Don McKinley may have retired from a career in public schools years ago, but he never quit teaching.
His rural Illinois museum serves as a remarkably outfitted classroom where visitors bone up on the evolution of agriculture over the past 75 years, and where Don is an enthusiastic tutor and tour guide.
Born and raised on a southwest Iowa farm, Don now lives in rural Quincy, Ill. An avid collector of antique farm equipment, he has a marked preference for the green-and-yellow line. “My dad had Farmall tractors,” he recalls, “but my older brother had a 1936 John Deere B, and I found at a very early age that I could work the hand clutch on that B.”
Don’s son-in-law, Marvin Huber, is a partner in the museum. Before retiring to help his wife, Cathy, in the couple’s horse tack business, Marvin worked 28 years as a mechanic and service manager at a John Deere dealership. In his spare time, he restores John Deere tractors and works on the museum.
Past in perspective
Today, a 1936 John Deere B is the heart of the museum, but it’s more than a point of nostalgia. As a collector, Don began to sense that the public at large had very little understanding of antique farm equipment. As an educator, he saw his opening.
“I overheard a boy and his dad talking at a show,” he says. “The boy asked about a tractor, and dad read the sign identifying it. ‘Yeah, but what was it used for?’ the boy asked. ‘They farmed with it,’ the dad answered. The kid still didn’t know what a tractor did!”
Then there was the conversation he had with his daughter Cathy when he asked her what a grain binder’s function was. Don maintains she was unsure; Cathy, gently scoffing at his version, recalls the conversation differently. No matter: The die was cast. “I decided right then I was going to surround my tractor with everything it pulled or powered in the 1930s,” Don says, “and use that to help people understand.”
The result is a 5,700-square foot museum fully stocked with antiques gathered by Don, Cathy and Marvin, and another daughter and her husband, Connie and Wayne Palmer, who live in Omaha. The collection includes an astonishing array ranging from household items to implements, tractors to vintage equine gear, all arranged and displayed with a curator’s deft touch. Much of it is John Deere equipment, but Don also has a preference for locally manufactured items. “I love to show what agriculture has done in the last 75 years,” he says. “It’s a phenomenal evolution. I just want people to understand it, to appreciate it.”
Time of transition
Nearly 50 John Deere implements from the 1930s surround Don and Marvin’s handsomely restored 1936 John Deere Model B tractor like the one Don’s brother owned years ago. Each of the implements would have been used on a Midwestern farm of 80 to 120 acres. “If you bought this tractor in 1936, it would have cost you about $675,” Don says. “But after that, you wouldn’t have had money left to buy anything else, so you’d cut the tongues off your horse-drawn equipment and use those pieces with your tractor.”
American agriculture underwent a period of tremendous change in the 1930s, Cathy notes. “It was the transition of horse-drawn equipment to mechanization,” she says. “After the Depression, farmers could afford tractors.” And that mechanization had enormous immediate impact. “When I picked corn by hand for my dad, I’d pick about 10 bushels an hour in a 10-hour day,” Don recalls. “By the 1930s, a mechanical picker was picking 42 bushels per hour. In 2006, a combine was harvesting 70 bushels per minute.”
Meanwhile, the science of genetics was also changing the face of agriculture. “When I was a kid, 50- to 55-bushel corn was very acceptable in southwest Iowa,” Don says. “Nowadays, if you don’t have 200-bushel corn, even in a drought, something’s wrong. That’s just in my lifetime!”
Order from chaos
The collection is divided into distinct sections: forge, orchard (Don’s wife, Joyce, is the daughter of an orchard man), farm shop, tillage, planting, harvest, hay equipment and equine collectibles. Don’s starting point is the walking plow. “Every farm had one around,” he says.
Other pieces in the collection include cultivators and plows, dump rakes, grain drills, hay press and loader, stalk cutter, earth mover, box sower, portable elevator, manure spreader, binder, picker, shellers, scales, and more. The extensive array is not intended to show the inventory of a typical farm, but rather what was available. “In an ideal situation, a farmer would have liked to have had all of this,” Marvin says. “But he didn’t, so they all shared.”
Not everything in the museum is a relic from the 1930s. Don’s Lightning wheelbarrow-style grass seeder, for instance, dates to the 1880s. An unusual piece, it consists of a 12-foot box perched atop a wheelbarrow-like device. “It was an inexpensive alternative to a grain drill,” he says. “You’d use it to sow tiny seed like clover, timothy and alfalfa on top of the soil, and then you’d follow with a harrow.”
The assortment of implements captures a moment in time, and also shows the evolution of technology. Look a bit deeper, and it also reveals the enormous expenditure of human labor required to raise crops in early America. Don’s collection includes grain cradles and flails. “With those, the average worker could thresh 5 to 7 bushels of wheat a day,” he says.
A 1930s-vintage hay loader brings to mind long summer days. “Putting up loose hay was a job,” Don says, shaking his head. “I don’t care where you were: It was hot, dusty work.”
Don and Marvin approach each restoration project in the same way, with extensive research and meticulous attention to detail. When it comes to paint colors, for instance, they’ve learned not to trust vintage lithographs and promotional pieces. “Those kinds of things were designed to sell equipment,” Don says. “The colors they show are not necessarily true.”
Instead, they look in nooks and crannies of a given piece of equipment to find traces of original pigment. Their 1935 tractor binder is a classic example. “It had been painted Oliver green,” Marvin recalls. “Where twine had wrapped around a bearing, it had caught fire and burned most of the binder. Someone then painted it. However, when we looked under bolt-heads and under washers we could find what had originally been painted red or green.”
On that piece, they found more than traces of color. “We took apart the bull wheel and cleaned the bearings,” Marvin recalls. “That way we could get the gears off. And that’s when we found ‘IHC’ on the casting – on a John Deere binder.” They surmise that it was easier for Deere to buy some International Harvester parts than to further develop its own.
While they do much of their own restoration work, some tasks – like the sheet metal on the No. 10 corn picker – are farmed out. Careful notes are taken during disassembly; photos also help. (Their one experiment with videotaping a disassembly was not a success: By the time the project advanced to the point where the videotape would have been useful, the tape had vanished, perhaps having been taped over.) Research supports everything from paint colors to decal placement. Current projects include a John Deere harrow, disc and No. 6 combine.
Sink or swim
A gleaming tractor and nearly 50 John Deere implements serve today as reminders of an era when resourcefulness and self-sufficiency were more than admirable goals. “The 1930s was not an easy decade,” Don says. “Lots of families had butchering equipment and sawmills. If you didn’t have that kind of equipment in the 1930s, you’d freeze to death or starve to death. Eighty acres could support a farm family. One threshing machine was used by 15 or 20 farms. In that context, I almost can’t comprehend a farmer today spending in excess of $300,000 on a combine.”
Every family member played an important role on the farm in the ’30s. “Everybody worked,” Don says. “If you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. And everybody was in the same boat: Everybody was poor, but we never went hungry. If you wanted to eat, you raised it. You did what you had to do.” FCFor more information: There is no charge for admission to the museum. Individual, small group and bus tours are welcome, but the museum is open by appointment only. Don McKinley, 1336 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; (217) 223-5099; e-mail: email@example.com; Marvin Huber, 1435 Boy Scout Rd., Quincy, IL 62305; (217) 430-9250; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.