam plow shown in Sam Moore’s column in this issue of Farm Collector. The fantastical drawing seems taken from the notebooks of Jules Verne, who lived at the same time as Saladee.

We often marvel at the intellect and ingenuity of early inventors and engineers, men who had neither calculators nor computers at their disposal, but who nonetheless conceived brilliant mechanisms that represent the bedrock of today’s industrial technology.

But history has scant interest in the also-rans. Despite being credited with 200 patents at the time of his death in 1894, C.W. Saladee is little known today.

It may have been that Saladee’s true talents were in marketing. In an article he wrote for the March 9, 1861, edition of Scientific American just a month before the start of the Civil War, he spared no hyperbole in describing his steam plow:

“In one simple machine we have the means of plowing, sowing the seed, rolling and harrowing the ground at one operation, if it is desired. Or it can be used for plowing alone, or for plowing and harrowing as the case may be. When in the field it is capable of propelling itself to any point upon the farm or plantation where it may be wanted for other purposes – such as to saw lumber, do grinding, gin cotton, thrash and clean the grain ready for market, draw water, saw the wood consumed by itself, or it may be used as a locomotive to drag the loaded wagon or ‘truck’ over the prairie …”

Whether it was a matter of bad timing or flawed concept or a lack of capital, the self-propelling rotary steam plow apparently never made it off the page. Still, in this country, we are captivated by the person who thinks big. If you google “Saladee steam plow,” this crazy concept comes roaring to life.

More than 150 years after it was first conceived, the drawing continues to catch our imagination, enough so that it has a life of its own on the internet. Saladee’s steam plow may never have been built, but it remains a strong visual representation of American innovation, and that’s an enduring part of our collective DNA. Think big! Dream! Build! FC

The Indiana Page

Leslie C. McManus

In the waning days of summer nearly 20 years ago, when we were about to put the second issue of Farm Collector to bed, the office mail included a letter from a man in Indiana.

At that point in the life of this magazine, any mail was cause for celebration. Shoot, I remember the roar of laughter greeting my announcement that – thanks to a flush of new subscriptions in one day’s mail, probably a dozen or two – we had fully doubled our circulation.

But the letter from the Indiana man stood out for its unbridled enthusiasm. He’d seen only one issue, he wrote, but Farm Collector was his kind of magazine and he wanted to be a part of it in any way he could. Logistically, that would be difficult, but he suggested a role in which he would act as the magazine’s representative in the state of Indiana.

Ever the proud father, he enclosed an essay written by his daughter, reflecting on the pride and nostalgia she’d experienced when attending a tractor show as a young adult. When we told him that we’d like to publish Patti’s essay in Farm Collector, he was as excited as a kid on Christmas Eve.

That was the beginning of a long and happy friendship with Bob Crowell. Bob and his wife, Linda, represented Farm Collector and its sister magazines at tractor shows all over the Midwest for nearly 20 years. Through all that time, we never had a better ambassador. His enthusiasm and genuine interest in people won him and the magazines friends wherever he went. 

Bob was a man of many passions, including the people of his adopted state. In particular, he was proud of the many fine collections of old iron in that state. For years, in literally every conversation we had, he’d lobby for a full page – “The Indiana page!” – in each issue of Farm Collector. He knew it was never going to fly, but he had such fun running it up the flagpole.

With Bob’s passing on Nov. 11, 2017, we’ve lost one of our dearest friends. I cannot think of him without a smile spreading across my face, and that seems to me a fine legacy. Today I’m returning the favor. In a far, far better place, I hope the smile is now spreading across his face. Cheers to you, Bob: You finally got your Indiana page! FC

Fires Bright and Clear

Leslie C. McManus

Perhaps a year ago, a reader shared this poem with me. Unfortunately, the sender’s name is adrift somewhere in the controlled chaos that surrounds my desk. I am unable to thank the sender personally, but I remain grateful for the introduction to a charming verse.

Anyone who’s ever fed a wood stove on a regular basis is well aware of the homespun wisdom of the old saying, “Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice.” But there is also wisdom in this poem. If you’ve ever depended on a fire for heat, you know that seasoned wood burns better than green, and hardwoods mix well with soft, and hedge produces a spectacular (if potentially dangerous) fireworks display. Probably you know of the appeal of fruit-woods – but did you know about the unattractive traits of elm, poplar and elder?

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear

if the logs are kept a year.

Chestnut’s only good, they say,

if for logs ’tis laid away.

Make a fire of elder tree,

death within your house will be.

But ash new or ash old,

is fit for a queen with crown of gold.

Birch and fir logs burn too fast,

blaze up bright and do not last.

It is by the Irish said

hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.

Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,

E’en the very flames are cold.

But ash green or ash brown

Is fit for a queen with golden crown.

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,

fills your eyes and makes you choke.

Apple wood will scent your room;

pear wood smells like flowers in bloom.

Oaken logs, if dry and old

keep away the winter’s cold.

But ash wet or ash dry

a king shall warm his slippers by.

– Celia Congreve, 1922


It is the time of year when we draw close to the hearth. Where else do our thoughts coalesce as clearly as when we sit and stare into the flames of a fireplace? From all of us at Farm Collector, a wish that your holiday season be as bright and warm as a fire built of beechwood. Merry Christmas and happy new year! FC

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







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