When Lewis Pluta was a child growing up in Michigan, he must have loved to eat his vegetables. Today, he lives in Bradenton, Fla., and collects and restores vintage farm machinery, much of which has a decidedly ‘green’ connection. A rare Vowell vegetable sprayer, a celery binder and a Bacon bean sorter rank high among his prized restorations.
Lewis uses many of his restorations to teach elementary school children about life on the farm in the old days. He relies heavily on the vegetable machines, he says, because their ‘hands-on’ quality appeals so much to the children. He also presents his instructional program at museums, fairs and tractor shows, and he restores farm items donated to local museums.
He aims to make the rusted-out machines operational again – not pretty, he says, but sometimes he ends up with both. His Vowell vegetable washer is a prime example. The box-like sprayer on wheels was made in 1925 by an Ellenton, Fla., man named Alexander Vowell and used on all sorts of produce crops. It is the only one of its kind Lewis has ever seen. The axle is offset so that a mule or horse could pull it, causing the pumps to move up and down.
When Lewis first found the sprayer, it had been left for junk. ‘It was all frozen up, bad,’ he recalls. ‘The check valves, which are brass and about the size of golf balls, were especially frozen.’ He freed the working parts, found some new axles and cleaned out the tubes, which were full of rust. The water bin, made of metal that was galvanized (a process invented in the early 1800s) remained intact.
When he displayed the machine at the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, Fla., Lewis also met the machine inventor’s daughter, Margaret Dennison of Tampa, Fla.
Then, there’s the celery binder he restored for the Manatee Village Historical Park in Bradenton. It belonged to a young couple from Manatee County, Fla., who donated it to the park; the man’s grandmother actually had used it. Lewis restored the machine by replacing the wooden parts and motor, and today it is on display at the park.
Lewis loves a machine with a story, like the celery binder piece, and that’s exactly what he got in his Bacon bean sorter too. He bought the sorter, made in 1895 in Pontiac, Mich., about eight years ago from a man ‘back in the (Florida) woods who had rare stuff.’ Its restoration involved replacing a missing hopper and worn canvas that constituted the sorter’s modest conveyor belt, but it’s the story that goes along with the machine that charms Lewis, and the children with whom he loves to chat.
‘The story is,’ he says, ‘the A&P would not buy beans that weren’t clean, so the ladies would set from October to Christmas, handpicking little sticks and stones out of the beans, making ‘mad money’. They were paid from 1- to 1 1/2-cent a pound – for the trash they pulled out.’ FC
For more information about Lewis’ collection or programs, contact him at 2814 47th Ave. W., Bradenton, FL 34207.